Archive | Sports

Superbowl Potpourri

  • Where to get up-to-the-minute Superbowl win probabilities during the game: here.
  • Where to see how much each player earns: here.
  • What to watch if you want some backstory on Baltimore’s commitment to its football team: here.
  • What to read if you want some backstory on concussions in football: here.
  • Where to look if you want to know where to find Ravens or Niners fans: here.
  • Where to add something that you think I should have included: the comments.
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The Politics of Dillon, Texas

That taxes, the national debt, or health care reform have been central issues in this presidential campaign is hardly surprising.  But the same can’t be said for the slogan “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose,” the mantra of fictional football coach Eric Taylor of Friday Night Lights fame.  With Governor Romney using the show’s trademark phrase, with an actress from the show likening the Governor to the show’s unethical and overbearing football father Joe McCoy, with the original book’s author endorsing Romney, and with the TV show’s creator asking the Governor to stop using the phrase, it’s time to look a little more deeply into the politics of “Friday Night Lights.”  My ultimate goal: to learn the politics of the inscrutable Eric Taylor.  But in keeping with a good football show, let me not give away the ending.

For those unfamiliar with the show or the backstory, a paragraph won’t cut it, but I’ll try.  In 1990, journalist Buzz Bissinger published a non-fiction book about his year with the Permian Panthers, a high school football team from Odessa, Texas which had been a perpetual contender for state championships.  Peter Berg then created a five-season TV drama using material from the book along with his own creative license.  It aired from 2006 to 2011, and renamed Odessa “Dillon.”  And since Bissinger’s non-fiction narrative makes it clear that truth can be stranger than fiction**—I’m thinking about the involvement of Texas’ top education official in deciding on a high school player’s grade, and hence his playoff eligibility—Berg’s show is able to be fully fictional and yet stay reasonably close to real-world events.  Although about high school football teams, the show centers as much on Coach Taylor and the guidance counselor and high school principal who is also his wife (Tami) as on the players themselves.  There are spoilers below, but I assume the set of people who are still reading this and aren’t familiar with the show is approaching zero anyhow.

First, let’s start by looking at the geographic distribution of Google searches for “Matt Saracen,” under the assumption that there aren’t too many other reasons to Google that particular name.  Saracen is Eric Taylor’s second and most earnest quarterback during the show, a teenager who has been raised primarily by his grandmother and whose father served in Iraq.  The Google searches suggest that Friday Night Lights plays well in places like Romney’s home state of Massachusetts, but also in Obama’s home state of Illinois, in New York, in Texas, and in other places with large, college-educated populations (in absolute terms).

But what really interests me is the source of the back-and-forth between various commentators: who would the various characters in the show be likely to vote for, or who might they have backed in 2008?  So with the help of the 3,309 Texan respondents to the 2008 National Annenberg Election Study, I generated a (logit) model, and did my best to guess at the 2008 vote preferences of some of the show’s key characters.  I’m also drawing on the fact that the real Ector County, Texas has a plurality of Southern Baptists, and that to my memory, we never see a Catholic church in four seasons I have finished.  To wit:

  • Buddy Garrity is an affable car dealer and big-time football booster whose wife leaves him for someone he denounces as a tree-hugging leftist.  That’s a sizable hint about his politics—when he’s off raising money for a Jumbotron for the football stadium, he’s probably not doubling as an Obama fundraiser.  In the model, I call him a business owner, and also identify him as a non-Hispanic white and as a 45-year-old Protestant.  I’m guessing his income to be $80,000, but it looks like the car business is very boom and bust, and the one firm financial fact we know is that he sells his house after his wife moves away for a bit over $200,000.  The survey didn’t ask about having a passion for football (or for employees), but the model gives him an 84% chance of backing McCain nonetheless.
  • From Buddy Garrity, it’s natural to move on to Joe McCoy, the character that actress Jurnee Smollett likened to Governor Romney.  I include a linked picture below so readers can judge for themselves.  Joe McCoy flatters Eric Taylor by explaining that he moved to Dillon, Texas so Eric could coach his son J.D.—and then has Eric fired and replaced with his son’s personal coach.  Fans of the show will hate to hear this, but from a survey research point of view, Joe McCoy looks a lot like Buddy: both are church-going Protestant fathers separated from their wives, and both are on the upper end of the local income spectrum.  Still, for McCoy, the upper end is quite a bit higher—so simply by shifting the “Buddy” model to have an income of $200,000, we get a probability of voting for McCain that is 89%.  That’s a nice illustration of Andrew Gelman’s point about the relationship between income and Republican voting in red states.

