The focal point of just about every discussion regarding US sports in late May 2020 relates to the question of how they will reopen – – or in the case of the NFL, will it open on schedule. It should be clear to anyone who reads these rants that I would be part of the demographic that wants sports “back to normal” and it would certainly be easier for me to find things to write about if there were games happening. Notwithstanding that fundamental prejudice, I do wonder about two aspects of our collective experience over the past10 weeks or so:
- Will sports fans rush back to their previous behaviors regarding “their teams” as soon as the seasons begin again – – or have a significant number of those fans learned that they can live without live sports?
- Recognizing that the pandemic has claimed almost 100,000 American lives as of this morning and that the pandemic has put at least 35 million people out of work, have a significant number of people come to view the “essential nature” of sports very differently?
I suspect that fans will return to sports relatively quickly in terms of watching on TV. Live attendance will probably be a completely different thing varying from league to league. If MLB returns to empty stadiums, fans will not have a choice regarding attending or staying home. If the NBA plays their games in Orlando as a “hub city”, fans in Phoenix are less likely to show up than they would be for a “pre-COVID-19 home game”. But I do think that televised games that matter – – real live games that count in the standings – – will draw good audiences on TV. I think those broadcasts will provide fans with an opportunity that they recall fondly in an environment where other entertainment options are not as easily available as they used to be.
It appears as if the NBA and the NHL are making progress toward reopening their seasons. Players and owners seem to be willing to negotiate and compromise on things like playing conditions, health issues and economics. As of this morning, I am less sanguine about MLB and the MLBPA showing any meaningful interest in compromising on anything. Those two sides seem willing to acknowledge jointly that the sun sank in the west last evening – – and not much else.
The NFL and college football are different stories in that their seasons have not been interrupted; the question there is along the lines of can they begin on time – – and if so, can they continue to play out a season without spreading the virus to an unacceptable level. It seems that the economics in the NFL is self-healing; as revenues for teams declines, so does next year’s salary cap; the teams’ major expense item – – player salaries – – are tied directly to revenue. When there are labor management issues regarding NFL games, it would seem to me that the focus will be on players’ health and safety
College football has another wrinkle to it. Administrators will need to consider if the school can field a football team under the circumstances that the campus at large is closed to students. I think it is a long haul for those folks to do that because:
- Closing the campus to students would be a decision made in recognition that the health and safety of the student body is better served by not having them in great numbers on campus. Schools will not close down for no good reason.
- If in an abundance of caution, admins close the campuses but then allow a football team to practice and play, what responsibility might those admins have forsaken when a player or coach comes down with COVID-19. I would not be surprised if liability lawyers have not already begun to hone their arguments for cases that would arise there.
The second question above relates to the way we view sports as part of the essential infrastructure of our society. One thing we know for sure is that the nation can survive for about 10 weeks without the major US sports. What I don’t know is if our recent sports-free experience has changed a lot of minds about how “essential” the games are and how “essential” it is to pay a football or basketball coach $5M a year or more and how “essential” the games are that it would be OK to risk the health of the players even if they played in empty stadiums.
The NCAA President – Dr. Mark Emmert – said emphatically that the idea of closed campuses with active football programs and games was not happening. This does not happen often, but I am in total agreement with Dr. Emmert on this one. The problem here is that the NCAA is not on totally solid ground here. The Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big-10, Big-12, SEC and PAC-12) dominate college football and they could choose to bolt from the NCAA on the “football side” and agree to tolerate the NCAA on the “basketball side”. [Aside: If the Power 5 conferences leave the NCAA, do not be surprised if all of them expand to have 16 teams in each of the conferences. That act would permanently divide major college football into the “Haves” and the “Have Nots”.]
I do not have answers here; I do think these are the sorts of issues that will be interesting to watch over the next several weeks – and maybe in the case of football over the next couple of months.
By the way, before I sign off from this issue:
- Can you think of a dozen things in society that are less “essential” than about 35 of the college football bowl games that are played between December 20 and December 31?
Finally, here is a definition from The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm:
“Eccentric: The type of unconventional, idiosyncratic, oddball character with whom it is utterly unbearable to spend even five minutes in the same room, but whom we somehow find uplifting and inspiring when they are the fictional subject of a two-hour movie.”
[Aside: I always thought that a person was “eccentric” if he/she was worth $100M or more but that same person was merely “weird” at a lower net worth.]
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………