A former colleague retired and moved to California; he is the one who routinely asks me why there is no Tennis Tuesday if there is to be a Football Friday. Last weekend, I got an email from him suggesting that I change my sign off line for these rants:
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………
His suggestion was to make the sign off line more in tune with the times. He suggested that I end these rants with:
Now, go wash your hands………
While I do like that as a closing line, I can’t bring myself to drop the one I have been using since these things began back in 1996 – well before the Internet saw its first one. Somehow, I feel as if changing the closing line here would be like seeing a rerun of an old Red Skelton show and having him say something other than “Goodnight and God bless,” at the end.
Kirk Herbstreit is a thoughtful and analytical sports commentator whose focus is college football. Last week, he said something that sounded out of character for him because he is normally not one to sensationalize. Here is the surprising part of what he said:
“I’ll be shocked if we have NFL football this fall, if we have college football. I’ll be so surprised if that happens, just because, from what I understand, people that I listen to, you’re 12 to 18 months from a [coronavirus] vaccine. I don’t know how you let these guys go into locker rooms and let stadiums be filled up and how you can play ball. I just don’t know how you can do it with the optics of it.”
There are huge swaths of geography in this country that went into shock when they heard/read those words. Everyone knows what a big deal college football is in the southeastern part of the US. Well, it is a big deal in other places too…
- When there are 85,000 people in Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, NE to watch a football game, the “population” of the stadium is the third largest city in the state of Nebraska.
- Beaver Stadium in State College, PA has a seating capacity of 106,572; don’t try to walk up and buy a ticket for a Penn State game at the box office window.
- The Red River Showdown (Texas/Oklahoma) fills the Cotton Bowl every year with more than 92,000 folks every year.
Let me say from the start that I really hope Herbstreit is wrong – – but I fear that he could be right. He is right to say that an effective vaccine for the coronavirus will not be available prior to the normal starting time for the 2020 college football or NFL season; he is also right to say that an effective vaccine is really necessary for the protection of the players – – and the fans. The coronavirus can spread through the air – – that is why “social distancing” is strongly recommended and insufficiently practiced. It can also spread by contact with contaminated individuals and/or the surfaces that those individuals have touched.
Now, picture a football game between two teams in any of the venues above – – or at one of the games at your alma mater. The game of football cannot be played with anything that resembles “social distancing” nor can players avoid contact with other individuals or the surfaces that those other individuals have touched. Indeed, the majority of plays in a football game end up with a pile of bodies on the field.
Oh, and while you are contemplating those aspects of this imaginary game, take a peek into the stands to watch how closely packed the fans are and the degree to which they will be high-fiving one another and or shouting in to the face of a neighboring fan. Put a dozen infected individuals randomly in a stadium packed with 90,000 “clean” individuals and there will be hundreds of infected people leaving the venue at the end of the game.
The NFL has the same problems that college football has; they are intrinsic to the game. But the NFL enjoys an advantage here. The NFL could survive financially playing in empty – or virtually empty – stadiums because it is the TV money that keeps the NFL afloat. Owners will not like the loss of “gate revenue”, but teams will not be going belly-up. College football has a strong TV revenue stream but it is not as big as the NFL and it does not represent as large a fraction of the total revenue as it does in the NFL College football does need money from game attendance to provide for the football program and for the other sports that survive financially only because of the revenue brought in by football. If the average ticket for a Penn State game is $40 – – remember there are lots of student tickets – – then the ticket revenue alone for a single game at Beaver Stadium is $4.5M.
Football – and basketball – are not ideal activities until there is either a coronavirus vaccine or a treatment regimen that makes recovery from a coronavirus infection probable. [Aside: That seems to be the case with Ebola now; the WHO and NIH announced about a year ago that treatments now “dramatically raise survival rates”.] MLB is a middle ground case. For much of a baseball game, social distancing naturally occurs – other than between the home plate umpire and the catcher. Little of the game involves contact between players although the ball itself might be a disease vector if the pitcher or catcher were to be infected.
Moreover, baseball has had some experience dealing with crowds where social distancing can be maintained:
- Spread out the attendees at a typical Miami Marlins home game and social distancing is not a challenge.
- Look at the fans sitting behind home plate in Yankee Stadium. The cost of those seats has effected social distancing by economic measures and not medical ones.
Interestingly, it seems as if I should end today’s rant by saying:
- Now, go wash your hands………
But I’ll stick to tradition here and say, don’t get me wrong, I love sports………