“A savvy negotiator creates leverage”: That time the White Sox pretended to move to Florida to get stadium money from Illinois

One of the things I’ve been doing to keep myself occupied during our sports-deprived present has been watching old baseball games, especially those from the ’70s and ’80s with ridiculous uniforms. Most recently I landed on a Chicago White Sox vs. Detroit Tigers game from 1988 at Comiskey Park, which featured this:

…plus lots of discussion from Tigers announcers George Kell and Al Kaline about what a shame it would be if the White Sox moved to St. Petersburg, Florida.

Readers of Field of Schemes the book and Field of Schemes the website will be familiar with this as one of the most memorable move threats of the early modern stadium-grubbing era. To recap: Unhappy with their historic but insufficiently state-of-the-art stadium, White Sox owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn had asked the Illinois state legislature for a new one, at public expense. And since giving the local sports team owners $150 million to build a new stadium across the street from the old one wasn’t entirely popular — Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson, Reinsdorf later recalled, advised, “It’ll never happen unless people think you are going to leave” — Reinsdorf hopped on a plane to St. Petersburg, Florida, which was in the process of building its Florida Suncoast Dome (now known as Tropicana Field) in hopes of luring an MLB team, a trip that made headlines back in Chicago and helped prompt the banners at that Tigers-White Sox game in late May.

By June 30, the Illinois legislature was ready to vote, with a midnight deadline if proponents didn’t want to have to muster a three-fifths majority, likely an insurmountable obstacle. And thanks to arm-twisting by Thompson — plus a bit of subterfuge by house speaker Michael Madigan, who set his watch back by four minutes so that a 12:03 am vote could be recorded as being at 11:59 pm — the new stadium bill was approved, 30-29 in the state senate and 60-55 in the state house.

Reinsdorf’s Florida jaunt clearly had made an impact: The Chicago Tribune’s coverage of the vote flatly stated that rejection of the stadium subsidy bill would have “[left] the Sox no choice but to leave the South Side for St. Petersburg.” But was Reinsdorf serious, or just following Thompson’s advice to throw a scare into the Illinois populace? Seven years later, Cigar Aficionado magazine asked the Sox co-owner about it, and received a response for the ages:

“A savvy negotiator creates leverage. People had to think we were going to leave Chicago.”

As for St. Petersburg, city officials there kept shopping around for another team to lure to town, eventually helping the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians, and Texas Rangers create leverage to score new-stadium deals at home as well, as memorialized in a FoS magnet. Finally, it looked like the city had hit paydirt when San Francisco Giants owner Bob Lurie, frustrated at having failed four times to get stadium-subsidy referendums passed in the San Francisco Bay Area, announced he was selling the team to Tampa Bay businessman Vince Naimoli. The rest of the National League owners, however, voted to reject the sale and to tell Lurie to instead sell to local supermarket baron Peter Magowan, which he did, saving the Giants for San Francisco.

This time, though, Naimoli had actual evidence of MLB interference in St. Petersburg landing a team — since Lurie had actually announced a deal, unlike Reinsdorf and other earlier owners who’d merely played footsie with Tampa Bay. He sued MLB, and, with the league unwilling to risk its decades-old antitrust exemption in a court battle, within two years was awarded the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as an expansion franchise, setting the stage for another relocation-threat saga that continues to this day.

Anyway, go watch that Tigers-Sox game if you want an interesting glimpse at the origin story of the sports move-threat campaign. Those White Sox fans with the “Stay In Chicago” banner likely didn’t know that they were unwitting pawns in a political battle over hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds, and knowing baseball fans they might not have cared if they were. But they — and Reinsdorf’s “savvy negotiations” — have echoes in every sports stadium battle of the last 30 years, and likely will for the next 30 unless cities start calling owners’ bluffs. Not to mention setting their watches right.

New state coronavirus plans: Reopen sports venues and concerts, see if people start dropping dead

It is becoming increasingly clear that the answer to “How will sports and concerts and other things in the U.S. reopen?” is “However the hell individual governors feel like it, and damn the science.” Missouri Gov. Mike Parson declared last week that concert venues can now reopen if concertgoers socially distance (though Missouri concert venues have been decidedly uninterested in booking shows just yet); Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson followed that up on Saturday with the announcement that arenas and stadiums can reopen at one-third capacity, which it doesn’t take complex math to see isn’t going to work too well if you want to ensure six feet between each set of fans. (Taiwan, the only nation so far to resume sports in front of live fans, has been limiting baseball stadiums to between 5% and 10% of capacity.)

