The world of sports loves a comeback story. And now, every big-time sport you can think of is preparing to engineer its own resurrection.
The question is: How? When an infectious virus lurks almost everywhere, requiring all of us to keep our distance, how can activities that necessitate close contact — like most sports — be brought back safely and in the near future?
Well, for most of us, they can’t be brought back yet. But big-time professional sports is different — bigger, wealthier and even in a pandemic, bold enough to take on COVID-19.
The plan is not so different from what each of us is doing in our own homes, only on a massive scale: create a safe and exclusive place for those on the inside and limit contact with those on the outside. It’s not simple. Every team has to bring dozens of people together — each one a potential risk to infect the whole group. So before athletes can take the field, and before they can even get together with their own teammates, sports leagues are developing and implementing health protocols.
Essentially, it takes the inside-outside dynamic and inserts a transition zone, so to speak, to screen players and officials with frequent testing, distancing and isolation when necessary. At the end of that process, players and a few key personnel will be allowed into the inner sanctum — where the games are played. Because the athletes have been cleared as COVID-19-free, the distancing rules will be lifted when the puck is dropped. And for three hours, viewers can watch hockey bodychecks and basketball picks as if physical distancing had never existed.
It has to be this way. Any notion that contact sports could be modified was a non-starter.
Bob Stellick, a sports marketing executive, says the integrity of sports depends on the games being played all out. And he’s sure the players want it that way too: “I think they’ll play hard, they’ll be proud, play for pride.” And the fans, he says, would expect nothing less.
“It has to be something that the fans want to watch… or they should just not play.”
But what about the risk of spreading the virus?
One of Canada’s most prominent infectious disease specialists says he has no problem “whatsoever” with major league sports starting up again.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch of the University of Toronto has spent weeks advising caution and distancing to Canadians. But he also believes professional sports can proceed under conditions that are in line with public health guidelines and approved by health officials and communities.
“Can you create protocols to ensure players are safe, to ensure personnel are safe, to ensure that the community where this is taking place is safe? Absolutely,” says Bogoch. “You absolutely can.”
Risk can’t be entirely eliminated. When you bring more people together, you increase the number of transmission points. But Dr. Bogoch has watched the pandemic for months and concluded that, “We have to just get used to living with some uncertainty and a little bit of risk while we’re in the pre-vaccine era of COVID-19.”
We’re already in a different period now than when the virus first struck. Remember when Rudy Gobert, a seven-foot centre for the NBA’s Utah Jazz, tested positive? He became the first domino that started all the major sports leagues in North America tumbling down. At the time, no one was distancing and the reality that just a few cases could mushroom into thousands became apparent over the next month.
Now, much of society has been distancing for more than 10 week, and the rate of infection has gone from exponential growth to a steady decline. It doesn’t mean all sports can start again. Youth, amateur and minor league sports would all risk widespread infection, and haven’t the resources to ensure otherwise. It really comes down to the biggest enterprises such as the NBA and the NHL and European soccer having the capacity and financial resources to create sheltered environments for an entire league.
It is an unprecedented business gamble to bring professional sports back without bringing back the fans to arenas and stadiums. Patrick Rishe of Washington University in St. Louis did an analysis for ESPN and determined that the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer together have lost more than $5 billion because of COVID-19. About $3 billion from fan spending — tickets, food, merchandise, even parking — and another $2 billion lost from TV revenue. And while the fans won’t be returning to their seats any time soon, the leagues could recover a substantial amount of television and advertising revenue that has been lost.
That, of course, relies on fans actually tuning in. Will they want to watch hockey in July and August? Well, they’re stuck at home anyway. Evidence of the pent-up appetite for sports came from the Champions for Charity golf event on May 24th. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson paired with two football legends, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, to raise $20 million for charity. But in addition, the event was watched on Turner Sports channels by close to six million viewers. According to Golfweek, it delivered a record TV rating, “the most-watched combined golf telecast on Cable TV”.
Executives for network television and pro sports leagues couldn’t help but notice that.
Richard Powers, the associate dean of business at the Rotman School of Business, University of Toronto, doesn’t believe any business model could have anticipated the scale of financial devastation on the sports landscape. But, he says, big league sports have an opportunity to restore fan interest while generating income, even during a pandemic.
“They’ve got the TV revenues which are huge, particularly in the NFL. You’ve got merchandising and other sponsorship rights,” he says. “They can make something out of what appears to be nothing right now.”
There may not be the patriotic, sentimental attachment that Americans felt with baseball in the Second World War, but there is still a psychological bond that comes from our shared enjoyment of sports. Richard Powers says sports is “a significant part of our culture. We miss that. And if we can get the leagues going, I think people will really appreciate that. It’ll give us something to look forward. He added, “We need all the help we can get to get through this pandemic.”
Dr. Bogoch agrees.
“I think it would have a very positive psychological impact throughout many different countries and throughout much of society.”
Beyond any business success and the satisfaction for fans of seeing their teams again, there is something for everyone to cheer in this endeavor: seeing an enterprise that really was laid low by the pandemic finding a way to fight back.
In the parlance of sports — COVID-19 vs. humanity — the coronavirus has more wins than losses. The return of pro sports in our culture would constitute a remarkable comeback. And sports fans love those.
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