  • Tim Riggins is one of the most intriguing figures on the show—he has what an earlier generation would have called “character,’’ and lots of it, although that doesn’t keep him at football practice, in college, or out of trouble with the law.  Based on his high school education, and a rough guess that his annual income is $20,000—hey, if I knew exactly how lucrative running a chop shop was, you’d worry—I get Tim’s probability of backing McCain at 58%.  But let’s not forget research by Vesla Weaver and Amy Lerman showing that encounters with the criminal justice system are demobilizing in general, or Marc Meredith’s evidence that turnout among former felons is low.  So it wouldn’t be shocking if Riggins passed on voting in 2008 entirely, even though Texas does restore the voting rights of those who have completed their sentence.
  • Politics is everywhere in the show, but explicit discussions of it are rare.  One exception is an awkward “meet the girlfriend” dinner where Landry Clarke’s mother tries to relate to Jess Merriweather by asking about President Obama.  Both Jess and Ms. Clarke tacitly agree that he’s doing a good job so far.  It’s certainly plausible that Ms. Clarke—a white woman married to a Dillion police officer—approved of Obama during the early days of his Presidency.  But according to the model, she nonetheless had a 65% chance of backing his 2008 opponent, John McCain.  The same male profile would back McCain at 71%, showing that the gender gap has its limits.  It’s a gap in the London Tube sense of the word—something you might not see if you aren’t careful.
  • On the other hand, Ms. Clarke’s interlocutor at dinner was a black high school student and aspiring football coach, Jess.  Jess was probably too young to vote in 2008.  But let’s say she makes $10,000 a year working at her father’s restaurant—and that she managed to turn 18 in time.  In that case, she’d vote for McCain about 4.6% of the time.  That number grows to 58% if I hold everything constant save her race.  So if you want to talk about gaps, the black-white gap in voting behavior is a place to start.
  • What about Tami Taylor, guidance counselor, principal, and surrogate mother to many?  In the fourth season, Tami gets embroiled in local abortion politics, but the issue centers on allegations about her advice rather than her actual views, which are less clear.  The Taylors’ financial situation is also a bit confusing—they seem stretched past the limit when Eric writes a $3,000 check to cover new uniforms, but they are a two-earner family in a county where the median home value for owner-occupied housing is $75,500.  I peg their household income at $110,000, and don’t need to worry about who earns what.   And by calling Tami a “professional,” I estimate her probability of having backed McCain to be 66%, or just about 2 out of 3.  That might have changed slightly if I had identified her as a government worker—and more so if she were in a union.
  • On, then, to Eric Taylor.  Linguistic George Lakoff would be likely to infer from Taylor’s “tough love” coaching style that he isn’t a fan of coddling, and thus isn’t very liberal.  But drawing clear connections between parenting or coaching and politics can be a stretch—and in this case, we’ve also got Taylor’s demographics to fall back on.  If we assume he’s got his wife’s demographic profile but for the gender, he’s a McCain supporter 71.7% of the time.  And if you think that misses the mark—well, you can certainly lobby the National Election Study to ask questions about whether you would go for a two-point conversion down by a point at the end of the fourth quarter.


** ADDENDUM: This previously read “strains belief.”  I meant that the events that Bissinger describes with respect to a Dallas high school—and that were reported elsewhere—are so striking that they sent me immediately to my computer to read more about the incidents and issues.  It’s a case where truth is stranger than fiction.  I highly recommend the book, and in no way meant to suggest that it was “truthy” or inaccurate.

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It’s Teddy Time

Congratulations to the Washington Nationals, who yesterday clinched their first division title since beginning to play in Washington, D.C.

