Team Sports Are In Trouble In the US

A curmudgeon is a crusty old coot who is skeptical about just about anything that has a positive or joyful sense to it.  I will plead guilty to much of that but today I want to add another less than loveable characteristic to my online persona.  Today, I am also going to be the bearer of some ominous news.

  • I am beginning to think that there will be no meaningful team sports in the US for the rest of 2020 and that condition may extend into 2021 based on the availability of an effective, reliable and widely available vaccine for COVID-19 – – or at a minimum a similarly effective, reliable and available therapeutic.

This line of gloomy thinking began at the end of last week.  As MLB and the MLBPA staggered toward a situation where each might grudgingly accept conditions under which to play a shortened 2020 season, COVID-19 raised its hand in the back of the classroom and reminded everyone that it is still here.  The first report last week said that 8 members of the Phillies – – 5 players and 3 “others” – – tested positive at the team’s Clearwater, FL Spring Training facility.  Obviously, the Phillies closed the facility and stopped whatever activities were ongoing there.

A report in USA Today over the weekend said that 40 “players and staff members” around MLB tested positive for COVID-19 last week.  Already, the idea of starting a regular baseball season on 19 July has been ruled out and the tentative “Opening Day” is now set for 26 July.  Let me put on my curmudgeon’s skepticism hat here; that sounds awfully optimistic to me.

In addition to the cluster of positive COVID-19 tests in the Phillies’ facility, there are reports of positive tests in the Blue Jays’, Yankees’, Astros’ and Giants’ facilities.  MLB has closed all facilities, and teams – other than the Blue Jays – will return home and conduct Spring Training 2.0 in their home cities.  The Blue Jays face a double whammy.  Their facility in Florida is closed but they cannot just “go home” because there are travel restrictions in place going to and from Canada – – as well there should be.

At first, it sounds like a reasonable plan; get the teams out of those facilities where there is obviously a COVID-19 presence, deep clean those facilities and have the home field facilities sanitized as the teams reassemble there.  Here is a bucket of sand to throw into those gears:

  • Last week, the States of Florida, Texas, Arizona, California and the District of Columbia saw COVID-19 cases increase by more than 10% over the week before.
  • California, Florida and Arizona all are reporting record highs for new COVID-19 cases over the last week – – and the numbers are continually climbing not levelling off.
  • Eleven MLB teams – more than one-third of MLB – play in those 5 jurisdictions noted above.
  • Those teams will arrive “home” to train and play in places where COVID-19 is in ascendance and not in decline.

My first thought on this matter was that the “COVID-19 problem” would be limited to team sports.  The problem there is the necessary proximity of players and coaches to practice and to play their games.  COVID-19 is highly contagious even before a person demonstrates symptoms and that means it only takes a single infected player or coach or clubhouse worker to bring the virus “in house” where it has the chance to spread widely before it is detected by a test.  What makes that sort of thinking even more ominous is that baseball – – where we have seen viral entry and spread – – is a game that tends to allow for social distancing for much of the time.  It is an imperfect social distancing to be sure, but it is a lot better than the conditions under which football or basketball or hockey take place.

Back in March, the NBA shut down its operations entirely when one player – ONE player – tested positive for COVID-19.  In last March, the number of known/active cases for COVID 19 in the US was less than 75,000 and there had been about 1500 deaths ascribed to COVID-19.  The latest data I can find says that COVID-19 cases in the US now total more than 2.2 million and that there have been approximately 115 thousand deaths.  So, what is the NBA considering today?  Reopening their season-interruptus in a bubble environment in Florida – – one of those States where case numbers are on the rise.  Do those two actions make any sense to you once you juxtapose them?  They do if dollars and cents take precedence over health and safety concerns.

College football provides us with a living and breathing example of Karma in all her splendor this morning.  Recall back in April when Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State said he wanted his football program back to normalcy on May 1st – – that didn’t’ happen – – and Dabo Swinney proclaimed that he was 100% certain that there would be a full and normal college football season in the Fall.  Last week we learned that 23 players on the Clemson football team which was in the process of getting ready to start training for that full and normal college football season in the Fall tested positive for COVID-19 and needed isolation.  Obviously, I want every one of those players to recover fully.  AND, I also want to sit back and smile as I see Karma have its way with Dabo Swinney for the moment…

The COVID-19 “problem” is not limited to Clemson.  According to reports:

  • 30 players at LSU require isolation
  • Kansas St. reported 8 positive tests
  • Oklahoma State – Mike Gundy’s program – has 3 players who tested positive
  • Alabama has “several players” that tested positive
  • Houston has 6 positive tests and has shut down all voluntary training activities.  [Aside:  It is sort of interesting to see an institution shutting down “voluntary activities”.  Makes me wonder how “voluntary” they were…]

Folks, these are just some of the major college football programs affected by the virus; there are lots of lesser programs reporting positive tests, but I want to limit the space consumed here.  The problem facing college football programs is an economic one in addition to a health and safety one.  Testing for COVID-19 is not cheap; the best I can figure, the test kit plus the cost to analyze and report the findings is around $50 per test.  Let’s do some math:

  • A major college football team has about 100 players with 15 coaches and 50 support staff.  Let us consider that the testing population for a college football team is 165 people.  [Trust me, the numbers come out even that way.]
  • Ideally, you would want to test everyone in the facility associated with the team daily to isolate a carrier of COVID-19 ASAP – – but we know that is not going to happen so let me assume that they test everyone on a rotational basis every 3 days.  They will therefore perform 55 tests per day.
  • If organized workouts begin on 15 July and extend until December 1 – – most teams will not play significantly past December 1 unless they play in a meaningless bowl game – – that means the time span for testing is 139 days.
  • So, 139 days times 55 tests per day times $50 per test comes to $382,250.

