Bobby Mitchell died over the weekend. Mitchell was the first Black player on the Skins back when George Preston Marshall owned the team. He came to Washington in a trade for Ernie Davis in 1962. In his career with the Skins, Mitchell was converted to WR where he was a perennial All-Pro and eventually he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was 84 years old.
Rest in peace, Bobby Mitchell.
Normally, when I rant about the intersection of sports and economics, I am commenting on ticket prices or the value of TV rights deals or revenue splits in a CBA under negotiation. In this time of COVID-19, there may be a much larger context in which to consider that intersection. Let me be clear; I am not going to suggest anything like the downfall of humankind; the COVID-19 pandemic will eventually come under control and it is not going to kill off 50% of the world’s population before that happens. Having said that, there is a very real possibility that sports in the world may be significantly changed in the post-COVID world.
Already, we have seen that life can and will persist in the absence of signature sporting events. Consider:
- No March Madness
- No Spring Training and Opening Day in baseball.
- No NBA or NHL games
- No English Premier League games
- No UEFA or CONCACAF competition
- No College World Series
- No Summer Olympics
Yet, the world goes on; and as time passes without the presence of these pleasant activities, people may very well come to a point where sports reside on a lower tier of their life-importance construct. If – – I said IF – – that comes to pass in a significant number of people, that may mean a much smaller demand for high priced tix and a much diminished willingness to approve spending large blocks of taxpayer money to build sporting venues. If interest diminishes, TV ratings would likely drop too and that will make ever-increasing TV rights deals a bad revenue projection for leagues and owners.
- Might the reflex to maintain social distancing and to avoid crowded venues become embedded behavior for a slice of society meaning that going to a college football game with 85,000 of one’s closest friends becomes abnormal?
- Might folks get used to teleworking – and likewise might their supervisors and colleagues grow to enjoy that arrangement – to the point where folks begin to move away from big cities and spread out a bit?
The macroeconomics and the trends described above are not a certainty; in fact, they may be low-probability events. But there is a spectrum here between “no effect between sports and COVID at all” on one hand and “near-dystopia” on the other hand. So, how might the world of sports emerge from the The COVID-19 Era?
- Sports leagues must not jump the gun and try to open – even on a reduced basis – before the epidemiologists say it is OK to do so. In fact, they must not be perceived as pressuring the scientists to bless such an opening against the will of the scientists.
- One of the clichés created by this crisis is the phrase “in an abundance of caution…” Well, sports will need to be very cautious in terms of their restarting lest they generate headlines that are far worse than “bad optics”.
- Sports owners should look to generate more interest in their fanbases with things like discounted tickets and reduced parking fees (no more $75 to park your car).
- Players may need to shave some of their contracts for a while. It will not look particularly good for players hoping to “create a brand” to refuse to share some pain with the people he/she is hoping to attract to that brand.
Many times in these rants, I have asserted that the NFL and the NFLPA should evidence more realization that they are more like partners in producing a hugely popular TV series than they are deadly foes. When sports come out of The COVID-19 Era, those two entities will have a chance to demonstrate that they recognize that partnership and its mutual importance. Sports are entertainment; sports are escape; sports are an emotional release. Because all those things are important to humans once the basics of Maslow’s hierarchy are secured, sports will continue to exist. The question comes down to the stature that sports will have in society once they re-emerge.
Almost 2 decades ago, the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in NYC interrupted the sports world. There were dystopian forecasts back then regarding the future of sports – and about the world of entertainment itself. People adapted; when we go to a ballgame now, we have to pass through screening points and metal detectors; women’s purses need to be transparent in some jurisdictions; those things were not commonplace in the 90s, but we adapted our behavior and our acceptance of such activity as “normal” in 2020. I doubt that we will come to a point where entering a sports venue means taking one of those 5-minute COVID-19 tests before being allowed in, but if a new screening tool is added to the ones in place that is not physically intrusive on one’s body, my guess is that we will adapt to it too.
Finally, here is a COVID-19 observation from Dwight Perry of the Seattle Times:
“England’s Premier League might play matches with no people in the stands for a while once the pandemic ends.
“To assuage hard-core soccer fans, they plan to list the attendance as ‘nil.’”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………