In the absence of any federal plan, however, nothing is stopping governors from making up their own rules, which means we’re likely going to see a patchwork of reopenings under different social-distancing guidelines in the weeks and months ahead. That could potentially be very, very bad for sports- and concertgoers in those states (and anyone who potentially comes in contact with them, which is to say pretty much everyone who lives in those states) if it turns out sitting three seats away from your nearest neighbor while masked isn’t enough to stop the spread of Covid-19. [UPDATE: Just spotted some new evidence that social distancing is essentially useless indoors, though masks may help some here.] Arkansas and Missouri both have had relatively low death tolls from the virus so far, but also their new case rates haven’t even started to come down from the peaks they reached a month ago, though at least Missouri can claim that this is a positive sign since it’s massively scaled up testing in that time period.

On the bright side, if you can call it a bright side, all these differing state-by-state rules should make a nice controlled experiment in the effects of lifting various restrictions: If you’re an elected official wondering whether to reopen bars, say, you can just look a couple of states over and count the dead bodies to see how that’s likely to go. It’s also going to make a shambles of any plans for sports leagues to restart with all teams in their home venues — check out this hilarious CBS Sports article about how MLB plans to start its season in July, with its 12th-paragraph aside that “all travelers to Canada are subject to a 14-day quarantine, which could create headaches for the [Toronto] Blue Jays and their opponents” — but as we’re seeing with the Bundesliga’s attempts to restart its season despite the entire Dynamo Dresden team being AWOL for two weeks while quarantining after two players tested positive, any resumption of sports is necessarily going to have to be tentative and subject to rapid change if people start getting sick and/or dropping dead.

And, really, any resumption of anything, now that it’s becoming ever more clear that a single weeks-long shutdown isn’t going to do anything more than buy some more time for hospitals to catch their breaths, and doctors to work on better treatments, and cities and states to ramp up testing and contact tracing capacity (after first engaging in the requisite petty political bickering over it) while we await a vaccine — something that’s not a 100% sure thing to arrive even in 2021, or ever. It would be very nice to wait for science to provide answers to key questions like “Are schools key transmission vectors?” and “Are surfaces relatively safe compared to contact with actual people or do we need armies of disinfectant-spraying drones?” before we start going back out in public, but it looks like most political leaders (in the U.S. especially, but elsewhere too) aren’t willing to wait for the slow grind of scientific research. So instead we’ll get a series of mass experiments, with human beings as guinea pigs. Get your tickets now!

Friday roundup: CFL calls its owners “philanthropists” who need bailout, plus actual sport with actual fans takes place in actual stadium!

And how is everyone out there? Going stir-crazy? Waking up early to watch Korean baseball? Starving to death? All good options!

I personally have been watching this 1988 game between the Philadelphia Phillies and Montreal Expos (spoiler: Randy Johnson is, as the announcers keep noting, very tall), while continuing to keep tabs on what passes for sports stadium and subsidy news these days. Let’s get to it — the news, I mean, not the Phils-Expos game, I have that paused:

 

No, seriously, what will happen in restarted sports leagues when a player tests positive?

Amidst all the so very many articles on when sports leagues may or could or are thinking of restarting, I’ve been keeping an eye out for discussion of one important question: If a league starts play, with precautions for testing players and coaches and TV crews and hotel workers and whatever, what happens when one of those tests comes up positive? And finally, one league has provided an answer:

Fans will be barred from games until the [Korea Baseball Organization] is convinced the risk of infection has been minimized. If any member of a team tests positive for the coronavirus at any point of the season, the league will be shut down for at least three weeks.

If you’re serious about using testing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus through your league, this makes total sense: Any positive test needs to be followed by quarantine of everyone who has had contact with that person in recent days, which in the case of a sports league is going to mean pretty much everyone in the league. It’s going to make for an awfully tentative schedule — not to mention a dicey ESPN programming schedule — but in a nation where they’ve been averaging only seven new cases per day over the last week in a population of 52 million people, I guess they figure it’s a gamble worth taking.

But what if you can’t reasonably expect to test everyone and have everyone test negative? That’s what we’re seeing right now in the Bundesliga in Germany — 1,000 new cases per day out of a population of 83 million — and the way it’s being managed is very different:

Two days before German government officials will announce whether the country’s top two professional soccer leagues may resume play amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, Bundesliga officials confirmed Monday that they had encountered 10 positive tests in their attempt to finish the season.