I am sure that major college football programs can find that kind of money in their official budgets or in their “off-books budget” – – but what about the fringe programs?  Remember, plenty of those “fringe programs” need to sign up to get shellacked by one or more of the major programs every year just to get a big payday to cover normal expenses.  Those “fringe programs” do not have $382,250 just lying around in some sort of slush fund.

The NFL is surely better prepared to incur significant testing and safety costs to allow its season to proceed.  Owners will lament their “losses” which need to be put into context:

  • Over the past several years, every team has done budgetary and fiscal projections for future revenues and expenditures.  Owners are smart and successful businesspeople; that is what they do to be successful.
  • Even at the end of the 2019 season – – and assuredly prior to that time – – owners and teams projected operating profits of “X” dollars for 2020.
  • With the reality that there may be plenty of games – if not all the games – with no fans in the stadium, revenues will be down meaning projected profits will be down.
  • With unanticipated costs for testing now being necessary, expenses will be up meaning projected profits will be down even further.
  • We only get to see the books for the green Bay Packers because they are “publicly owned” so we will never REALLY know if any other team has a revenue statement for 2020 that is the same as the one we will eventually see for the Packers, but my GUESS is that most if not all of the teams will still show a positive cash flow for 2020 – even if they may find a way through accounting legerdemain to declare a “loss for the year”.
  • To be sure, the profit I am envisioning here will be a lot less than the “X” dollars that were projected for 2020, but it will not be the end of the world for the billionaires who own the teams.  Ignore the flood of crocodile tears that are sure to be coming…

Dr. Anthony Fauci has become a “celebrity scientist” throughout the course of this pandemic.  Because my educational background is also in the sciences – – but not medicine or epidemiology by any means – I appreciate his ability to explain underlying conditions that go along with glib assertions such as “create a bubble for teams to live in.”  Here is something Dr. Fauci said in a report from CNN:

“Unless players are essentially in a bubble and insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day, it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this Fall.  If there is a second wave [of COVID-19 cases] which is certainly a possibility and would be complicated by the predictable flu season, football may not happen this year.”

Important concepts in Dr. Fauci’s comment above are “insulated from the community” and “tested nearly every day”.  Are those conditions really feasible for an NFL season that runs for more than 6 months for playoff teams?  I don’t think so…

While team sports in the US are in trouble over the short term, I am a bit more optimistic about individual sports – – but I do not think they are totally immune to COVID-19 “interventions”.  Just this morning there are reports that Bulgarian tennis star, Grigor Dimitrov tested positive for COVID-19.  That announcement came after Dimitrov took part in a tennis exhibition in Croatia with other players including Novak Djokovic.  While tennis is a sport where viral transmission during a match is far less likely than it would be in a football or basketball game, this incident shows that COVID-19 can have a direct effect on an “individual sport”.

Like tennis, golf is an individual sport that also lends itself to social distancing and intermittent mask wearing.  Last week, the PGA Tour had one of its players, Nick Watney, test positive for COVID-19.  While it is probable that Watney contracted the virus in some venue other than on the golf course, the fact that he did bring it to the course – and to the facilities at Hilton Head where the tournament was contested – means that vigilance is necessary.  The PGA conducted testing on 11 people who came in contact with Watney over the weekend; fortunately, all 11 came back with negative tests.  There is no guarantee that will be the case the next time a golfer tests positive.

Sports like bowling and diving and figure skating lend themselves to precautionary measures for COVID-19.  However, I wonder if those sports have sufficiently deep pockets to pay for any sort of extensive testing that might be necessary should an outbreak happen in their midst.  This is a complicated mess at its absolute best.

Entities such as the NBA and the NHL and to some extent the NFL have declared that they have found a formula by which then can create a “bubble” for their teams and then real  games – sans fans in the stands – can happen on a regularly scheduled basis.  I hope they are right but with every new revelation about how many positive tests there are here and there and everywhere, my skepticism gland goes hyperactive.  Remember, the Phillies thought they had their players in a bubble in Clearwater FL.  Turns out that “bubble” was closer to a “bobble”…

Since I referred to Dr. Anthony Fauci above, let me close today with a thought from Dwight Perry of the Seattle Times relevant to another piece of the good doctor’s advice:

“Disease czar Dr. Anthony Fauci has advised against playing baseball deep into October.

“No problem, said the Seattle Mariners.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………



5 thoughts on “Team Sports Are In Trouble In the US”

  1. I think your boy Djokovic is also the one who said he would be skipping the US Open, as they were only allowing one person to come with the player – be it wife, husband, coach, etc – and he said he needed at least a coach, and a trainer, and a masseur.. a full entourage

    1. Ed:

      Indeed, that was his position with regard to the US Open. Now we learned that he and Grigor Dimitrov may have both been part of a raucous “after party” in the wake of that tennis exhibition in Croatia. Stay tuned…

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