As political scientists, though, there is some unfinished business that should concern us greatly.  I refer, of course, to the Presidents’ Race, a staple of Nationals’ home games in which the four Presidents from Mount Rushmore engage in a foot race from center field to the first base line.  The races are unpredictable, involving everything from motor scooters, sharks, and the Secret Service to the players themselves.  But there is one constant: Teddy Roosevelt has lost each of these 524 races.  A highly helpful primer on this critical issue is in the two-minute video here.

A war hero, conservationist, hawk, hunter, and avid reader, Theodore Roosevelt is one of the most recent Presidents to be claimed by both sides of the aisle. Last night’s game featured a pep talk for Teddy from none other than GOP 2008 Presidential nominee John McCain.  So I confess I am a bit surprised by the silence with which political scientists have responded to what could only be called a systematic campaign of defamation.  A generation of DC-area children are growing up with the wrong impression of our 26th President.  As if to toy with fans of Teddy (not to mention the Nationals), the Nationals have gone so far as to name this three-game homestand “Teddy in 2012.”

As political scientists, one of our responsibilities is to safeguard the teaching of American politics and political history.  Each night, when Teddy takes on the role of the hapless clown, truth suffers.  100 years ago this month, Roosevelt was shot in Milwaukee and then finished the speech he was giving. It’s high time that he finished the Presidents’ race—in first place, just like the Nationals.

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Causation vs. Correlation: NFL Referee Lockout Over

As we continue to debate the issue of causation vs. correlation in terms of Romney’s 47% comment and subsequent movement in the polls, I thought I’d just throw it out there that within 48 hours of my proposal of a potential game-changing (pun intended) tactic to end the NFL referee lockout, the lockout is indeed over.  I may have had my critics, but you can’t argue with the outcome: history will record the NFL did not allow a single additional game in 2012 with replacement refs once my plan was out there .  Correlation vs. causation – I’ll let you be the judge.  But all I can say is I’m sorry to all the Packers fans that I didn’t think of this sooner…

[Photo Credit: The Province Football Blog. They have more fun pictures there as well!]

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A Modest Proposal to End the NFL Referee Lockout

By now anyone who follows NFL football knows that the replacement referees – likely through little fault of their own – have become an unmitigated disaster for the game.  We also know the players are not going to join the referees by striking, but that the players are furious about the ongoing lockout. As a good social scientist, I know this is just a collective action problem waiting to be solved. The players would probably all like to do something to end the lockout, but individually there is little incentive for a single player to take an action that would subject himself to punishment without having much of a chance of ending the lockout (although see Greg Jennings Twitter feed). So I’m going to provide the focal point for solving this collective action problem. So here’s what I propose:

Starting this week, the players should all refuse to play for the first 15 minutes of the game.  Not playing at all would invoke all sorts of financial penalties, and would also inconvenience all the fans who turned up for the game.  But by not playing for 15 minutes, the players are just going to wreck havoc with the TV schedules.  And as we know, the lockout is all about money, and so much of the money the NFL earns is from TV.  If the lockout is not resolved by the following week, all players should refuse to start the game for a half an hour.  Then the following week they should wait 45 minutes, etc.  And if the networks try to adjust coverage accordingly, then randomize.  Change the length of the delays.  Do it after half-time instead of before the game.  My guess is that after a week or two of this, the TV networks will put so much pressure on the league that the lockout will be over.

Anyone with a better idea feel free to leave it in the comments below…



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  • Paul Gronke on why Ryan’s marathon story has legs (with a nod to Walter Lippman)
    • The academic Tim Gunn

    • Calculate the “Paul Ryan” time on your favorite race distance

    • Marginal Revolution University is getting on-line. What would the demand be for a Monkey Cage University?
    • Make your own electoral college map
    • Something I haven’t seen before: a for profit data mining site using election forecasting as a way to (I assume) show the power of their models. For what it is worth, they give Romney a 25% chance.
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      Our Man in London: Scenes from the Olympic Park

      Once again, we bring you Alastair Ruffles, with an insider’s view of the 2012 London Olympics:


      Aside from the obvious things you find at the Olympic Park venue (sports stadia, merchandise sellers, overpriced beer) the London site at Stratford has incorporated a number of pieces of ‘art’ in to the design.

