Redeveloping golf courses and incurring the wrath of neighbors

Turning land from a golf course to a housing development could be a bumpy process:

Consider that the average 18-hole golf course is 150 acres. At standard densities, that means that your average golf course can host at least 600 new single-family detached homes. Mix in townhouses and apartments, and a single shuttered course could provide housing for thousands of new residential units. This is land in desirable communities: Golf-centric subdivisions built in the 1990s and 2000s feature courses threaded among affluent McMansion-style developments, meaning that the new housing could go in areas with access to high-quality schools and work opportunities…

But the main variable blocking new housing on old golf courses might be old-fashioned NIMBYism. Golf courses, after all, are often interpreted as high-status amenities that raises the value of neighboring homes, despite evidence to the contrary. If golf courses are gone and not coming back, residents often ask, why can’t they turn into permanent parks? Indeed, converting former greens into open space, wetlands, and natural preserves is happening nationwide in places where local land trusts have been able to purchase the tracts.

This can be a more appealing option for neighbors—often much higher income than the average resident of their region—who push to block permits and rezonings that might allow for infill housing redevelopment on idle greens. Earlier this year, voters in Lynnfield, Massachusetts, an outer suburb of Boston with a six-figure median income, voted down a zoning change that would have allowed for a 154-unit senior housing facility on part of the struggling Sagamore Spring Golf Club. Voters in the Rochester suburb of Penfield, New York, meanwhile, recently passed a $3.65 million bond to buy out the golf course and turn it into a park…

Golf probably isn’t coming back, at least not at the kind of scale it once boasted. Whether or not this bust can be a boon or a wash for suburbs and cities will likely be decided by hundreds of small zoning fights like these over the next decade. If recent pushes to downzone and preserve golf courses are any indication, it will take some effort and forethought on the part of planners and policymakers to get former greens productively redeveloped. Once the physical embodiment of tony upper-crust seclusion, these silent driving ranges and ghostly sand traps can be an effective way for more people to find housing in exclusive suburbs—or another means of keeping newcomers out.

There are few things suburban homeowners like less than finding out that the open, green, or park land they moved next to is now going to be a new development. Sometimes this anger is misplaced: if you move into a new subdivision recently created out of farmland and it is next to more farmland, you can probably expect that more farmland is going to be developed. Parks, forest preserves, or land trusts appear to offer more certainty: a private group or local government has committed to that green space and it would take a lot to choose otherwise. It seems like a golf course then falls in between these two options as it looks like green space but it dependent on a steady stream of users. If the golf course does not have enough customers, it cannot remain a golf course forever.

Also taking into account the social class and status of those who might locate on or near a golf course, I imagine communities that try to convert golf courses to new development will have a significant fight on their hands.

 

Breaking Madden: tweaking the game to have the most unequal outcome

I’m a latecomer to the Breaking Madden series but here is what happens when you tweak the game to pit the two most unequal teams together on the same field:

I released every member of the Seahawks and Broncos that I possibly could, and replaced them with a total of 82 players I created…

Imagine also that this player is seven feet tall and 400 pounds heavy, and that there is no stronger, smarter, faster, or more skilled football player on the planet.

Now imagine 41 of them. In previous editions of Breaking Madden, I’ve made a small handful of these sorts of players — maybe one, or three, or five. Never 41…

In just about every way, these Broncos are the anti-Seahawks. They are as short (five feet tall) and light (160 pounds) as the game would allow me to make them. In every single skills category — Speed, Strength, Awareness, Toughness, and dozens of others — I assigned each of them the lowest rating possible…

I could not continue. My heart wouldn’t let me. I used the simulation feature to speed up the game to the end. I relinquished my ambitions of a 1,500-point game. Seahawks 255, Broncos 0. The machine and I agreed upon the final score.

The visuals are priceless: a team of giants overwhelming the team of scrawny players with the game just giving up at the end. I’ve never seen anything like it in my years of playing Madden football.

The premise of the project is interesting as well: just how much can the average video game be tweaked by the user to create different outcomes? I would count a lot of the newer games that have open maps and numerous playable characters as ones that can be tweaked a lot. Yet, there are still plenty of games that have you follow a fairly strict script. Both can be enjoyable but the autonomy of the gamer is quite different.

One thing I’ve always liked about sports games – and sports in general – is that the outcomes are somewhat unpredictable. Sure, there does come a point where the gamer reaches a skill level that overwhelms the computer every time but then you can set new goals: start a career team from scratch, play with some sort of handicap, or move up a difficulty level. This has been my recent quest: move up the ranks of English soccer in FIFA 2012 with Oxford United. At some point, the game can still be too easy or repetitive – this was the curse of earlier sports games when certain plays or players could just dominate – but playing a game within a game usually insures some flexibility.

