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Baseball lifts San Diego’s spirits. Can it revive a pandemic-stricken U.S. economy?

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By Daniel Trotta, Howard Schneider and Chris Canipe

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) – It was Saturday night in downtown San Diego, and J Street near the Petco Park baseball stadium was bustling.

Fans of the hometown Padres, many decked out in team gear, packed the bars and restaurants with more waiting in line and happy to do so after a year of pandemic lockdown.

“It’s definitely a feel-good time,” said lawyer Chris Schon, 33, as he waited for a table outside Bub’s at the Ballpark, a sports bar.

However festive the scene, it nonetheless highlights some of the limits emerging in the U.S. economic recovery.

The Padres have been “selling out” most every game since Major League Baseball’s reopening a month ago, but in the age of coronavirus that means hitting an attendance cap of around 15,000, or roughly a third of capacity. Elsewhere in the league, results are lagging.

The surrounding restaurants, dependent on summertime ballpark crowds, remain limited to 50% capacity in California for at least another month. Owners expect depressed revenue through 2021 and worry that even as restrictions are lifted people will hesitate to join standing-room-only crowds.

“Back in the good old days, we were four or five deep at the bar, slinging beers…. Are people going to get turned off by that?” wondered Brant Crenshaw, a partner in the Social Tap bar and restaurant where big-screen TVs and picture window views of the ballpark are a draw.

His opening day revenue this year? Around $15,000 versus $30,000 to $40,000 in prior years.

‘NOT BACK TO WHERE WE WERE’

The start of a full baseball season with 162 games on tap was a milestone in the U.S. reopening. The 2020 season, shortened to 60 games and played in empty stadiums, gave way to the fanfare of Opening Day 2021 and dreams of playoff games packed with cheering crowds come October.

Restrictions are being eased as coronavirus vaccinations proceed and daily infections and deaths ebb.

Among the largest U.S. states, Texas and Florida have dropped all COVID-related limits, New York is allowing restaurants to reopen at full capacity on May 19, and California plans to lift most remaining restrictions on June 15.

However, data including national travel statistics as well as stadium-by-stadium baseball attendance https://tmsnrt.rs/3nOh7Wa compiled by Reuters suggests people remain hesitant, putting a potential brake on how quickly some parts of the economy will improve.

The 29 U.S.-based MLB stadiums are selling an average of just under 74.8% of the limited numbers of seats each team has made available. That compares with an average paid attendance of 67.6% at fully open stadiums before the pandemic. While higher now, it’s not break-down-the-doors higher at a time when households have record levels of cash saved over the past year.

The 30-team MLB’s one non-U.S. club, the Toronto Blue Jays, are playing at a minor league stadium in Florida because of travel restrictions between Canada and the United States.

More broadly, air travel has climbed back to only around 60% of pre-pandemic levels. An April Conference Board survey found 43% of respondents planned a vacation within the next six months, up from around 30% during the pandemic but well off the 55% or more before the health crisis.

Consumers spent heavily on goods during much of the pandemic, but services account for two-thirds of the economy so a fulsome recovery needs spending on everything from healthcare to baseball games to find its way back.

“When are things going to get back to normal? When people don’t worry about the virus anymore,” said Tim Duy, chief U.S. economist at SGH Macro Advisors and an economics professor at the University of Oregon. “If you are still not willing to go to a ballgame, if you cannot get more than 60% travel, we are not back to where we were.”

‘APOCALYPSE’ GIVES WAY TO ‘ELECTRIC’

Near Petco Park, but for the few face masks in the crowd, things appeared much as they did before the pandemic. Firefighters played Wiffle ball outside their station. A jazz band played around the corner.

If last year’s emptied downtown “was the apocalypse,” said Cory Whitmore, 44, a cyber security engineer who wore his “Friar Faithful” jersey to Basic Bar/Pizza, the Saturday scene had now turned “electric.”

Erik Tesmer, Basic’s general manager and part owner, said the baseball season pulls in roughly 70% of the business at his industrial brick building, previously home to a horse carriage repair shop and a surfboard company.

Revenue plummeted to 25% of normal in 2020, and the restaurant survived only thanks to two Paycheck Protection Program loans from the federal government. Basic was able to keep about 15 employees on payroll, down from 50, Tesmer said.

Baseball may be back, and for long-suffering Padres fans there is even hope the team’s off-season spending on players will mean wins – and sellouts – as stadium attendance limits are likely raised through the summer.

But Tesmer notes the gaps still in San Diego’s larger ecosystem. Comic-Con, a summertime comic book and entertainment convention, was canceled last year and again in 2021, as was a music festival set to move downtown. Basic will be lucky to generate 50% of typical revenue this year, Tesmer said.

His best hope, he said, is for a winning Padres season.

“With a good season … we could be packed wall to wall and everybody is in a good mood and ready to get back to normal,” he said. “It certainly would help us if there are playoff games.”

 

(Daniel Trotta reported from San Diego; Howard Schneider reported from Washington; Chris Canipe reported from Kansas City, Missouri; Editing by Dan Burns and Howard Goller)

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Penny Oleksiak back to lead Canada in Tokyo pool

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Penny Oleksiak, the first Canadian to win four medals at a Summer Olympics, will lead a Canadian swimming team eager to build on their efforts in Rio de Janeiro at next month’s Tokyo Games.

