Category Archives: sports

Play Ball in 2020!

Amanda Wolbert via Unsplash -

Major League Baseball isn't known for daring innovation. But it is considering a radical revamp to how its 2020 season might be played to minimize the risk to players and to fans from coming into contact with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus infection. Here are the two major options MLB is actively considering:

There was a third option to consider playing the 2020 baseball season in Japan, but with that nation delaying the 2020 Summer Olympics to 2021 in response to a spike in outbreaks from the coronavirus pandemic, that option is no longer being considered.

Of the two remaining options, with Arizona's governor confirming discussions with MLB's commissioner, having all teams play in Arizona is looking like the leading contender for the 2020 MLB season.

ESPN baseball insider Jeff Passan talked about which plan, if any, was most likely to get baseball started in 2020, in an interview on the network's Get Up! Show with Mike Greenberg on Monday.

He ruled out the Japan plan and said that the Arizona plan was more likely than the Arizona/Florida plan during the interview.

"When it's all said and done, it seems like it's going to be Arizona or bust for Major League Baseball," Passan said. "It may have to get to the point where they say to themselves, OK, this is what we are going to try to do even if we can't ultimately pull it off."

Arizona has the edge because its baseball spring training facilities are all within the Phoenix metropolitan area, greatly reducing the amount of traveling teams would have to do to play each other. In fact, during a regular spring training season, it is possible for dedicated fans to watch parts of all games being played in person at each field on any given day, and for one superathlete, to play in five of them! By contrast, Florida's baseball facilities are spread out all over the southern part of the state, which would reduce the number of games that could be reasonably scheduled in what will be a shortened season.

Arizona also has an edge in climate. Although its summer temperatures periodically top 110°F (43°C), relatively arid Arizona doesn't have southern Florida's average 95°F (35°C) highs coupled with its oppressive humidity levels, which would have a greater negative impact on players.

Regardless of which option MLB chooses, the climate of Arizona or southern Florida will give players a strong incentive to shorten the length of games, the growing length of which has long been a problem for fans, but for MLB's revamped season, having games run long will interfere with other games that would need to be played by other teams at the same field later the same day.

MLB can greatly speed up games in three easy steps:

  1. Shorten the break between half-innings when teams change sides to two minutes or less.
  2. Set a time limit of 20 seconds or less for pitches to be made after the batter steps into the batter box. If the pitcher delays, a ball is automatically called. If the batter steps out of the batter's box to cause a delay, it's an automatic strike.
  3. Require pitchers to face no fewer than three batters through their full at-bats (unless the third out to end a half-inning comes first).

MLB will need to deal with some of its most nagging problems just to have a viable 2020 season. Putting them in the crucible of Arizona's desert heat might compel them to finally address them.

Update 19 April 2020: From the WSJ: Baseball Without Fans Sounded Crazy. It Might Just Work.

Image Credit: unsplash-logoAmanda Wolbert

Previously on Political Calculations

How Much Will Impeachment Cost the Economy?

How much will the impeachment drama on Capitol Hill cost the U.S. economy?

We're always skeptical whenever we see estimates of how much a particular non-work-related activity costs businesses from lost productivity because workers are too distracted to do their jobs in the news, whether it be related to the Super Bowl, the World Cup, March Madness, or some other broadcast event, but for the first time, we've seen a report that describes how one of these estimates has come about. In this case, the context is the televised impeachment inquiry taking place in the U.S. House of Representatives, which might as well be its own category of sporting event.

Millions of Americans tuned in yesterday to watch the beginning of the impeachment hearings against President Trump — many of them while they were at work. And according to an estimate by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, that’s costing American businesses roughly $2.1 billion per hour in lost productivity.

The firm arrived at the $2.1 billion number by relying on the following figures: the average hourly wage ($28.18), the number of Americans who use the internet at work (90,130,268), the percentage of employed Americans who work weekdays (89 percent), and the percentage of workers who say they discuss politics at work (94 percent).