In all, the governing DFL announced Monday, 1,724 players, coaches, team physicians and other staff members have been tested. At least four of the positive tests came from players — three from Cologne and one “inconclusive result” from second-division Stuttgart on a player who has been quarantined for 14 days — and all 10 who tested positive are not believed to be displaying any symptoms of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, according to the New York Times.

That was yesterday. Today:

The German Bundesliga season can resume this month, Chancellor Angela Merkel has confirmed.

So … what’s the point of all that testing, if not to quarantine those who’ve been in close contact with anyone who tests positive? The Bundesliga has said it will be testing everyone twice a week, but that’s still plenty of time for a player or staffer to catch and spread Covid-19 in between tests, if they’re not quarantined.

Now, there’s an argument to be made that a perfect quarantine isn’t necessary: You really only need to keep R0 (the average number of that each infected person in turn infects) below 1, and any new outbreak will fizzle out. The Bundesliga is adding a ton of other social distancing rules, from requiring that players shower and dress separately to keeping starting lineups to be kept separate from substitutes for meals and warmups, so maybe that will be enough to keep transmission rates low — maybe. You’ll have some individuals getting infected, almost surely, but if it’s only a few, on a societal level it won’t cause devastating effects. (Of course, if you’re a player who comes down with Covid and risks spreading it to your family members as a result, you may not find it quiet so reassuring that you’re statistically insignificant.)

And if R0 can’t be kept low enough to stop one Bundesliga player or staffer from turning into a superspreader? No one seems to have thought about that, or maybe no one can bear to think about it out loud. German soccer officials have previously warned that 13 teams could be on the brink of insolvency if the season doesn’t resume, so apparently not shutting down until there’s an actual out-of-control outbreak is the gamble they’re willing to take.

And for sports leagues in nations like the U.S. (27,000 new cases per day in a population of 328 million), clearly even thinking about what to do in case of a positive test result is unthinkable, because no one is mentioning it aloud. In fact, sports leagues (and the sports journalists who uncritically reprint their pronouncements) aren’t mentioning lots of things aloud right now, as witness this article from CBS Miami on contingency plans for a Miami Dolphins restart:

Masks would be required. Fans would order concessions from their seats to be picked up later rather than waiting on line.

Okay, so everyone would wear masks, and to avoid close contact with fellow fans they would stay out of concession lines and instead pick up their food one at a time, and then go back to their seats and eat it … through their masks … um, CBS Miami, I have some followup questions? Hello?

St. Louis Cardinals get $1m from big-business pandemic relief program you’ve never heard of

There are an awful lot of government programs to provide financial help to both individuals and businesses during the pandemic crash, and the nooks and crannies of the multiple relief bills passed by Congress contain even more. A bunch of these are “small business” programs, and as we’ve seen before, the feds define a whole lot of things as small businesses, including sports teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, whose owners applied for $4.6 million in refundable loans via the Payroll Protection Program before giving it back when they realized it looked bad. And now, hey look, the owners of the St. Louis Cardinals have found another program that they can get cash from!

It turns out that our beloved baseball team has also discovered a way to help itself to a share of the very same federal CARES COVID-19 relief dollars, but under a separate tax credit provision established for companies that don’t qualify for the PPP.

The tax credits portion of the CARES act has flown under the radar. Under it, a qualified company can receive taxpayer dollars indirectly through a reduction of its employer-match share of social security (FICA) payments. A company gets forgiven up to $5,000 per employee in taxes it would normally have owed, in exchange for maintaining a certain level of its workforce.

The Riverfront Times’ Ray Hartmann goes on to note that while the Cardinals wouldn’t divulge the total tax credit it was applying for, with 280 non-player employees listed on their website, they’d likely be looking at “substantially more than $1 million in CARES tax savings.” Further investigation reveals that while the Employee Retention Credit, as it’s known, is technically formulated as a “tax credit” on FICA payments (likely in order to make it non-taxable income), as a refundable tax credit it can be more than a company is actually paying in FICA — so in practice it’s just a $5,000 check for every employee earning at least $10,000 between March 12, 2020 and January 1, 2021, making “more than $1 million” a decent ballpark figure.

So, how evil is this, on scale of 1 to Sauron? From what I can tell, the ERC isn’t a set pool of money like the PPP; any employer is eligible, and it’s not first-come-first-served. So at least the Cardinals owners getting cash isn’t denying funds to some other more needy recipient. (Unless you count future Americans as a whole as needy, since we’ll be the ones ultimately paying off the trillions of dollars being borrowed to pay for all this.) And while Hartmann writes:

This is not just a case of a company taking all the normal tax breaks to which it is entitled. Everyone has a right to do that. No one needs to tip the government. This is about a professional sports franchise actively pursuing tax breaks expressly meant for folks who are suffering.

