Pandemic May Permanently Change Sports Landscape

Sometimes drastic events result in major changes. The almost complete suspension of sports activity in America, particularly team sports, is leading to lots of things being considered because it has forced the shutting down of two leagues near the start of their playoffs (NBA and NHL), plus two others just getting or about to get started (MLS and MLB), and also stopped all sorts of individual sports from tennis to golf, auto racing to bowling and horse racing. Every major league and sporting organization faces major questions about how to proceed if (and it’s a big if) they can even continue their seasons at any point in 2020.

For the NBA and NHL, they’ve got to decide whether it’s worth it to try and complete 82-game regular seasons, and how long should their playoffs extend. Both have relied on best-of-seven rounds from beginning to end, but assuming the leagues can even restart play by Jone, that might push their playoffs into December if they don’t shorten them. 

The NFL and college football for the moment seem safer, though the NCAA last week warned that college football coaches needed to start some sort of training camps by June in order to proceed with an August/September start. The NFL normally holds “voluntary” camps in the spring and formal training camps in August. While the league is going ahead (at least at press time) with its draft later this month, it’s highly unlikely any team is going to be able to hold camps before summer at the earliest.

MLS has claimed they are reopening their season on May 10, a date most observers feel is woefully optimistic. But even if they do, it’s doubtful any city will be OK with games where thousands are in attendance. Major League Baseball hasn’t yet set a date for when it will start, and it’s talking about expanding the number of teams in the playoffs this year. But what they haven’t determined yet is how many games they’re going to play when and if they come back. If they have a regular 162-game season, then. how do they hold expanded playoffs? What happens if teams in traditionally hard winter cities win titles? Will the World Series have to shift to being played only in warm weather or neutral sites?

The NCAA last week also announced big cuts in payouts to schools this year, based on the loss of revenue from cancelled NCAA basketball Tournaments. They’ve also said athletes participating in spring sports that were wiped out could get an extra year of eligibility. But there are so many things still in flux that all the leagues will ultimately have to address regarding seasons, fans and payments. For both pro and college leagues, the question lingers when and if it will be safe for large crowds to once again attend sporting events. No one wants to face this possibility, but it may be months, if not longer, before any city feels it’s safe to allow large crowds at either indoor or outdoor events.

The NBA, NHL abd NCAA are all mulling the question of what to do about tickets sold to events that aren’t happening. The NCAA has established a refund system for its tournaments, but both the NBA and NHL have yet to announce what’s going to happen for postponed games. Many fans won’t be able to attend rescheduled games held in alternate locations. Will they get their money back? Thus far the leagues have insisted on holding on to previously sold ticket proceeds, something that’s bound to anger a lot of fans.

Also, does the prospect of airing games in empty arenas make the networks nervous? Much of the profit margin for pro sports comes from broadcasting revenue, the main reason the leagues are desperate to salvage their seasons. What happens if the leagues wash out for the year? Salary caps are going to take a big hit in the NBA, NHL and even the NFL should that happen.

The next few weeks will be perilous times for America’s sports leagues. No one knows how things are going to shake out, nor what the final decisions will be.

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