That back-of-the-envelope math provides the basis for our latest tool, which is built to calculate both the lost productivity per hour and the total lost productivity to the U.S. economy over a given number of workdays. Best of all, the tool may be adapted to the cost of lost productivity for any given event, not just impeachment proceedings, or in any country, not just the United States, so the tool is not limited to that special case. If you're accessing this article on a site that republishes our RSS news feed, please click through to our site to access a working version of the tool.

Broadcast Event Data
Input Data Values
Average Hourly Wage
Number of People Who Use Internet At Work
Percentage of Employed People Who Work on Weekdays
Percentage of Workers Who Access Or Discuss Event At Work
Number of Hours Per Day Workers Are Distracted By Event
Number of Workdays Event Occurs Before Concluding

Estimated Lost Productivity Related To Broadcast Event
Calculated Results Values
Lost Productivity per Hour
Cost of Accumulated Lost Productivity Over Duration of Event

For our default analysis, since the broadcast impeachment hearings in the House are relatively new and just getting underway, we've instead used data that applies to the Mueller investigation of alleged Russian collusion with the 2016 Trump presidential campaign to estimate the total cost of lost productivity in American workplaces from that protracted political affair, but you're welcome to substitute data that applies to the similar political event of the Trump impeachment inquiry as it progresses.

Here, 547 work days passed between the time a special counsel named Robert Mueller was appointed to run an investigation into Russia's potential involvement with President Trump's successful 2016 political campaign on 17 May 2017 to the time it fizzled out with his final testimony on the investigation before the U.S. Congress on 24 July 2019. Assuming working Americans spent an average of one hour per workday talking about the Mueller investigation while on the job as it was regularly in the news, the politically-charged probe would have cost the U.S. economy an estimated $1.1 trillion in lost productivity during this period.

Let's say all of that lost productivity would have otherwise added to the U.S. economy's gross domestic product if not for what ultimately amounted to be a long-running sideshow distraction. Using GDP data accessed on 15 November 2019 for the period 2017-Q2 through 2019-Q2, we find the nation's nominal GDP rose from $19.357 trillion to $21.340 trillion over this two year long period approximately coinciding with the duration of the so-called "Russian Collusion" investigation, an average annualized growth rate of 5.0% (or 2.7% if we use the BEA's inflation-adjusted GDP figures for these quarters).

Boosting 2019-Q2's nominal GDP by $1.1 trillion to account for the productivity allegedly lost to workplace discussions about the Mueller investigation to $22.44 trillion increases the average annualized GDP growth rate during this two year period to 7.7% (or 5.4% in 'real' terms).

Is that figure realistic? We would say probably not, because it's simply too much money for serious businesses to tolerate losing without their bosses staging an intervention to refocus employees on doing their jobs by taking corrective action to minimize unproductive politics-related chatter at work.

Cover Illustration from New York Post on 13 November 2019

On the other hand, for businesses with non-serious bosses, it probably has resulted in major losses in both productivity and quality. For example, just consider how much time late night comedy talk shows have spent on politically-related topics during the last several years and how unfunny they've become as a result, and you can see the damage the corrosiveness of political obsessions has caused every weeknight. And that's with Donald Trump as President of the United States, which by all rights has got to be a comedy gold mine!

Then there's the least serious business of all, which goes on in the U.S. Congress, where politicians seem incapable of doing anything else as congressional bosses have chosen to put their political sideshows up front and center, ahead of useful things like passing spending bills to avoid government agency shutdowns, approving trade deals, et cetera. Nearly a year into its tenure, with both the Mueller investigation and now the impeachment inquiry distracting it, the 116th session of Congress is currently at risk of becoming the least productive in history.

We're on the cusp of the Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States, where many Americans can soon expect have to deal with their politically-obsessed family members at their dining table. If this year's dinner is at your house, be the serious boss and put the kibosh on entering the social disaster minefield that you will otherwise find yourself in if you're foolish enough to allow their political obsessions to dominate and ruin the experience of your Thanksgiving feast. If need be, you might consider putting your politically-obsessed guests in their proper place. At the kids' table.