…that’s not exactly true, because this is actually a tax break expressly meant for businesses, the bigger the better. While you can make a case that this is encouraging companies to retain employees — hence the name of the provision — you could also argue that since employers are unlikely to keep on unneeded workers just to get a $5,000 tax break, it seems likely to result in a lot of businesses just getting subsidies to retain people they’d be keeping on anyway.

In fact, the bigger concern here is the construction of the Employee Retention Credit in the first place, which seems geared to benefit large corporations the most, given that it’s available to businesses of any size but not to self-employed individuals, even though the self-employed do pay the employer portion of business taxes. If a billionaire sports team owner takes advantage of a government program designed to take advantage of a global crisis to funnel money to billionaires, who is really to blame here? Crony capitalism? The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling? Society as a whole? This fighting evil business really would be a whole lot easier if you could just drop a magic ring into a lava vent to solve all your problems.

Friday roundup: Another Canadian sports bailout request, and everyone pretends to know when things may or may not reopen

Happy May, everybody! This crisis somehow both feels like it’s speeding into the future and making time crawl — as one friend remarked yesterday, it’s like we’ve all entered an alternate universe where nothing ever happens — and we have to hold on to the smallest glimmers of possible news and the tiniest drips of rewards to keep us going and remind us that today is not actually the same as yesterday. In particular, today is fee-free day on Bandcamp, when 100% of purchase prices goes to artists, and lots of musicians have released new albums and singles and video downloads for the occasion. Between that and historic baseball games on YouTube with no scores listed so you can be surprised at how they turn out, maybe we’ll get through the weekend, at least.

And speaking of week’s end, that’s where we are, and there’s plenty of dribs and drabs of news-like items from the week that just passed, so let’s catch up on what the sports world has been doing while not playing sports:

CFL demands up to $120m in bailout cash, offers to “repay” it through player public appearances

Anyone who had the Canadian Football League in your betting pool for “Which pro sports league will be the first to request a coronavirus bailout?”, you are an unexpected winner!

CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie told The Canadian Press on Tuesday the league’s proposal involves three phases: $30 million now to manage the impact the novel coronavirus outbreak has had on league business; additional assistance for an abbreviated regular season; and up to another $120 million in the event of a lost 2020 campaign.
“We’re like so many other businesses across Canada,” Ambrosie said. “We’re facing financial pressures unlike anything we’ve seen before.

“Our best-case scenario is we’re almost certain to have to cancel games. But at worst if this crisis persists and large gatherings are prevented, we could lose the whole season and the types of losses we could incur would be devastating.”

You and everybody else, pal. But let’s take a closer look at those “devastating” projected losses.

Forbes doesn’t bother with an annual survey of CFL team finances, but thanks to several teams being publicly owned, we can get a glimpse at what a typical balance sheet looks like. The Saskatchewan Roughriders‘ 2018-19 annual report, for example, shows $40.4 million in gross revenues (almost half of that from ticket sales, with merchandise sales and sponsorship money tied for a distant second) and an equal $40.4 million in operating expenses. (Capital fundraising by fan groups resulted in a net $1.5 million profit.) The biggest expense ($14 million) is listed as merely “football operations,” which could include a lot of things, though notably not “home game expenses,” which is a separate line item.

Slightly less than half of the football operations expenses are player salaries, based on the league’s $5.75 million salary cap. (I was about to write something about having to pay for costs like health benefits as well, then I remembered, Canada.) The Canadian government is offering to cover about $10,000 worth of payroll costs per employee through June 6, something that seems likely to be extended if the pandemic keeps businesses shuttered past that point, something that is almost certain at this point. But given that the CFL’s player contract indicates that players don’t get paid if there are no games, player salaries likely aren’t an expense that teams need to worry about.

What other expenses can be dispensed with if there’s no season? Advertising ($2.5 million) and ticket office costs ($1.3 million), for starters, and likely a whole lot more. But clearly some costs can’t be entirely eliminated, so each team is going to face at minimum millions of dollars in red ink.

