My brother-in-law and two other regular readers of these rants have communicated with me in the last week or so suggesting that I expound on a specific topic. I have blended those three suggestions to come up with a composite “request”:
- What might sports be like in a “post-COVID-19 world”?
- Are sports important with regard to the country’s “return to normalcy”?
I am flattered to think that anyone else would think I have anything particularly cogent to say on such weighty matters; so, I feel compelled to declare:
- No government official will read this – – and if (s)he does read it, that government official will immediately forget anything written here.
- No sports commissioner at any level of any sport – nor any flunkie at the NCAA – will care about any of the content here for more than a millisecond.
Let me start with the second question from the “request” above. Because sports provide jobs and income for thousands more people than just the players and owners, those enterprises are clearly part of the process of returning to “economic normalcy”. I do not think sports will be at the foundation of the economic return because much of the revenue derived by sporting enterprises devolve from fans having discretionary income to spend. Until people who have been economically dislocated by COVID-19 get their finances back into a semblance of order, sports revenues will not rebound to previous levels.
So, in a sense, the economic importance of sports as part of the “return to economic normalcy” might be as a measuring stick for the general financial well-being of its fans. When we have a vaccine for COVID-19 and we have control over the virus – as opposed to our current state of play – we will know that fans are feeling good about their finances when they return to the sorts of behaviors they exhibited regarding sports before all of this began.
In electrochemistry, there is a device known as the Weston Standard Cell. It is a device that is constructed precisely and carefully and can be calibrated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. When that is done, the electrical potential of any other electrode or electrochemical cell can be measured very accurately because the Weston Standard Cell is a very stable device. [Aside: Not to worry here, I am not going off into a treatise on electromotive force and the like.] In a sense, sports will be like an economic version of the Weston Standard Cell; we have seen what sort of fan-generated revenue comes from the public in good times and in not-so-good times; by comparison as we recover from COVID-19, economists may be able to have an indicator of the complex calculations that people make subconsciously balancing:
- Money available to spend
- Confidence that money spent today will be reliably/readily replaced next week
- Commodity purchased by that money is worth the expenditure.
In another sense related to sociology rather than economics, sports will be an important part of the “return to normalcy” in the sense that the “normalcy” we used to enjoy had a rhythm provided by sports. Examples:
- The College Football Playoff championship will be decided in early January.
- The Super Bowl is the first Sunday in February
- Guess when March Madness happens – and the Final Game is the first Monday of April.
- MLB Opening Day is not a fixed date – but it is a reliable harbinger of Spring.
- The Masters – a tradition unlike any other except for when COVID-19 strikes.
- The Kentucky Derby is the first Saturday in May and the other Triple Crown races are set in accordance with that date.
- NFL Training Camps open in mid-July; the season starts on the Thursday after Labor Day.
- If it’s a Saturday in the Fall, it’s college football time
- If it’s a Sunday in the Fall, it’s NFL football time.
- The World Series is at the end of October.
- The Breeders’ Cup is in early November.
- The Cowboys and Lions will play on Thanksgiving Day
- The NBA will play on Christmas Day.
That rhythm is a background cadence for sports fans in the US. We do not often recite it or commit it to a list as I have done here, but we know it is the case and we acclimate ourselves to its regularity. Just as background rhythm does not make the song, this rhythm of sports will not cause the “return to normalcy” – – but we will probably begin to start to recognize that rhythm once it begins, and I think that will make the road back to normalcy a tad smoother for its being there.
There is another way for sports to be reassuring on the road to our reclamation of our social order. This year, 2020, is clearly unusual; everyone hopes that it is unique. The disruption of that sports rhythm continues to remind sports fans that this year is out of whack and as sports attempt to come back online – so to speak – those events can be guideposts on the way back to normal. For example, the 2020 MLB season hopes to start sometime in June/July and the league hopes to get 80-90 games in before starting the playoffs. That is a good news/bad news proposition:
- Good News: They are playing baseball again; that represents progress.
- Bad News: The 2020 season will never be considered a “real MLB season” and whatever they do will never “feel right”.
Similarly, the NBA’s “season-interruptus” (and the NHL’s too) cannot be patched back together to convince fans that 2020 was a real season. Maybe if the NFL can actually get started on time and stay on schedule for 17 weeks, people will begin to accept that the light up ahead is truly the end of the tunnel and not a gorilla with a flashlight. We shall see…
Moving on to the more difficult question posed by my brother-in-law and other readers, I think sports will be different for a while even after we return to “normalcy”. Here are two reasons why:
- In sports with salary caps – and floors – tied to league revenues, there is going to be a significant revenue reduction now and that means cap ceilings will come down too. Existing contracts may not fit under various caps; there may not be room for all players who have big contracts. This situation could impinge on the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLS.
- In MLB, they do not have “cap considerations” but the leagues and the players have a history of finding ways to shoot themselves – and each other – in the foot. See the 1994 World Series for example… This week the leagues will put forward a proposal regarding pay for players in a season shortened by a virus that no one could have forecast at the time of the signing of the CBA. It will not surprise me in the least when the two parties here get into a public spitting contest over the money issue.