Update 15 December 2019: We were wrong about treating the Mueller investigation a separate event from the House's impeachment inquiry. That's according to House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who confirms the House's current impeachment effort began with Robert Mueller's appointment to lead the investigation that bears his name:

Democrats showed signs of unity Tuesday after Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the committee chairs announced the plan to proceed with just two articles of impeachment.

Pelosi declined to explain why Democrats opted not to pursue an obstruction of justice article of impeachment encompassing the special counsel’s findings.

“It’s no use talking about what isn’t. This is what is,” she said Tuesday Morning at Politico’s Women Rule Summit.

Yet, Pelosi invoked the appointment of Robert S. Mueller to lead the special counsel investigation as the start of the impeachment process when defending claims that Democrats have rushed the process.

“Speed? It’s been going on for 22 months, two and a half years actually,” she said.

And there you have it. To update our tool, you just need to enter the number of workdays that have passed since the Mueller investigation began, which you can easily get from TimeAndDate's business days calculator by entering 17 May 2017 as the start date and whatever date you would like to update it through as the end date. Through mid-December 2019, we are at 646 elapsed workdays and counting.

Image Source: New York Post.

Bring Promotion and Relegation to U.S. Professional Sports

If there was one innovation we could see brought to professional sports in the United States, we would propose introducing team relegation and promotion to each of the major leagues.

If you're a fan of the English Premier League, you already know what we mean, but to explain it simply, here's how it goes. Teams are ranked according to how many points they earn during the regular season. The bottom three teams in the rankings are demoted to a lower league, while in their place, the top three teams from that lower league are promoted up to the big leagues.

What relegation does is fix the incentive problems that the owners and players of poorly performing teams often have that run counter to the interests of their team's fans. For example, in a sport like basketball, teams doing poorly will often make their losing seasons even worse for their fans by tanking - deliberately seeking to lose as many games as possible in order to increase their odds of winning a high draft pick to claim highly valued players in the next season's draft of new players. In a sport like baseball, past a certain point of the season, teams with losing records effectively throw in the towel on the idea of competing and hold a fire sale, trading away their star players to lower their payrolls as they attempt to replace them with low-cost prospects who may someday develop into future stars.

We're omitting hockey from this discussion because of the Cinderella story of the 2018-19 St. Louis Blues, who went from last in January to the Stanley Cup finals this season, and also football, where outside of the dynastic success of the New England Patriots in recent years, league rules tend to promote a more equitable distribution of talented players among teams, making the rest of the league more genuinely competitive over its short 16-game regular season.

Relegation could solve the incentive problems losing owners have because they would no longer stand to gain by deliberately adopting losing strategies during a season. Rather, because the big leagues are where the big money in professional sports is to be found, they would stand to lose more financially if they did. Better still, the teams of bad owners who consistently field lackluster teams would find a permanent, out-of-sight home in their sport's cellar. Where they belong.

For suffering fans, the penalty of relegation would motivate their teams, keeping their games both competitive and entertaining as team owners and players would have stronger incentives to avoid tanking their seasons.

On the plus side, teams being promoted from the minor leagues and their fans could benefit greatly from their new major league status. In addition to earning bigger paychecks for better managed teams, turning in winning records in the lower league would be rewarded with the privileges of low draft picks to acquire top talent that currently goes to the worst-performing teams in the major leagues, where a top minor league team can become more capable of competing effectively in their new, more challenging league.

What started us going down this route was considering the possibilities raised by the Numberphile video featured above, where Brady Haran, Tony Padilla, and Adam Moss simulated one million seasons of the English Premier League to answer the question of how many points would it take on average to come in first place, how many points would it take to finish in the Top 4 (which comes with an additional financial reward for these top flight teams), and how many points would a team have to accumulate on average to avoid being relegated. If you'd rather skip the video, the answers to these questions are presented here.

Fixing the All-Star Game

Baseball's All Star Game (also known as the "Midsummer Classic", although nobody outside of the evil influence of Major League Baseball's marketing staff calls it that) is upon us once again, and once again, thanks to many more years of uninteresting execution, we have to recognize that it's kind of a disaster.