That’s going to be a far bigger problem for teams like the community-shareholder-owned Roughriders than for, say, the Toronto Argonauts, owned by Canadian telecommunications giant Bell Media, which turned a $3 billion profit last year. But still, even if the CFL could be fine in the long run, a one-time revenue hit would create a fiscal crisis that could destabilize the league, so it’s not entirely unreasonable for the Canadian government to look for ways to help.

Ways to help, though, could mean a lot of things. For starters, as a Change.org petition opposing the subsidies proposes, the government could simply loan the league money, with promises that it would be repaid at a later date once games have resumed. But that, uh, is not exactly what the CFL has in mind:

Ambrosie has insisted that the CFL would find ways to pay back the $150 million if the government grants the request to help keep the league afloat. The league and its teams would not write a cheque to re-pay the funds — rather, the CFL has proposed an in-kind “payback” by involving players in the community and in charitable and government-sponsored programs, such as social programs, tourism videos and public health initiatives.

That would be an awful lot of tourism videos to get to $150 million! Not to mention that I’m very curious to hear how eager CFL players would be to appear in tourism videos their team owners promised they’d do to “repay” loans that weren’t used to pay them any salaries.

Situations such as this one get us back to a philosophical difference about what government involvement with sports leagues should look like. Some subsidy critics, especially those of a more fundamentalist libertarian bent, take the line that the business of sports isn’t the government’s business, and any money changing hands is a bad thing. Others — such as the majority voting populace of Seattle, or me — think that you cant and shouldn’t try to untangle government policy from private business operations, so the best goal should be to ensure that any money provided by the public at least results in some equal public good.

If CFL teams want to take out a loan from Canadian taxpayers, in other words, they should make it worth their while. There’s an almost infinitely long list of ways they could do so — an increased public stake in teams, free or discounted tickets to future games, a share of future revenues, one free serving of poutine to every household in the nation — but “our players will appear in some tourism videos, no change” is not one of the better ones.

At least one member of parliament is demanding to see the CFL’s books before agreeing to any leaguewide bailout, which would be a start. But — as with other industry bailouts — it’s important to get this right, because you only have one chance to demand some kind of public return on a public expense. If the U.S. airline industry can agree to provide both cash and an equity stake to the public in exchange for loans, then you wouldn’t think it’d be too much of an ask for perky Canada to demand the same of its pro football league.

The only thing wrong with ESPN’s prediction of baseball resuming in 2020 is everything

Jeff Passan of ESPN has been at the forefront of “how Major League Baseball plans to return in 2020” reporting, even when that’s sometimes devolved into just repeating what wish-fulfillment fantasies MLB owners mumble to themselves so they can sleep at night. Yesterday, though, Passan went all-in on wish-fulfillment, reporting that baseball officials are “increasingly optimistic that there will be baseball this year,” something that ESPN’s web headline writers turned into “There will be MLB in 2020. It’s just a matter of when, where and how.”

Given that when last we checked in with MLB’s plans for restarting, they involved an “everyone involved in putting on games gets placed in a hermetically sealed bubble” plan that was both impractical and roundly panned by players who didn’t want to be kept away from their families for months at a time, what exactly has changed to produce this optimism? Take it away, Jeff:

It’s a contradictory existence in which the baseball world is doing everything it can to prepare for games without any firm plan in place for when or where those games will be played.

That is not actually contradictory! It’s the kind of deck-chair-reshuffling that everyone is doing right now, hoping for a world where reshuffled deck chairs can let things return to somewhat normal while also preparing for the worst if they can’t. “MLB doesn’t know what it’s going to do but is hard at work doing it” isn’t really a news story, but let’s see what else Passan has in his reportorial pocket.

Where will games be played? Well, the easy answer is Arizona, where Gov. Doug Ducey has welcomed the idea of hosting all 30 teams, but logistical issues abound. There is also a wide variety of so-called hub plans, in which baseball would station teams in a set number of cities. The Arizona-Dallas-Tampa possibility that CBS Sports reported is an option. So is a four-city plan. And five. And six.

Just look at the opportunities starting in early May: Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Colorado and Minnesota are among the states slated to have stay-at-home restrictions lifted. That means more than a quarter of MLB teams could theoretically host games without fans right now.

Okay, no, they really could not. Let’s take Minnesota for example: It indeed is allowing some manufacturing and other businesses to reopen on a trial basis, but it also explicitly excluded pro sports from this list, so just because the state won’t be on total lockdown doesn’t mean MLB can start scheduling games at the Twins‘ home stadium anytime in the future, let alone “in early May.” Plus, MLB would still have to figure out how to build a city of 10,000 people that can stay coronavirus-free for months at a time, which is easier said than done, and it’s not even that easy to say.