      Foremost amongst these is the ‘Orbit’, a 115 metre structure which resembles an upside down tuba.  In actual fact it is in effect a reverse helter skelter:  you go up quickly by lift in the centre of the structure, before descending by foot round the twisting form at your leisure.

      According to the official London 2012 website, after going through the ‘small, intimate entrance’ (or as we call it in Britain ‘a door’) you enter a lift with ‘viewing portholes’ (windows) to ascend to the viewing platform 85 metres above ground level.  Mind you, the same website also claims that the design was chosen because ‘the spiralling red structure successfully represented both London and the UK, and was reflective of the five Olympic rings’ which just goes to prove that you can’t believe everything you read.

      Next we have an art installation by Monica Bonvicini, entitled ‘RUN’.  This time the official website suggests that the artist got her inspiration from a number of musical pieces, including ‘Running Dry’ by Neil Young, and ‘Run Run Run’ by the Velvet Underground.  Nothing to do with athletics, then?  However, I think I can see how the conversation went:

      London 2012 Organisers:  “Hi Monica.  About your sculpture… we’re looking for something that symbolises London.  You know – proud history but with a modern vitality.  A diverse population focussed on a single goal.  Regeneration of slum areas, the spirit of the Blitz.  Perhaps throw in something about speed and endurance to mark the Olympic motif, that sort of thing?”

      Monica Bonvicini – “I thought I’d just stick up the word ‘RUN’ in big ol’ letters.”

      London 2012 Organisers:  “Brilliant.  Who do we make the cheque out to?”

      Of course these are the new Austerity Games.  There are rumours that the initial project was to have spelled out ‘Rhythmic Gymnastics – All Round Individual” before the budget was cut.

      And finally we come to the Beat Box.  When I first saw what appeared to be a collapsing house of cards in the Olympic Park I was confused.  Is it a bird?  Is it a plane?  No, it’s an Olympic record holder for the modern biathlon – corporate expenditure followed by pretentious clap-trap.

      Fortunately, it came with an explanation:

      The sign nearly has it right. The Coca-Cola Beat Box combines experimental architecture, sport, music and technology to create an unlistenable racket and a building that hurts your eyes if you look at it for too long.  Maybe I’m getting too old for this sort of thing.

      Of course, the other explanation is that, given the distinctive colouring of the structure and the fact that ‘Coca-Cola’ is mentioned about 14 times in the surrounding area, it might just be a huge advertisement for the product.  Who’s to say?

      Still the building does have its good points.  If you stand right next to it, you can’t see the world’s biggest and busiest McDonalds from there at all…

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      The Politics of Olympic Risk

      In introducing our man-on-the-street reporting from the 2012 London Olympics, I noted the conspicuos lack of writing on The Monkey Cage regarding the Olympics. Fortunately, this post caught the eye of political scientist Dr. Will Jennings, Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Southampton and a Research Associate at the Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Jennings specialises in research on risk and mega-events as well as the quantitative analysis of politics, policy and society. His book, Olympic Risks, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in May 2012. This research was funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (RES-063-27-0205), and he was kind of enough to offer the following observations to our readers regarding the politics of Olympic risk:

      In deliberations over whether or not the British government should support a London bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games, he later confessed in his autobiography, one of the thoughts that played on Prime Minister Tony Blair’s mind was the political risk that was involved: “…but suppose we get beaten and, what’s worse, we get beaten by the French and I end up humiliated?” (Blair 2010, p. 545). While Blair’s lobbying of International Olympic Committee members has been credited as swinging the vote in London’s favour, the political and economic benefits from winning the Games remain unclear, even today.