Perhaps not as big a disaster as the National Football League's Pro Bowl or the National Basketball League's All-Star Game, but still, for a game that calls itself the "national pastime", fans deserve better.

We have an idea for how to fix baseball's All Star Game that was ahead of its time back in 2009 when we first proposed it, but may now be more relevant given the recent experience of major league baseball players. Let's recap....

Once upon a time, baseball's All Star Game was a competitive event. Joe Sheehan describes the "good old days":

Baseball’s All-Star Game was once a cutthroat battle between two distinct and competitive entities, one of just two times all season that the leagues interacted. The game was played largely by the very best players in baseball, and those players often went the distance. If you wanted to see Babe Ruth face Carl Hubbell, or Bob Feller take on Stan Musial, or Warren Spahn pitch to Ted Williams, the All-Star Game was just about your only hope.

In the modern era, the All-Star Game has been reduced to the final act of a three-day festival, in recent seasons often overshadowed by the previous night’s Home Run Derby. Rather than a grudge match between rivals, it’s an interconference game like the NFL, NBA, and NHL events. The individual matchups, once unique, have been diluted by interleague play.

But that's not the worse part. Sheehan goes on to describe how players and managers used to approach the game, comparing the past to how things are done today:

In the first All-Star Game back in 1933, the starting lineups went the distance. The AL made just one position-player substitition, getting legs in for Babe Ruth late in the game. In the NL, the top six hitters in the lineup took all their at-bats. Each team used three pitchers. A quarter-century later, this was still the general idea: seven of the eight NL position-player starters in the 1958 game went the distance, five AL hitters did, and the teams used just four pitchers each. The best players in baseball showed up trying to win to prove their league’s superiority.

Then it all went awry. Before interleague play or 32-man rosters or All-Star Monday, there were the years of two All-Star Games. From 1959 through 1962, the AL and NL met twice each summer as a means of raising revenues for the players’ fledgling pension fund. In '58, 32 players played in the All-Star Game, 12 of them staying for the entire game. In 1963, the first year after the experiment, 41 players played and just five went the distance. The 1979 game, one of the all-time best contests, saw 49 players used and had just three starters who were around at the end. Fast-forward to 2007—the last nine-inning All-Star Game—and you find 55 players in, 17 pitchers used to get 54 outs, and not a single starter left in the game at its conclusion.

The All-Star Game has lost its luster because the game isn’t taken seriously by the people in uniform. Don’t read what they say—watch what they do. That’s the damning evidence that the participants care less about winning than they do about showing up.

Baseball! So what to do? In recent years, Major League Baseball has tried to incentivize the players and managers of the teams representing the National League and American League by awarding home field advantage in the World Series to the team from the winning league in the All Star Game. But is that really working?

Given that the managers of each league's all-stars are the managers of the teams that went to the previous year's World Series, who most often by the All-Star Game know that their own teams are unlikely to repeat, what's the point? If they're not in the running by that point of the season, why manage their All-Star team to win for an advantage they themselves won't realize? The same fact holds especially true for the players, with maybe as many as a half-dozen on each side playing for teams with a realistic shot at making it to the World Series in the fall.

Bob Ryan describes how history has played out since league home-field advantage has been made the purpose of the All-Star Game:

Sadly, Bud Selig and his marketing minions don’t get it.

Bud is haunted by the tie game in his own hometown seven years ago. It was second only to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series as the worst event of his tenure as baseball commissioner, and he is determined it will not happen again. He thinks the solution is to expand the rosters for Tuesday night’s game into the absurdly bloated 33 players apiece, 13 of whom will be pitchers. As is almost invariably the case in these matters, more is less.

In order to restore so-called “meaning’’ into the game, Bud declared that, beginning with the 2003 game, the teams would be playing for home-field advantage in the World Series. That hasn’t prevented the American League from winning the first six games played under this policy, nor has it prevented the National League from winning the World Series despite lack of said home-field advantage in 2006 and 2008.