Passan doesn’t actually say that MLB will restart in early May, or anywhere close to it. His “timeline that a number of people in decision-making positions see as realistic” is:

Finalize a plan in May. Hash out an agreement with the players by the end of the month or early June. Give players a week to arrive at designated spring training locations. Prepare for three weeks. Start the season in July. Play around an 80- to 100-game season in July, August, September and October. Hold an expanded playoff at warm-weather, neutral sites in November.

If you’ve been following the pandemic news closely, you probably see the problem here: Even if some potential MLB stadium sites are ready to reopen by June, there’s a significant likelihood that they’ll have to re-close a couple of months later as the next wave of the coronavirus roller coaster hits. Everything that epidemiologists have learned about virus transmission predicts that any significant lifting of social distancing rules will likely result in fresh outbreaks a couple of months later, and while that’s not set in stone — there could be new treatments developed in the meantime, wearing masks could turn out to be way more effective than anyone at first thought, etc. — planning to hold six months of baseball, counting spring training and postseason, seems reckless in the extreme.

Passan’s sources have a plan for that, too, though:

If a second wave of the coronavirus arrives and threatens to shut down the country again, MLB could try to wait it out and just hold a giant playoff…

“Give us 60 days,” one official said, “and we could run an amazing tournament.”

This is actually something that occurred to me as well: If you want to have baseball and all you have is a window of a few weeks, the best way to approach it isn’t to figure out how to salvage a regular season, but what’s the best you can do in that time frame. And by far the most successful 60-day sports format is a World Cup of some kind. How you organize it is up for grabs — Passan floats 16 intradivisional games followed by the top two teams in each division entering a round-robin stage; I would go with a more traditional group stage with six division winners, six runners-up, and four wild cards followed by a Round of 16, etc. But either way, it’s something you could conceivably do in a two-month window, though you’d need to keep training camp down to a bare minimum. (One way to do this: Limit games to seven innings, so starting pitchers don’t have to be as stretched out before the season can start.)

Passan’s plan starts to go off the rails, though, when he envisions his playoff format:

Oct. 22-Oct. 31: The six American League teams that advance congregate at one hub. The six National League teams gather at another. They play each of the other five teams twice in a round-robin format with a collective day off in the middle. The four teams with the best records in each league advance. In the meantime, the nine non-advancing teams from each league meet at a hub and play one game against the rest of the teams there. The winner of that round-robin regains entry into the playoffs. In the case of a tie, hold a winner-advances one-game play-in-to-the-playoff.

That is a lot of hubs! And a lot of players, and team staffs, and TV camera operators, traveling to and from each one, and checking into new hotels, and so on. Which means either you’re going to have to quarantine everybody for 14 days before starting each new round, or you’re going to have to accept that you might get some new infections with each new round, and have a system in place for dealing with that that doesn’t involve shutting everything down again. (Taxi squads of entire substitute teams that are kept in plastic wrap somewhere?) Plus, you have to be damn sure that all of your proposed sites are going to remain virus-free (or at least at low infection levels) and not on lockdown for the whole 60 days, which is not at all a sure thing given that many states are currently reopening businesses despite Covid cases still being on the rise.

So why is Passan so dead sure that there will be baseball in 2020? Because, apparently, the alternative is too grim to imagine:

What gives Manfred and others so much confidence that there will be a season then?

Incentive. It’s not just that everyone wants a season. It’s the doom and gloom over what will happen if there isn’t one.

Okay, I get it. I really do. I don’t want to imagine an entire year without baseball, either, and so if there are straws to be grasped at, I’m eager to grasp at them as much as the next guy. But reporting this as “increasing optimism” about baseball in 2020 rather than “increasing wishful thinking” is just journalistic malpractice — after all, everyone was optimistic that there would be hockey in 2004-05, but in the end there wasn’t, and that was just over issues that were resolvable by human negotiators, without having to give not-really-alive organisms a seat at the bargaining table.

So let’s rewrite that headline for you, ESPN: “MLB wants to play in 2020. They just don’t know when, where, or how.” It’s not going to get as many clicks from baseball-hungry fans desperate for good news, and it’s not going to boost parent company Disney’s stock value in the face of cratering projected revenues, but it does have the benefit of being true.

Here’s a bunch of ways rich sports owners are looking to get pandemic bailouts

The owners of the Los Angeles Lakers have voluntarily returned $4.6 million in refundable government loans they received as part of the Payroll Protection Program—

Hold up, let’s try that again.