The different demographics of viewers of America’s major sports

Derek Thompson highlights the varied demographics of viewers of the major sports in the United States:

  • The NBA has the youngest audience, with 45 percent of its viewers under 35. It also has the highest share of black viewers, at 45 percent—three times higher than the NFL or NCAA basketball.
  • Major League Baseball shares the most male-heavy audience, at 70 percent, with the NBA.
  • The NHL audience is the richest of all professional sports. One-third of its viewers make more than $100k, compared to about 19 percent of the general population.
  • Nascar’s audience has the highest share of women (37 percent) and highest share of white people (94 percent).
  • The Professional Golfers Association has the oldest audience by multiple measures: smallest share of teenagers; smallest share of 20- and early 30-somethings; and highest share of 55+ (twice as high, in the oldest demo, as the NBA or Major League Soccer).
  • Major League Soccer has the highest share of Hispanics by far (34 percent; second is the NBA at 12 percent) and the lowest income of any major sports audience. Nearly 40 percent of its fans make less than $40k.
  • The NCAA demographics for football and basketball are practically identical but they are surprising old (about 40% over 55+) and surprisingly white (about 80%), which clearly has as much to do with who owns a TV rather than who follows the sports.

There are much smaller demographic differences – say across gender as all of these sports have primarily male viewers – and larger ones, particularly across race and ethnicity, income, and race.

I wonder if this could all be easily deduced by watching the commercials that play during the games. While the average fan may not be aware of these demographic splits, advertisers most certainly are and target the audience accordingly. Yet, I can’t say I quickly can name notable advertisement differences between the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL off the top of my head in the same way I quickly notice a difference in advertisements when turning on the network news at night (a very rare occurrence).

“Half of American fans say ‘supernatural’ forces are in play during sports events”

Around half of American sports fans, particularly football fans, think that the supernatural influences are at play on the field/court/ice/pitch/playing surface.

“Just ahead of the 2014 Super Bowl, 50 percent of sports fans see some aspect of the supernatural at play in sports, meaning they either pray to God to help their team, have thought their team was cursed at some point in time, or believe that God plays a role in determining the outcome of sporting events,” reports a new survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan, non-profit group based in the nation’s capital.

A fervent 26 percent of the respondents say they have prayed that “for God to help their team”, while an equal number have entertained the notion that their team was “cursed.”…

“Football fans are also more likely than other fans to say they pray for their team (33 percent ), perform pre-game or game-time rituals (25 percent), or to believe that their team has been cursed (31 percent).

White evangelical Protestants (38 percent), white mainline Protestant (33 percent) and minority Protestant (29 percent) sports fans are considerably more likely than Catholic (21 percent) or religiously unaffiliated (15 percent) fans to say they have prayed for their team, the survey found.

A few quick thoughts:

1. America is often regarded as an unusually religious industrialized nation so it is not surprising that this would carry over to sports.

2. This gives credence to the argument that sports might sometimes act as functional religion.

3. Rather than attribute outcomes on the field to the actions of individual players or physics, some fans invoke the supernatural. How else to explain unusual plays or certain outcomes? Does invoking religion is related to the record of a particular team (bad teams are cursed, good teams are provided miracles – mediocre/average teams are supernaturally stagnant)?

Sports writer reviews new book “A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America”

Not too many football columns include a book review of a new book on the social construction of race:

This emerging theory is reflected in a book about to be released, “A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America,” by Jacqueline Jones, a highly regarded University of Texas historian. Your columnist just finished an advance copy, and was impressed — the volume may have a lasting impact on American thought.

Jones persuasively argues that the wealthy and powerful of previous centuries were obsessed with holding back the poor. Pretending blacks represent a different “race” than whites created an excuse, she contends, for the well-off to mistreat blacks; and also a lever to prevent poor blacks and poor whites from joining in common cause. Whites “fashioned their own identity by contrasting themselves to blacks,” Jones writes, ingraining the concept that skin color is somehow fundamentally different from all the other cosmetic distinctions among persons, then using the biases to prevent blacks from achieving the education and economic power that would disprove racial assumptions.

“A Dreadful Deceit” is one of those books that may succeed more because it coincides with developments in public thought, than because of being a great work. Jones employs the “storytelling” structure that is all the rage in academia, which posits that because minorities and women of the past were marginalized, they can be understood only through their personal narratives. This may be true; the trouble is that for every personal narrative of oppression, there is a personal narrative of someone who was not mistreated. Grand themes of history, one of which Jones claims to have discovered, need more than anecdotes, however compelling. Jones also comes perilously close to contending, “Race is an imaginary concept for which the white race should be blamed.”…

Such faults aside, “A Dreadful Deceit” may put into the national conversation the notion that categorizing by “race” is an obsolescent idea. Skin color tells nothing more about a person than eye color; there is simply one human race. That is a powerful, progressive idea.

Sounds like an interesting book. However, I wonder if it could be used to justify a color blind view: if everyone is more or less the same genetically, why talk about race at all? Even if race is socially constructed, it continues to have real ramifications.