But neither of those are the point. The truth is that Bud wants it both ways. He wants the game to be played for a proper prize, and yet he has allowed the game to evolve into something far less than a real baseball contest.

Ryan argues that the way to make the All-Star Game more meaningful would be to shrink each team's roster back to 25 players and tell the managers to focus on winning, but still, they're having to go out of their way to play a game that offers nothing of real value to either the players or the managers.

If you're a player, why risk injury by playing your heart out? If you're a manager, why not coach by the same rules that apply to T-ball, where everybody getting a turn is more important than winning the game?

Here's our idea: put a real world championship at stake in the All-Star Game. Create two potential teams to represent the United States in the World Baseball Classic, Olympics or other international competition that might apply, one from the National League, the other from the American League. Players for the team that wins the All-Star Game would then be the ones that would literally get to go for the gold for the next year.

The Positions! That might create a problem in selecting players, given the increasing internationalization of baseball in the United States. Here, at least 25 of the players selected for each team, covering each needed position for international play, would have to be selected to satisfy the eligibility rules to represent the U.S. Additional players, who might not be eligible to represent the United States, could then fill out the remaining slots on each team's roster to bring the total up to 33.

With the opportunity to coach the team in international play, that might make for a real challenge for managers, who would be compelled to put the best players possible out on the field in the All-Star Game, regardless of eligibility, who might then have to face those same additional players on other teams in international play.

And wouldn't that, just by itself, be a lot more interesting than how the All-Star Game is played today.

What's different in 2018 that wasn't the case in 2009 is the positive experience that major league baseball players had in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, which for many, was the first time that they were encouraged to have fun on the field since they played Little League. Baseball's attempted expansion into World Cup-style international play may provide the incentive the sport needs to transform its All-Star Game into something more meaningful.

"The More the Penguins Skate, the More the City Takes"

In case anyone ever wonders why so many cities and states are so willing to borrow billions of dollars to be paid back over decades with taxpayer dollars to build professional sports stadiums, the motive describing the thinking of public officials was captured earlier this year, in the city of Pittsburgh, as the city's professional hockey team was on its way to winning Lord Stanley's Cup in consecutive years, for the second time in the team's history. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Brian O'Neill got an estimate of how the city's government values the sport.

I called Paul Leger, the city's finance director, to find how much playoff loot the city collected in 2016. That was such a great year, with the Penguins playing 13 of a possible 15 home playoff games in April, May and June. They also won this big silver punch bowl kind of thing that looks way cool when you watch it go by in a parade, but that's not my point here.

Those playoff games brought in more than $1.8 million in amusement taxes, nearly $106,000 in the facility usage fee charged to the hockey players who don't live in the city, another $72,000-plus in payroll taxes and nearly $130,000 in parking taxes on all those fans' cars, according to Mr. Leger.

That comes to more than $2.1 million. Divided by the 13 games, it works out to about $163,000 per contest, and tickets haven't gotten any cheaper since.

That's the benefit of a championship season. Now, as good as the Pittsburgh Penguins have been in recent years, when they've been among the best teams of all time, they've only made it through to the championship finals in six seasons, where they've won the Stanley Cup five times.

They've been playing in the NHL since the league expanded in the 1967-68 season. In the 49 completed seasons since, the Pens have....

  • Missed the playoffs altogether 17 times (35%)
  • Were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round 13 times (25%)
  • Made it as far as the second round of the playoffs 10 times (20%)
  • Made it past the second round 8 times (16%)

Making it to the playoffs certainly appears to be nice for the city government's coffers, but the real question is how much of those tax collections came at the expense of other economic activity within the city and adjacent communities that would also have generated tax revenue? Did Pittsburgh's city government struggle badly to balance its books in the long years where the team didn't make it into the NHL playoffs? Will the city or Allegheny County have to raise their taxes if the Penguins go through the same kind of dry spell that characterized over one third of all the seasons they've played in their history?

Or do the Penguins' post-season playoff appearances simply shift where a portion of the economic activity that is occurring within Pittsburgh's metropolitan area is happening? Say from the suburbs down to the neighborhoods surrounding the government-financed $321 million PPG Paints Arena.