      Indeed, there are great difficulties reconciling mega-events such as the Olympics with our conventional assumptions about political behaviour. These projects are inherently risky for policy-makers. They are complex and expensive, requiring high levels of public investment, tend to attract threats such as terrorism (and, at recent Games, cyber-attacks), and are a potential source of disruption to local businesses and local populations. Further, the economic benefits invariably are over-estimated (television audiences tend to be over-estimated too), and the costs are always under-estimated: in Olympic Risks, I show that since 1976 the average Olympics cost over-run is equal to around 200% between the bid book submitted to the IOC and the final outturn cost of the Games. In the case of London 2012, the total cost of the Olympics is now well in excess of £12 billion, far beyond the £1.8 billion quoted in an initial feasibility study. Beyond this, there is no psephological evidence to suggest incumbent governments receive a boost in the polls due to hosting the Olympics, and indeed the time horizon of planning from development of the original bid to the event itself is so long that political payoffs tend to accrue to future governments often of a different partisan colour (for London 2012, the current Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has received plaudits for performing a ceremonial role during the Games but had no involvement in the original bid nor much of its planning).

      There is a tendency to attribute this contradiction between the sizeable economic risks of hosting the Olympics and the low political returns to considerations focused upon ‘high politics’ on the part of decision-makers in government. There is similarly a view that systematic optimism bias in budgeting for mega-projects is evidence of ‘strategic misrepresentation’ (i.e. lying) on the part of planners, lowballing estimated costs to ensure that the initial bid is approved. I find these sorts of explanation unsatisfactory, most of all because intentionality often remains unproven (i.e. the recurring presence of cost overruns may provide proof of regularities in failures of cost controls but does not automatically mean that planners knowingly mislead in their original projections). Instead, these phenomenon can be viewed as the product of more prosaic processes, with decision-making distorted by high levels of uncertainty at the early bid planning stages. When bidding for the Olympics, senior officials in government have little motivation to attend closely to the details of policy given the low likelihood of being awarded the Games (keeping in mind that London’s victory ahead of Paris in the IOC vote in 2005 was a surprise to many). Instead, bids to host the Olympic Games often originate in local coalitions of civic entrepreneurs, sporting associations and business, with ‘high politics’ becoming involved in the process late on. Likewise, budgeting projections at the initial stage are often made in the absence of detailed stadium designs while key parameters of the project can remain unspecified until much later in the process. Such a lack of detail in scope definition is a well-established cause of cost over-runs in major projects. Because of this, the bid books submitted to the IOC perform the function of what Lee Clarke (1999) calls ‘fantasy documents’, i.e. representations of organisational reality produced to provide a demonstration of manageability and control to public audiences. It is no surprise, then, when the final cost of the Olympics far exceed predictions, but at the same time there is no evidence of a smoking gun, as proponents of ‘strategic misrepresentation’ would have us believe. Further one does not need to subscribe to arguments about ‘securitization’ of mega-events to recognise that decision-makers use planning documents, such as cost forecasts and economic impact assessments, to provide legitimacy to the adoption of these projects in the face of immense uncertainty. Indeed, that uncertainty may account for the attraction of supposedly vote-seeking, blame-avoiding policy-makers to risky and often uneconomic mega-events, similar to the idea of the Winner’s Curse: where in auctions subject to incomplete information, the winner will tend to over-pay. Over-estimation of the political and economic value of the Olympics, and systematic under-estimation of its costs, can thus be linked to the competitive procedure through which host cities are selected.

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      Our Man in London: Having a Night Mayor

      Once again, we bring you Alastiar Ruffles on the 2012 London Olympics:


      Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (or ‘Bo Jo’, or plain ‘Boris’ for short) is perhaps the most recognisable figure in current British politics, partly thanks to his trademark disheveled hairstyle but also due to his remarkable ‘off the cuff’ style when dealing with the press and politicians alike.

      A former member of the Shadow Cabinet when the Conservative party were in opposition, Johnson has been Mayor of London since 2008.  This high profile power base outside the structures of the parliamentary system has allowed him to remain independent of the Conservative party in the ruling coalition, led by David Cameron.  Cameron is an old friend from Oxford University, where they both members of the infamous Bullingdon Club.  Can you spot the future Prime Minister and the Mayor in this typical picture of student life in the 1980’s?

      Though outright criticism of the government has been rare, Boris has rarely felt the need to toe the party line.  It is this freedom that has seen his popularity soar, and it is widely tipped that he will at some point return to the parliamentary party, perhaps even to take the role of Prime Minister.  Now that would be interesting.  He’s already called out Mitt Romney after the American cast doubt on whether London was ready to host the Olympics on the eve of the Games, which perhaps doesn’t bode well for the future of G8 negotiations.

