Politics and Acceleration

Back on May 14, I wrote about five sports industry trends that would likely be accelerated by the pandemic. Among these was the politicization of sports and an increasing partisan divide in the US. I placed this idea at the bottom of my list, feeling it was the most abstract and hard to predict. Eleven days later, George Floyd was murdered. The protests and national tension that followed further solidified our already polarized politics, but there wasn’t too much backlash as the sports world reacted, save the predictable internet trolls mocking the new verbiage on the back of NBA jerseys and the controversy over the Bubba Wallace “noose” incident in NASCAR.

But I guess it was a matter of time, as this week showed. Most visible, of course, were the striking (not boycotting!) NBA players, with the ripple effects through the WNBA, MLB, MLS, and (after some missteps) the NHL. Right wing critics mocked the athletes, suggesting that no one else has the luxury to skip work; Jared Kushner said he would reach out to Lebron James to promote meaningful action rather than symbolic protest. Friendly reminder that Lebron has organized a massive voter-turnout movement and has generally been a leader in charity and community support throughout his career.

There was also a less visible partisan moment last night, during the Republican National Convention. (To be clear: less visible in terms of the attention it has garnered vs. the player walkouts). There was a brief video montage dedicated to sports, heavy on clips of teams visiting the Trump White House, American flags, and so forth. It would appear that the party of “shut up and dribble,” “stick to sports,” and “don’t politicize sports” has now entered the ring. The montage was followed by UFC president Dana White delivering a bellowing endorsement of President Trump and the important steps that Trump had taken to bring back sports and so on. As far as I can tell, other than telling governors that they should allow sports to come back, I don’t think the administration did much. The leagues get all credit. Furthermore, the successful return of sports has come on the back of approaches that run completely counter to national pandemic policy (testing, testing, testing, bubbles, and all that). Finally, White repeated the false claim that the UFC was the first sport to return. It was actually professional rodeo. In fairness to White, I made the same mistake on the blog (but I did correct myself).

So where does that leave things? I am thinking about two questions.

  1. Does any of this have an impact on politics? I find it hard to believe that there are any truly undecided voters at this point in time. But perhaps that is taking too short a view of the matter. The messaging on the back of NBA jerseys, the postponed games: they probably aren’t making a major impact on the opinions of adult voters. But what about the kids? My son is still too young, but I imagine there have been a whole slate of conversations in households with young fans. “Why aren’t they playing tonight?” can open a lot of doors. Significant change is generational; it may be many years before we appreciate the impact of this moment. (It certainly took decades to appreciate the political actions of John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and Muhammad Ali.)
  2. Does any of this have an impact on sports in the longterm? I realize this is my lane, but my answer is: I’m not sure. Probably not. I expect we’ll find new equilibriums: for every fan turned off by what’s going on, there will be someone who more fully embraces sports. We still really like watching people do amazing things, this is a human given that we can’t escape. And sports are still inherently meaningless, a platform for the values and lessons consumers and athletes alike choose to imbue them with. So will things be different? Sure, nothing ever stays the same (Heraclitus told us this a couple millennia back). But I don’t think they are going anywhere, nor will the power, market share, or influence of the American leagues be significantly impacted in the near future. But we’ll see.

Why is NBA Scoring Up?

Offenses have been insane in the NBA bubble. Before the start of play, the consensus was that things would be exactly the opposite, that the prolonged layoff would mean players were out of rhythm, etc. So what’s going on? I like the pontificating from economist Tyler Cowen here. 538 put up a more nuanced analysis today, which is pretty solid and considers a variety of factors.

One idea that isn’t getting much play (and I’m not sure it should be!): what impact does sound/hearing have on offense? 538 hints at this, saying refs could hear fouls more clearly on quieter courts, leading to more free throws. Players can likely hear their teammates better too. I guess I’m more interested in the mental relationship to sound (or a lack thereof), like those of us who listen to music or white noise while we work. Could the shift in what players are hearing be having an impact? Maybe not as far-fetched as it sounds, given how noise can affect us (think the many uses of muzak in retail and restaurant settings). My analysis here is hamstrung because I can’t find a good confirmation of what exactly the players can hear: I’ve read reports that the crowd noise is only on the broadcast, while others claim it is being heard in the arena. I’m embarrassed that I can’t find out for sure and will update when I do. That said, the one thing I am confident of is that the whatever it is the players are hearing is different than the norm and that shouldn’t be ignored for its possible impact.

The Effect of Empty Stadia on Home Field Advantage

While the “bubble” formats have effectively neutralized home court (or ice), MLB teams are still logging miles across the country. An interesting piece from Fan Graphs takes a look at early returns on MLB, where it kinda-sorta looks like empty stadiums are neutralizing home field advantage a bit. Reminds me of this interesting piece from ESPN, which examines two historical drops in home court advantage: the rise of chartered air travel and the changing landscape of digital hook-up culture. In short, the author suggests that not having to go out to bars and nightclubs to meet romantic partners has lead to better rested players. As I said, interesting.

Uncomfortable Realities: Sports and The Flu

The pandemic has forced us to think about whole lot of things, including those beyond the current crisis. COVID has made us keenly aware of what we already knew: diseases and illnesses spread in close and closed quarters. One conversation in my household has revolved around the question of general mask use, namely: why don’t we use these things in non-pandemic times? I feel like I’ll never get on a flight without a mask again and am wondering if we should all mask up in public during the flu season? It seems extreme, but catching the flu sucks.