The owners of the Los Angeles Lakers, a sports franchise worth an estimated $4.4 billion that turns an annual $178 million profit, asked for and received $4.6 million in federal government loans as part of its Payroll Protection Program for small businesses. (The loans convert to grants if recipients keep their current employees on payroll through the end of June.) Like other prominent companies that took advantage of the PPP program — Shake Shack, Potbelly, Ruth’s Chris friggin’ Steakhouse — the Buss family that owns the Lakers chose to return the money “so that financial support would be directed to those most in need” once they realized they’d bum-rushed the subsidy line and edged out actual small businesses, and also probably realized that the PR hit from doing so would have been worth way more than a relatively piddling $4.6 million in government grants.

That a billionaire sports family got approved for small-business loans should be alarming, but not surprising: The federal government has already approved more than $2 trillion in spending to help Americans hit by the coronavirus-spawned economic crash, and it’s all but inevitable that some less-needy Americans would put in applications as well — the feds define “small businesses” based in part on how many employees they have, and sports teams don’t employ a ton of people on payroll. And it’s also inevitable that they’d also be among the first to be approved, since programs like PPP are first-come first-served and rich folks are more likely to have lawyers on staff who know how to file paperwork fast, as well as established bank connections that made them more likely to get approved.

In fact, sports team owners are working many angles to get a cut of the Covid stimulus bailout cash, just as less-deep-pocketed individuals are as they try to figure out whether to consider themselves unemployed gig workers or entrepreneurs in need of cash to keep themselves on payroll. Among the ways:

  • The Sacramento Kings owners are renting out their old empty arena in Natomas for $500,000 a month to the state of California for use as a field hospital, which is the same rent the state is paying for other temporary facilities, but maybe a tad disingenuous given that Gov. Gavin Newsom previously praised Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé as “an example of people all stepping in to meet this moment head-on” without mentioning that he’d be getting paid for his selflessness.
  • The owners of the D.C. United MLS team are part of DC2021, an advocacy group of Washington, D.C. business leaders lobbying the district for “a massive new tax relief program” to help the local restaurant, hotel, and — apparently — soccer industries survive the economic shutdown.
  • The stimulus measures approved by Congress weren’t all expanded unemployment benefits and checks with Donald Trump’s name on them; they also reestablished a tax loophole involving what are known as “pass-through entities” that will allow mostly wealthy people to save $82 billion on their tax bills this year. The biggest beneficiaries will be hedge-fund investors and owners of real estate businesses, a list that obviously includes lots of sports moguls: Just owners of hedge funds who also control sports teams include Milwaukee Bucks co-owners Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens, Los Angeles Dodgers owner Mark Walter, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik, and a pile of others.

Now, not all of this should be considered a fiasco: In the case of the PPP in particular, Pat Garofalo notes in his Boondoggle newsletter that the money is intended to keep low- and moderate-income workers from being laid off — the reimbursements top out at $100,000 per employee — and people who work for sports teams or chain restaurants are just as deserving of keeping their jobs as those who work at genuine small businesses. The main problem with PPP is that Congress massively underfunded it, then made it first-come first-served, then left it up to banks to decide who to approve — okay, there’s actually a lot here to consider a fiasco, but sports team owners deciding to fill their wallets at the same firehose of cash as everyone else is far from the worst part of it.

As for some of the other bailout proposals, though, sports owners come off looking a lot less innocent. That DC2021 plan pushed by D.C. United owner Jason Levien, for example, includes such things as tax holidays for corporate income taxes and property taxes, which Garofalo notes won’t help most small businesses that don’t turn large profits or own land.  (Levien, you will not be surprised to learn, is not just a sports mogul but also a real estate investor.) And the pass-through tax break is almost entirely a sop to millionaires and the Congresspeople who love them, which though it doesn’t single out sports team owners, certainly helps many of them given that they’re far more likely to invest in pass-through companies than you or I.

I’ve said this before, but it really is worth harping on: The recovery from the pandemic is already involving a ton of government spending, and will unavoidably involve a ton more, since the feds are pretty much the only institution that has the power to keep food in people’s mouths during this crisis. (At least until the U.S. Mint is deemed a non-essential business.) This will invariably create winners and losers, both in terms of who gets what money and in terms of who ends up paying off the government debts that are being racked up now. There’s no way to avoid this involving subsidies — pretty much the whole idea of government spending to prevent an economic crash is about creative use of subsidies — so what you want to shoot for is fairness, where you have the most money going to companies and individuals who were most hurt by coronavirus shutdowns, and the least to companies and individuals that just were able to lawyer up the fastest.

