More than 40 states are in the process of gradually re-opening businesses and facilities following nearly two months of almost total societal shutdown. But even as those processes begin, America’s sports leagues must face a reality forced upon them by the impact of the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic: they must move forward with any plans for restarting their operations without the presence of fans in the stands. Already those leagues around the world such as baseball in Korea and soccer in Germany are only holding games in empty stadiums. It will be at least 2021, if not longer, before it will be even theoretically possible to envision having sporting events with paying crowds, and then it’s questionable whether anyone will want stadiums and arenas at full capacity due to social distancing concerns.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver addressed this reality last week, telling the NBA Players Association that they faced some severe challenges in the months ahead due not only to the league being shut down at least until July (possibly longer), but the impact of reduced television ratings and the loss of at least two months of live gate profits. There have already been across the board salary reductions for both executives and players, and there’s no doubt the salary cap will be drastically different than initially imagined. Whenever the league does start again, it will be a strictly televised sport, and even that will mandate a host of extra provisions, including virus testing kits, constant player physicals, and keeping the number of people allowed on whatever premises are being utilized to a minimum.
All other sports are looking at similar situations. The NHL is considering eliminating the rest of its regular season and just going to a straight playoff scenario with 20-24 tams. They would not insist on all the rounds being best-of-seven. MLB has talked about a July start. NASCAR and golf will be resuming later this month, but neither is allowing any fans on site. The golf matches aren’t even having caddies, with players being asked to carry their own clubs for the time being.
The notion of playing an entire. playoff, let alone a complete season, without fans turns the whole pro sports world upside down. The foundation of regular season play for decades has been winning the most games before the playoffs start to ensure your team having home field, court or ice advantage for the playoffs. But in an empty arena or stadium, no one will or would have any advantage. Both the NBA and NHL, as well as MLB, are even considering the possibility of playing all the games in one or two locations to eliminate the necessity of having so many safeguards in multiple locations.
Still, even if the leagues somehow manage to get their seasons completed, what happens next year? Or for that matter this fall, when college and pro football is supposed to start. No one expects the pandemic to be over by September, so how does the University of Tennessee, which averages about a million in profits off each home game, survive the loss of income that would result from the cancellation of even a couple of home contests? It’s even worse for FCS schools like TSU, where the loss of income from classics could trigger layoffs in the athletic department.
Bottom line is the specter of no fans at games will have a severe impact on sports in the short term, and no one knows how devastating the long-term impact might be.