Swimming Canada unveiled a 26-member squad (16 women, 10 men) on Thursday that is a mix of experience and youth that officials hope is capable of improving on the six medals won in Rio, the country’s best haul in the pool since the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

“I think the mix of veteran leaders and new faces is awesome,” said Kylie Masse, a bronze medallist in the 100 metres backstroke in Rio and one of 10 returning Olympians. “That’s kind of how sport works, there are always older and younger athletes, and it’s a great dynamic to have.”

Leading the charge at the 2016 Rio Games was Oleksiak, who became Canada’s youngest Olympic champion winning gold in the 100m freestyle as a 16-year-old, while also grabbing silver in the 100m butterfly and two relay bronze.

The stage is set for a new star to emerge in Tokyo in 14-year-old Summer McIntosh, who edged Oleksiak in the 200m freestyle at the trials and breezed to victory in the 800m free.

At the other end of the experience and age spectrum is 37-year-old Brent Hayden, who came out of retirement to earn a spot on his fourth Olympic team, becoming the oldest Canadian Olympic swimmer in history.

Bronze medallist in the 100m freestyle at the 2012 London Olympics, Hayden clinched his spot with a win in the 50m freestyle at the Canadian trials that wrapped up on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Toby Davis)

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Sinclair to lead Canadian women’s team in her fourth Olympics

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Christine Sinclair, the all-time international goal-scoring record holder, was named to her fourth Olympic squad on Wednesday and will headline a Canadian roster at the Tokyo Games that features a mix of veterans and youth.

Led by Sinclair, whose 186 goals for her country are the most by a female or male soccer player worldwide, Canada won medals at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and was the only nation to make the podium in both competitions.

“I am looking forward to doing whatever I can to help take this team back to the podium and make history again,” said Canadian captain Sinclair. “Our team is in a good spot, we are excited, we are hungry and we are ready to go.”

The 18-player roster features 12 members of the squad that competed at the 2016 Rio Games while a quintet including Vanessa Gilles, Jayde Riviere, Julia Grosso, Adriana Leon, and Evelyne Viens will be making their Olympic debuts.

Goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan travelled to Rio in 2016 as an alternate.

Canada will kick off their Tokyo 2020 journey when they face Japan on July 21 and continue Group E play against Chile on July 24 and Britain on July 27.

(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Ed Osmond)

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Which of the Canadians Picked in the 2021 NFL Draft Will Thrive This Season?

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It was a good NFL Draft for Canadian players in 2021.

Some four stars from north of the border were selected by NFL franchises in the free agency pick ‘em, and that is tied as the highest number of Canadians drafted in the 85-year history of the event.

Of course, the hope is that these young talents are more than just filler and roster depth, but can any of the quartet make the breakthrough into the big time?

Here’s a look at which of the NFL’s newest Canadian additions can shine in 2021/22.

Jevon Holland

The defensive back was the number 36 pick in the Draft by the Miami Dolphins, who beat off a number of rivals in the hunt for the Coquitlam native.

A versatile defender, Holland is a former Jim Thorpe Award semi-finalist thanks to his exploits in the NCAA back in 2019 with the University of Oregon.

He sat out the 2020 campaign, but representatives from dozens of NFL teams were in town to watch Holland go through his paces at the Oregon Pro Day.

The 21-year-old is following in the footsteps of his father Robert, who turned out for the Detroit Lions, and he is expected to force his way into the starting line-up at the Dolphins. And, who knows, maybe Holland could go all the way in his first season, with Miami priced at +2500 in the Super Bowl 2022 American football odds.

Benjamin St-Juste

When you’re six foot three, 205 pounds and still able to run 40 yards in 4.51 seconds, it goes without saying that you have the physical credentials to succeed in the NFL.

Benjamin St-Juste is the man that can, and he will bolster the roster at a Washington Football Team that will be looking to improve upon their playoff showing in 2020.

The 23-year-old may only have been a third-round pick, but he comes with a burgeoning reputation thanks to a successful time at the University of Minnesota. An All-Big Ten special mention in 2019, more than 50 NFL recruitment personnel attended the college’s pro day – largely to catch a glimpse of St-Juste going through his paces.

Both Brian Gutekunst and Jon Robinson made the trip but, in the end, it was Washington who snapped up the powerhouse from the Draft.

Chuba Hubbard

The third Canadian to be drafted in 2021 was Chuba Hubbard, who became the first Canadian running back to be selected from the Draft in 25 years.

It’s the Carolina Panthers who have taken a chance on the 22-year-old and with his credentials, you can see why. Hubbard finished eighth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy in 2019 after a stellar campaign – he served up 2,094 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns, an NCAA best. He was named the Big 12 Conference Offensive Player of the Year.

While running backs are not the hottest of properties in the Draft, Hubbard provably has the talent to cross into the end zone with regularity – the Panthers might just have got their hands on an unheralded gem here.

With these three Canadians taking the step up to the NFL, the future of the sport north of the border looks in safe hands.

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