Individuals who were most hurt except, of course, for Miami Heat and Carnival Cruises owner Micky Arison, who may have lost more than a billion dollars thanks to the collapse of the cruise industry, but who also lobbied the Trump White House to let them keep sailing even after it was clear that cruise ships were perfect Covid incubators. The cruise industry was notably left out of the stimulus bills, and while that’s more about the fact that they all registered as foreign businesses in order to duck U.S. taxes than their owners being money-grubbing jerks who prioritized profits over public health, I think we can all agree: Screw those guys.

No, sports stadiums shouldn’t rip out 80% of their seats because of coronavirus

There is an art, or rather a knack, to writing headlines for news stories that don’t quite rise to the level of news. It involves employing what might be called misdirective attribution: A headline that would otherwise be false, or at least unsupported, can magically become accurate if you add “Sources Say” or “Report:” or “According To Officials.” The burden of proof for reporters then becomes not whether what they’re reporting is true, but whether somebody says it’s true, and repeating what others are saying is what journalism is all about, right?

All of which brings us to today’s contestant in Who Wants To Be A News Article?, courtesy of CNBC:

Sports arenas could require ‘necessary renovations’ for social distancing, architect firm says

This headline actually contains a double hedge: Not only are the words put in the mouth of an “architect firm,” but it’s framed by the verb “could,” so we’re already reading about something that one person just thinks is at least a distant possibility, which would be enough to justify the news covering nothing but future civilization-ending asteroid strikes, which admittedly might be preferable to what it’s instead covering incessantly.

But I digress. What would these “necessary renovations” look like?

[The DLR Group] found that “luxe box” seating, with four seats separated by six feet in all directions from other people in the seating bowl sections, would honor distancing rules…

“In the short term, you can manage that by selling tickets to a certain number of people, identify their seats, and have fans distance,” said [DLR’s Don] Barnum, who designed the $161 million Pinnacle Bank Arena in Nebraska.

“If this becomes the new norm over two-to-five years, then I think [teams] would start removing those other seats and making that environment a fixed permanent one that creates that separation and distancing,” he said.

Here’s a picture, with available seats in blue:

So, a few things. First off, that’s an awfully big reduction in available seating: The CNBC article cites DLR as saying stadiums would be reduced to 17-20% of their normal capacity, but really it’s 13.3% in the above image. (It’s 14.8% in another image from DLR that only had 18 seats per row instead of 20, because a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small-minded architects and also math is hard!) This, according to CNBC, “causes revenues issues,” which hell yeah it does, only more grammatically. Would it be worth opening the gates if you could only fit 5,300 people in a 40,000-seat stadium? Would ticket prices soar thanks to scarcity? The article is mum on such questions.

Second, “if this becomes the new norm over two-to-five years” is even more pessimistic than the most pessimistic scientific forecasts of when a vaccine will likely arrive. (Okay, not the most pessimistic forecasts, because anything is possible, but now we’re back in asteroid-strike territory.) But tearing out seats (or even painting them a different color) would be silly if you’re only doing it for one or two seasons, so presumably in order to sell its vision of future sports, DLR needed to paint a doomsday scenario where we’re social distancing well into the 2020s, though not social distancing so much that we can’t go to sporting events at all.

Also, do all sports fans go to games with exactly three other people, all of whom they live with? Or is four some kind of magic number of how many people you don’t have to socially distance from if you want R0 to stay below 1.0? And how will concessions work: Will everyone on the hot dog line have to wait six feet apart, leading to lines that wrap around the entire ballpark? Will food only be available from roaming vendors who will throw items to you from a safe distance? Is it safe to drink beer through a straw while wearing a face mask? Did CNBC talk to a single public health expert for this article? (You can probably guess the answer to that last one.)

So what we have here, in the end, is “architecture firm with a small handful of sports projects under its belt puts its otherwise-idle rendering staff to work on something that might score it some media attention, finds willing sucker in CNBC.” It isn’t news, and it isn’t even really a report, but it has sports in it and pretends to make hard predictions in a world where being approximately right most of the time is considered better than being precisely right occasionally, and it has renderings with ghostly blue people in it, so hell yeah, bring it on. And don’t worry too much about the consequences of living in a world where whether something gets reported is determined by how impressive the letterhead — or PR staff — is of the organization making the claim.