On a separate note, I must say I enjoy sports writers who can also converse intelligently about a broad range of academic topics. Gregg Easterbrook does this quite well but most do not. Bill Simmons has too much pop culture and often acts like he wants to be viewed as smart rather than actually is learned. The typical big-city newspaper columnist will often make reference to social issues but does so in a ham-handed way. Think Rick Reilly who often uses personal narratives to try to make a bigger point. Too often, sports writers acts like sports are the main things that matter – and the rest of life supports it.

Look to the NFL for taypayer funded stadiums, sweet tax deals

Gregg Easterbrook provides a reminder of the amount of public money funneled to NFL owners in recent decades:

Judith Grant Long, a Harvard University professor of urban planning, calculates that league-wide, 70 percent of the capital cost of NFL stadiums has been provided by taxpayers, not NFL owners. Many cities, counties, and states also pay the stadiums’ ongoing costs, by providing power, sewer services, other infrastructure, and stadium improvements. When ongoing costs are added, Long’s research finds, the Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Tennessee Titans have turned a profit on stadium subsidies alone—receiving more money from the public than they needed to build their facilities. Long’s estimates show that just three NFL franchises—the New England Patriots, New York Giants, and New York Jets—have paid three-quarters or more of their stadium capital costs.

Many NFL teams have also cut sweetheart deals to avoid taxes. The futuristic new field where the Dallas Cowboys play, with its 80,000 seats, go-go dancers on upper decks, and built-in nightclubs, has been appraised at nearly $1 billion. At the basic property-tax rate of Arlington, Texas, where the stadium is located, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would owe at least $6 million a year in property taxes. Instead he receives no property-tax bill, so Tarrant County taxes the property of average people more than it otherwise would…

The insertion of professional football leagues into the definition of not-for-profit organizations was a transparent sellout of public interest. This decision has saved the NFL uncounted millions in tax obligations, which means that ordinary people must pay higher taxes, public spending must decline, or the national debt must increase to make up for the shortfall. Nonprofit status applies to the NFL’s headquarters, which administers the league and its all-important television contracts. Individual teams are for-profit and presumably pay income taxes—though because all except the Green Bay Packers are privately held and do not disclose their finances, it’s impossible to be sure.

It is more difficult to justify such public spending when it is laid out like this. But, the money spent is complicated by two factors:

1. Americans like football. What if they wanted to provide taxpayer dollars for football? The assumption Easterbrook and others make who point out the public money spent on football is that people who read the stories will get outraged and demand change. But, football is the most popular sport and the money problems aren’t just present in the NFL – look at how college football continues to be a financial juggernaut even as it struggles with issues of amateurism. If the money isn’t spent on football, would the public be confident that money would be spent effectively elsewhere?

2. Individual cities, states, and other bodies of government are put in tough spots when teams threaten to leave unless they get a good stadium deal. Even with studies that show the economic benefits tend to be primarily in the direction of the team owners and not the taxpayers, losing the team might be even worse. Who wants to be the politician who let the team go? On one hand, spending tax money on sports might be unpopular but so would be politicians who let a source of civic pride walk away.

Just thinking out loud, it seems like the main way politicians and local governments could fight back is to all band together and refuse to spend public money this way. In a time of tough economic competition between communities for jobs and prestige, all it takes is one city to be the escape hatch for teams. Look at how NFL teams in recent years have used Los Angeles as a bargaining chip. Even though no one has moved there, they can all say plans are in the works in Los Angeles unless you give us a better deal. At the same time, politicians across the board could examine cities without major football teams and how they “survive” the lack of a team. How does Portland make it? What about Los Angeles? San Antonio? Las Vegas? In other words, having a football team is not a necessity and there are other ways to spend the money that might go towards sports teams. Individually, cities have a hard time standing up to teams but collectively they might have the ability.

The “rather odd and haphazard set of rules” of the world’s most popular game

A paragraph in a story on soccer’s current place in the world serves as a reminder of the “serendipitous” aspect of the development of games and sports:

If you take a step back from it for a moment, our obsession with the World Cup is truly bizarre, even totally irrational. Soccer is, like all games, made up of a rather odd and haphazard set of rules. Nineteenth century English teachers and students developed them, and eventually the rules of what became known as Association Football were codified with the 1863 Cambridge Rules. (One theory for the origin of the word “soccer” is that it is a deformation of “Association.”) But three very different games — rugby, soccer, and that global oddity American football all came out of roughly the same original soup, which is a reminder of how random the process of rule-making can be.

To fans, the rules of a game seem almost natural, like they have always been that way. But, this paragraph highlights the historical contingency of some of our favorite pastimes: they were created by a particular set of humans in a particular historical and social context and continue to be altered by these changing contexts. While it’s hard to imagine a world without soccer or the World Cup, these are human inventions that might not have happened except for particular actions and conditions.

Another way to think about it is to imagine an alien creature visiting Earth. Without knowing the particulars of how a sport development, they might think the particular set of rules and norms are arbitrary. Why 11 players on a team and not 10 or 12? Why has the offside rule changed numerous times over the years? Why not have two balls in play? Why can’t players use their hands? Some of these questions might be easier to answer than others but they highlight the decision-making that had to happen regarding rules.