Don't get us wrong - business in that part of town can be really good when the Penguins make it into the post-season.

It's not just city hall that makes a windfall from playoff hockey. The Carlton restaurant opened in BNY Mellon Center in 1984, Mario Lemieux's rookie season, and ever since its fortunes have risen and fallen with the Penguins.

Kevin Joyce, The Carlton's owner, will tell you he’s a six-minute walk from the arena, downhill both ways. Really, he says, there's a way to do it and he'll be happy to explain the to-and-from routes to you. He also has a limo shuttle for customers who don’t care to hear about that.

"It means so much," he said of a long post-season run. "I fill my restaurant for every home playoff game. I do big numbers."

All three dining rooms and the lounge fill, and he more than doubles his staff from 14 to 31. White tablecloth restaurants such as his generally don’t do as well in the summer months, so it's ironic that a hockey team can make or break his June.

"And don’t forget the drink tax," Mr. Joyce said.

Mr. Joyce hates the 7 percent Allegheny County tax on alcoholic beverages. If the Penguins go all the way this year, maybe I'll call the county to see if anyone can tally the uptick in the drink tax on hockey nights in Pittsburgh. That there is one, no one should doubt.

We can't speak for specific hockey nights, but we can pull the alcoholic beverage tax revenue date from the Allegheny County Controller's web site.

We looked at the last four years, where the Penguins played in each post-season, but only through the second round in 2014 (playing into May 2014), the first round in 2015 (only playing into April 2015), and into the Stanley Cup finals in both 2016 and 2017 (playing into June in both years).

Following the logic that revenues from the county's alcoholic beverage tax are higher in the months where the Penguins make it farther into the post-season, which typically covers the period from April through June each year, we would predict that the tax collections during these months would see the following patterns:

  • Alcohol tax collection shown for May in each year from 2014 through 2017 would be about the same as each other.
  • Alcohol taxes reported for the month of June in the years 2014, 2016 and 2017 would be about the same, but June 2015 would fall short (since the Penguins were eliminated earlier that year).

  • The county's alcohol tax revenues in July 2016 and 2017 would exceed the collections in July 2014 and 2015. (Note: At this writing the data for July 2017 has not yet been reported, so we can only consider 2016).

The chart below reveals what we found for the monthly alcohol tax collections for the four years 2014 through 2017.

Year Over Year Comparison Allegheny County Alcoholic Beverage Tax Collections by Month, Fiscal Years 2014 - 2017 (YTD), Not Adjusted for Inflation [Current U.S. Dollars]

The chart above shows nominal tax revenue data, as reported by the county controller's office in each year, which lags one month behind when the alcoholic beverage tax is assessed (for instance, taxes assessed in April would be collected and reported in May). If you want to see the data to be adjusted for inflation, we can accommodate you, but it's not significantly different for the months in question.

Testing our hypothesis for the reported alcohol beverage tax revenue figures, we find that...

  • For May, three of the years (2014, 2016 and 2017) are about the same as each other, but 2015 falls surprisingly short. We had hypothesized that the values would be similar for all years for this month.
  • Looking at June, we would have expected the data for 2015 to fall short, but we see that 2014 did instead, while 2015, a year where the Penguins last game was in April, had alcoholic beverage tax collections that are directly comparable to what the county collected during the Penguins' Stanley Cup winning years.
  • For July, we see that both 2014 and 2015's county alcohol tax revenues are similar and fall below 2016's Stanley Cup year, which is in line with what we would have expected, and is the only month that outcome is the case.

What these results tell us is that other factors likely have a greater influence over the county's alcoholic beverage tax revenues than the Pittsburgh Penguins post-season play, where we suspect that the relative strength of the local economy has a stronger influence. Determining how much influence each factor might have would require much more detailed data, which may not be available. Given the data we have available today, this analysis is about as far as we can take it.

Notes: The title of the version of this article that appears on our site, "The More the Penguins Skate, the More the City Takes", is borrowed from the headline of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article by Brian O'Neill that inspired this analysis!