      It also may be fortunate for Boris Johnson that London had already been awarded the Games before his election to the Mayor’s Office.  In the event of a successful Olympic Games for London, the inevitable rise of Boris Johnson may be sealed.

      Tempting as it is to continue to dwell on Boris’s political future, I’d prefer instead to draw your attention to his sporting prowess.  There could hardly be a better man to be presiding over London over the next fortnight.  In true Olympic tradition, I give you three medal winning performances.

      In Bronze medal position :  On Wednesday afternoon, Boris appeared at a park in London where the Games are being televised on large screens.  Being a man of the people, he was of course willing to have a go on the zip wire.  What happens next is largely predictable

      In Silver, here’s Boris giving the world a lesson in sporting history at the official hand-over party after the Beijing Olympics in 2008….

      The Gold medal performance comes from 2006.  While it may be true that ‘The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, it is safe to say that the soccer World Cup was not.  Here’s Boris playing in a charity match for England against Germany.  Always a spicy encounter with a bit of history.  Boris has just come on as a substitute with five minutes left in the game, and is eager to make his mark with a tackle on former soccer international, Maurizio Gaudino.  Remember this is soccer we’re playing here.

      There are very few British politicians who have been recognisable simply by their first name.  I don’t think Winston or Maggie ever acted like this.

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      Our Man in England: The Five Ring Circus

      Readers of The Monkey Cage may have noticed in the last few days a conspicuous lack of coverage of the Olympics on our blog. While for some of you this may have been greatly appreciated, others may have been left wondering if this was appropriate behavior for one of the seven most powerful blogs in the world. For those of you in the latter camp, fear not! We have heard your concerns, and we have rectified the situation. We now have an official Monkey Cage dispatcher from the 2012 London Olympics, Alastair Ruffles. As the Olympics is always sort of political, we have chosen as our correspondent someone who is sort of a political scientist (defined as having been a classmate of mine in a masters program in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Birmingham in the mid 1990s, but having subsequently gone on to a career in IT, albeit in the public sector.) Al also has the dual advantages of being British and willing to share a few observations with us. We hope you enjoy them. Here is his first post:


      So the London 2012 Olympics (or to give them their official title, the Games of the XXX Olympiad, sponsored by McDonalds, Visa, Acer, Dow Chemical Corporation et cetera, et cetera, et cetera) are now well under way.

      If you happen to actually live in Britain, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Games have already been going on for some years.  Pretty much from the day that the announcement of the host city was made in 2005, the impending festivities have never been far from the national consciousness.

      Being British, however, we could not look forward to this sporting and cultural extravaganza with unabashed relish and joy.  Oh no.  As a nation, we thrive on parallel feelings of stoic pride and nagging paranoia.  Occasionally we lurch into flag waving jingoism, particularly where the rest of Europe is concerned, and yet sometimes we remember that we’re not actually a superpower anymore and that no-one really cares what we think or do.  These feelings have been played out in microcosm during the build up to the Olympics.

      Take the official mascots of the Olympic and Paralympic games, Wenlock and Mandeville.  Supposedly representing two drops of steel from the girders of the Olympic Stadium, they were branded by one journalist (admittedly Canadian) as “a drunken one-night stand between a Teletubby and a Dalek.”  However, it should be noted that criticising Olympic mascots has become a sport in itself, so perhaps we shouldn’t take this one to heart.

      More complicated (and more costly) is the story of the Olympic Stadium in East London.  The original plan was to build an 80,000 seat stadium for the Games, which could then be converted in to a 25,000 seat permanent venue.  But what about the legacy, said the critics.  The legacy is that there would be precious little left of a £450m ($1.5bn – it is still 3+ dollars to the GBP, isn’t it?)  publicly funded stadium.  That didn’t sound right.  An Olympic Park Legacy Committee was created to find an answer.  The answer they chose was ‘fudge’, handing the stadium to one of London’s Premier League soccer clubs, only for this to be challenged in the High Court and the decision over-turned.  At present we’re back to the original plan, so if you’re in the market for 55,000 slightly used plastic seats, I’d keep my eye on eBay in September.

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