(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “Sports,” Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle said recently, “are like the reward for a functioning society.” Does it therefore hold that in a nation so dysfunctional it can’t deal with a deadly pandemic, sports will be crippled? The U.S. is about to find out and discover what that means not just for the players, coaches and television executives but for all of us.
Since mid-March, most sports in the U.S. have been on hold. The National Basketball Association shut down on March 11. The next day, professional hockey and soccer stopped playing. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed. Major League Baseball put its coming season on hold. The National Collegiate Athletic Association called a halt to college sports and canceled its lucrative “March Madness” men’s basketball championship. And let’s not forget Little League, tennis tournaments, swim meets and every other form of sports competition. They all went away.
The shutdown has inflicted a lot of short-term pain, both financial and emotional. Without its March Madness revenue, the NCAA had to reduce its distribution to university athletic departments by two-thirds. That has resulted in the elimination of dozens of “minor” sports like tennis, gymnastics and wrestling at many schools. (Stanford alone cut 11 varsity sports.) Except those sports weren’t minor to athletes who lost their chance to compete for a college team. High school baseball seniors hoping to be recruited by colleges — or just wanting to play one last year — were also hurt. So were college baseball players hoping to be drafted. And on and on.
TV networks? The legacy networks like CBS and NBC lost out on billions of dollars in ad revenue. ESPN, which depends on pro basketball and baseball this time of year, was reduced to promoting UFC fights, which shut down only briefly. (The Disney-owned network did get big ratings for its 10-part Michael Jordan documentary, “The Last Dance.”)
It was assumed, back then, that sports would restart in the summer; after all, the months spent adhering to all the coronavirus protocols would get us through the first wave of the pandemic and life would be ready to return to normal.
But it hasn’t worked out that way. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver had the brilliant idea to move the entire league to Disney World in Orlando, Florida, to minimize the chances of anyone getting infected. At the time this plan was announced in early June, Florida was averaging fewer than 1,000 new positive cases a day. Now it’s averaging more than 10,000 a day. Since the beginning of July, 11 players have tested positive, including Houston Rockets star Russell Westbrook.
Major League Baseball is going to begin a 60-game season on Thursday. Yet workouts have been postponed because test results didn’t arrive on time. Some players have opted out of the season, citing family and health reasons. And over the weekend, the Canadian immigration minister ruled that the Toronto Blue Jays would not be allowed to play home games because there was too great a chance that players coming into Canada from the U.S. would bring the virus with them. Now the Blue Jays are scrambling to find a home before the season starts.
Then there’s football. The sports industrial complex was lucky that the pandemic arrived during football’s off-season; nothing would have been so painful, financially and psychically, than a football season cut short. ESPN released a study in May that concluded $12 billion in revenue would be lost if football were canceled.
But with training camp for National Football League teams just weeks away, it’s a mess. The league and the players’ union are fighting over what training camps should look like, what health protocols should be adopted and whether there should be any pre-season games. More than 70 players have tested positive. On Sunday, some of the league’s biggest stars took to Twitter to complain that the league wasn’t doing enough to keep them safe. The owners are adamant about playing the season, of course. But what happens if, a few weeks into the season, players start getting infected? Do their teammates have to isolate? Their opponents? Will some games be postponed if too many players come down with Covid-19? Nobody knows.
College football is even more problematic. At a handful of top athletic programs, dozens of players participating in “voluntary workouts” have tested positive. A handful of smaller leagues have canceled all fall sports, including the Ivy League. The Big 10 and the Pac 12 have decided to play games against only conference opponents, which will allow them to delay the start of the season and give them flexibility. The other three power conferences will no doubt do that same. (Big loser: Notre Dame, which had three marquee games with Big 10 and Pac 12 opponents canceled.)
But here’s the thing: can you truly have college football games when the universities are restricting students to online-only classes? Doesn’t that betray the true status of the athletes — that they are employees of the university far more than they are students who just happen to like football? Yet if the big conferences cancel football, that is a potential economic catastrophe. Here’s how ESPN football analyst Paul Finebaum put it recently:
If they decide not to play, they will lose hundreds of millions of dollars and many athletic departments will not exist and if they foolishly go ahead without having the facts and without having any sort of protocol in place, which right now I’m afraid they don't have, they could blow up this sport forever. It is a Sophie’s choice.
Finebaum concluded that of all the sports executives facing difficult choices, “the most difficult decision lies in the hands of people who run college football.”
An athletic director I know says that the most likely outcome is that college football will be pushed to the spring — though of course who can say that the coronavirus will be tamed by then. “Staging sports right now is precarious and unprecedented,” said John Kosner, a sports business consultant and former ESPN executive. After decades of growth and prosperity, he added, “it is sports’ first existential crisis.”
And so it is. No football means accelerated cord-cutting, which hurts the cable networks and distributors. It will create significant financial issues between the NFL and the networks that pay it billions of dollars for its valuable content. It will devastate the budgets of the many college athletic departments that depend on football to support all the “non-revenue” sports. Professional athletes will have to accept pay cuts, as lower revenue lowers salary caps. The pandemic could even result in lower valuations for professional teams — something I don’t believe has ever happened in my lifetime.
And what about the rest of us? How will we baseball fans react to seeing cardboard cutouts in the seats and hearing fake crowd noise? How will football fans feel when a team’s injury list includes a half-dozen players who are out of action because they tested positive? What happens if the players decide it is simply too dangerous and walk off the job? Is the thirst for sports so great that fans will look the other way at the issues a pandemic creates for players?
In search of some precedent, I did a little research on what happened to sports during a few other crises. Baseball continued during World War II, but many top players were drafted or enlisted. (Famously, Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley started a women’s league in 1943, a story told in the movie, “A League of Their Own.”) College football was suspended, and while pro football took place, there were so few players available that the Pittsburgh Steelers merged with the Philadelphia Eagles to become the Steagles.
To my surprise, baseball was not suspended during the flu pandemic of 1918, which killed an estimated 675,000 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But most other sports were canceled, either because of the pandemic or World War I or both.
That 1918 baseball season had several long-lasting consequences. The first is that because so many players had been conscripted, the star pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, Babe Ruth, had to also become an everyday hitter. It was quickly obvious that his prodigious hitting talents outweighed his pitching talent. (The Red Sox traded him to the Yankees in early 1920, but let’s not get into that.)
Ruth survived several bouts of the flu to take the Red Sox to the World Series, which they won in six games against the Chicago Cubs. As the San Francisco Chronicle recently recounted, Fenway Park was packed for the final three games, which took place in early September. Today, we would call those games super-spreader events.
By the end of the year, nearly 5,000 Bostonians had died.
In that case, sports did turn out to be a matter of life or death. We could be facing that situation once again. At the very least, the pandemic threatens to change the sports we love in ways we cannot possibly predict. But neither players nor fans will emerge unscathed.
(Corrects 16th paragraph in this column published July 22 to reflect that professional baseball was not suspended during World War II.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."
For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion
Subscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.