Speaking of the flu, I just came across a compelling new research paper, whose title says it all: “Professional Sporting Events Increase Seasonal Influenza Mortality in US Cities.” (note that the article is a “pre-print” meaning it hasn’t been subjected to full review yet…but I don’t see anything to question it’s veracity.) Here’s the full abstract, by Cardazzi, et. al.:

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down sporting events worldwide. Local policy makers and league officials face important decisions about restarting play, especially in professional leagues that draw large numbers of spectators to games. We analyze the impact of professional sporting events on local seasonal influenza mortality to develop evidence that will help inform sports league reopening policy decisions. Results from a difference-in-differences model applied to data from a sample of US cities that gained new professional sports teams over the period 1962-2016 show that the presence of games in these cities increased local influenza mortality by between 4% and 24%, depending on sport, relative to cities with no professional sports teams and relative to mortality in those cities before a new team arrived. Influenza mortality fell in cities with teams in some years when work stoppages occurred in sports leagues. Sports league reopening policies should take into account the role played by sporting events in increasing local seasonal flu mortality.

Full article here, you may need institutional access.

Implications abound for live sports (and live events in general): do we need permanent screening and temperature checks? (yes these are imperfect, but better than nothing) Will some fans never return to the stands? With the quality of at-home viewing and the cost of live attendance, it feels like our new awareness of health, safety, and our own mortality will render the couch more appealing than the grandstand.

On the Return of Sports: TV Ratings, Novel Experiments, and Living Through History

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The return of sports has me reflecting on things, both light and heavy. As sports fans, we’re living through a moment of great entertainment and great unrest, not just the most unique sports moment of our lifetimes, but potentially the most revolutionary.

The Fun Stuff
Sports are back(ish) and the TV ratings look quite good, including those for women’s pro sports. We can’t exactly look under the hood of those ratings, but I’m curious as to what’s driving the numbers. I remain a big fan of the decidedly unscientific Twitter poll, so I asked folks if they felt that ratings were because:

  1. We just really missed sports, or,
  2. There really isn’t much in the way of substitute goods, whether that means other fresh media content, or simple lack of alternative activities.

Here’s where the poll landed:

I also informally surveyed my summer school class, who were pretty close to the same 60/40 split. There are a couple other factors worth considering. First, without sports bars to go to and a presumably lower number of people watching together in private settings, the ratings bump may just mean that usual amount of viewers are tuning in, but doing some on a higher number of independent screens. (Yes, ratings generally account for sports bars and group viewing, but those numbers can be iffy). Second, I suspect that the novelty of the current sports formats may be pulling in more curious viewers.

This has certainly been the case for me. I maybe shouldn’t admit this given how essential sports are to my career, but I don’t watch a ton of live sports, certainly not as much I did when I was younger and less than fellow sports fans in my demographic. Why? One reason is managing burn-out; I spend all day teaching, writing, and thinking about sports. It’s nice to take a break. Time zones are another factor. Living two hours ahead of my favorite teams in LA, I’m usually heading to bed as west coast action ramps up. This has been especially true since becoming a father three years ago.

But back to novelty. I’m tuning in more now than I have in recent memory and that’s because these are truly unique sports offerings. The various tournament formats and rules tweaks leagues are employing have created something notably different than the norm. The fan-less stadia and efforts to simulate crowd noise and atmosphere are fascinating in their own right, a reminder that our consumption of sport engages all of the senses.
We’re all excited to get back to “normal” (whatever that means), but I’m fascinated by the makeshift sports-laboratory that is unfolding in real-time. In the classroom, I expect to have years of fodder from just this one summer. From how we structure leagues and tournaments, to the functions of specific rules, and a host of marketing and business implications, there will be much to think about and learn from in the years to come.

The Heavy Stuff
But, as they say, it’s “more than a game.” More important than the unique playing formats and branding opportunities, the sports reset has produced an opportunity to examine the fundamental assumptions and structures upon which sport is built. For example: the political activism across professional leagues and the massive reckoning around athletic labor in the college sports setting. You may not support some of this, but you can no longer ignore it either.

History feels like a linear progression, but is moreso a series big moments, of tensions and events, that produce new realities. We are living through a bevy of these moments right now and things will be not be the same. It’s rare to be so aware that you are watching history be made, which is so much more interesting than mere novelty.

Should We Penalize Pros Who Test Positive?

An interesting–if unrealistic–take from economist Tyler Cowen:

There is talk of the season being unsustainable, but it seems a simple remedy has not yet been tried — dock a player 30 percent of his salary if he tests positive.  That should limit the degree of nightclubbing and carousing, keeping in mind that the already-infected are probably some of the worst offenders and they have been “taken care of.”  Furthermore, the players would have a strong incentive to monitor each other, not wanting to be on the receiving end of an infection from a teammate.

The unions would never accept this, but I think it is an interesting proposition nonetheless. And there is a deeper point here, at the intersection of information, incentives, and behavior. We seem to have a pretty good grasp on the mechanisms of virus transmission, yet broad swathes of society aren’t acting in alignment with this publicly available information. The “bubble” formats offer a paternalistic approach that seems to have worked well, but of course can’t really be replicated across the public at large. If anything, this has me thinking about the return of students to college campuses: I can’t support penalizing students who test positive, but could we somehow reward those that don’t? (Obviously we don’t have the testing infrastructure to do so, but a professor can dream.)

XFL 3.0: It’s Happening, Thanks to The Rock

The demise of the reborn XFL was one of the first stories I covered on this site. We had to wait 19 years between XFLs 1.0 and 2.0, but it looks like the third iteration of the league is already shaping up. As Variety reports, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and RedBird Capital swooped in hours before the property went to auction, picking up the league and its assets for $15 million. Given the strong TV ratings and generally positive response the league enjoyed in its brief, pre-COVID return, this price seems like quite the steal. No word yet on when the league will try to resume play; as with literally everything else right now, much depends on the pandemic.