Now, if I am correct about that second item above, I think MLB is going to emerge from COVID-19 much worse off than it was before anyone ever heard of COVID-19. The reality of today is that 25% of the people in the US who can work and want to work do not have a job. Those people do not know where their next influx of money is coming from to buy food or pay the rent; some of those people are the baseball fans that MLB wants to get back on board with baseball in 2020. How to make sure that will NOT happen:
- Get right back into the middle of a fight between billionaire owners and mulit-millionaire players over amounts of money that would likely pay off the mortgages of most of those putative baseball fans.
- These jamokes have done it before; they really must not do it again, now!
All the pro leagues in the US are guilty of this – – but MLB has taken it and made it into an art form. They take the fans for granted and they also take for granted that they can dip into the wallets of those fans with impunity. If MLB and the MLBPA are going to maintain that set of behaviors, they had best do said maintenance with a whole lot of trepidation. Lots of their fans are going to be cash-starved as much as they are going to be baseball-starved. Lots of their fans are going to be leery of stadiums with big crowds, potentially infected “surfaces” and lack of the ability to effect social distancing. Fans are simply not going to be back in the numbers that they were last year; and if the owners try to gouge them in the parking lot and at the concession stands because the players are sticking it to the owners in negotiations, even fewer fans will show up in August and September.
MLB – and the NFL if it indeed starts on time – will be the benchmarks for how professional sports win back the live audiences that make up an important ancillary part of those games. For MLB the challenge is bigger than it is for the NFL because the demographic for a baseball audience is older than it is for a pro football game. As people age, they become more susceptible to the truly adverse aspects of COVID-19; and as people age, they become more conservative with their spending habits relative to their personal assets. MLB looks as if it will be first up on this front and here is what I think the clubs need to do immediately and broadly:
- Get rid of outrageously expensive ticketing. The Yankees specifically should not charge anything near $1K per ticket per game. Period.
- Make sure the stadium that fans arrive to is spit-polished clean. Hire a Marine boot camp drill sergeant to inspect every seat, every counter-top, every rest room before, during and after the games.
- There is no such thing in 2020 as a $12 bottle of Bud Light poured into a plastic cup.
- No one will pay $50 to park their car in the lot proximal to the stadium.
Teams could get away with ignoring those “fan-courtesies” over the past decade or so, but times have changed, and teams better recognize that fact. There did not need to be any hooks to draw crowds in the last ten years; but in 2020, it would behoove teams to give every fan that shows up in the stadium for a game a voucher that will provide some benefit for a game in the future – say within 3 weeks. Maybe it would be reduced parking rates or maybe it would be a free cheesesteak (in Philly) or – – you get the idea. Here is what is NOT going to work:
- Teams try to sell the fans on how tough life is for the team and its owner(s). They have lost sooo much money in 2020 that they need to raise prices on everything just to get their heads near the surface of the water.
That – ladies and gentlemen – is pure unadulterated bulls[p]it. Owners are going to be losing money or making a whole lot less money in 2020 than they had in their budgetary planning, but those billionaires are not about to be showing up in the 5-mile long food lines to feed their families. AND those multi-millionaire players need to get it through their oversized egos that without the fans to open those wallets to pay the owners, those humongous player salaries are not “certain unalienable Rights” endowed by their Creator. The MLBPA can be stubborn asshats here – but it will not redound to their long-term benefit. Players are always trying to establish and enhance their “brand”. Behaving like an entitled asswipe here is not an “brand enhancing strategy”.
Forty years ago – the Middle Ages had ended recently – all of the major US sports were experiencing seemingly constant labor strife. The scenario was always the same:
- Management cried poor.
- Players lamented their exploitation.
- Government mediators demonstrated that they could not resolve a spat between Bert and Ernie.
I said then – and it remains true today – that there is a voice missing from those sorts of interactions and that voice belongs to the fans who pay the freight for the owners, players and government mediators. Their voice was never at the table – and it will not be there when MLB and the MLBPA start and finish their wrangling. However, this time the fans have a real way – – and a real reason – – to demonstrate their primacy here.
- Stay home.
- Do not watch every game on TV – keep the ratings under control.
- Call local sponsors – excuse me, “corporate partners” – for local teams and tell those “partners” directly that you will not buy their products because they are associated with an entity that is out to gouge you.
- Write a letter to each and every company/organization that a player endorses and tell that entity that you will take your business elsewhere because that player is part of a union that only looks out for its own.
There are 30 MLB teams; if only 1000 fans for each team did what is outlined above, there would be economic ripples – and media stories about those ripples which would encourage another thousand or so fans per team to join in. And then…
What might sports look like post-COVID-19? It could be a Fan-Friendly Era. Except it will not because the fans that cannot afford to go to games will stay home and drive up TV ratings, and the fans that can afford to go to games will do so because it will be a signal of their economic stature. I believe the current jargon for the makeup of the fanbases is “Sheeple”…
As I said at the outset here, I do not expect anyone in a position to effect change in the way we bring sports back into society in 2020 to consider what is here with any degree of credibility. Nonetheless, I really believe that the folks in MLB and the MLBPA have a significant probability of over-playing their hands here. Hopefully, the folks in the NFL and the NFLPA can see what goes down here and “go to school” on what happens so that we do not go through it twice with pro football.
Ahh! I think my meds have just kicked in…
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………