The Death of Sports or Just a New Normal

TALKING SPORTS WITH DAVE TORROMEO

As Don McLean notes in his epic ballad, “I can’t remember if I cried,” but I am sure I was just as numb the day the sports world “died.”

We had just finished our radio show “The Clubhouse” (heard nationally on Sirius/XM Radio). My son Jarrett (JT) was able to be with us because his senior year at Gettysburg College had taken an unexpected turn.  He and college kids across the country were home instead of enjoying their college experiences on campus…frat parties, sporting events, etc. (I’ll assume going to class was a part of that as well)!

We were enjoying some pizza and libations at Grand Prix New York, when JT said someone had tweeted that they expected the NHL and NBA to suspend their seasons within the next day.

“Nonsense,” I thought to myself. College basketball tournaments were in full swing. This was one of the greatest periods of the sporting year—March Madness!

But sure enough, within 24 hours, sports “madness” had taken on a new meaning as the sports world came to a complete standstill on Wednesday, March 11th. The NBA was the first domino to fall, cancelling games as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Other leagues followed.  We are now approaching two months without pucks, balls, fans cheering, and announcers sharing their analysis of the action.

So, when will sports be back to normal? Short answer? Perhaps never.

But when will we start to see some type of action? As Sargent Schultz—from Hogan’s Heroes for those of you who are too young to know the reference— would say, “I know nothing!”

While we are on the subject of “knowing nothing,” this writer used to be on record as saying the sports industry (a behemoth worth some $600-800 billion) was impervious to “world issues,” economy fluctuations, politics, etc.

I stand humbled and corrected. I never saw this coming: A day and time when all sports, worldwide, would be brought to a standstill.

Things may never be the same. That is not to say this will go on forever, but our world going forward will be a different place. Sports will come back. We don’t doubt that.  It is too much of the fabric our society from “cradle to grave.”  Sports have traditionally been one of the elements of our American culture that has served as a platform for inclusion, collaboration, friendship, and civility.   Our professional, interscholastic, and collegiate athletics will certainly return, but I expect in a modified form.

Will this pandemic influence the way the games are played? And when they are played? How we consume the content? How the seasons are managed? The NFL just hosted its first-ever virtual draft. NASCAR and the NHL are toying with e-games. And the NBA tried H-O-R-S-E.

And while sports commissioners have said they are actively exploring options to safely resume play, most of it is likely conjecture — no one really knows when it’ll be safe to begin play again. A return for sports would be a return to some semblance of normalcy. But don’t expect them to look and feel, “normal.”

Remember, this changes almost daily.

The NBA, MLB, the NFL and other leagues are developing contingency plans to salvage what they can, including locking down players in a kind of sterilized biosphere. That strategy would not only bring back sports but would also help leagues capture billions of dollars in TV rights fees, the largest driver of revenue.

It looks like golf may be the lead dog on starting the action. The LPGA announced that it is hopeful it could restart the 2020 tour in mid-July. However, with a non-contact sport where athletes compete individually, social distancing guidelines and safety measures are much easier to implement than, say, basketball.  The PGA Tour is reportedly planning to return, with no fans in attendance, on June 8th for the 74th Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. The first four events on the updated calendar will exclude fans.

No concrete return dates are being planned by MLB. The hope is to return in front of empty stadiums in late May, but commissioner Rob Manfred has said the league is still coming up with a variety of contingency plans. Nearly four weeks of “spring” training games are expected to be played before regular-season action begins.

One possible plan would have all 30 MLB teams start the season playing games at stadiums with no fans in Arizona, at Chase Field at 10 Spring training facilities.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has not made any decision and reports indicate that even if the league decides to resume play, it could still be almost a month before the first games tip off.  They are looking at a 25-day lead time to return to basketball.  Even though the current NBA season is still technically suspended, some feel its return this year seems less and less likely with each passing day. Team executives are starting to feel the pressure, frustrated with the lack of information from the league and pushing for an outright cancellation so everyone can focus on safely resuming play next season.

Despite their massive media rights deal, NBA teams are reporting losses and team owners have already mitigated their biggest cost: player contracts. The league and National Basketball Players Association agreed to withhold 25% of players’ checks starting next month. With that settled, team executives say many owners have no desire to return, saying that the league’s other sources of revenue have temporarily dried up.

With so much uncertainty agents are also privately calling on NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to cancel the remainder of the season.

Over at the NHL, commissioner Gary Bettman says plans are still up in the air, but that he guesses they will be playing in the summer. The plan is to adjust, either by playing some regular season games or expanding the playoffs to account for teams that are on the bubble of the postseason and have played different numbers of games.

The NHL’s return would need to be fair to bubble teams, and I don’t just say that because I am an Islanders fan and my team is one point out with two games at hand. (OK, yes, I do.)

There is no concrete plan on when tennis will be back, but the US Open remains scheduled for August 24, with plans to play in empty stadiums. There are, however, expectations that the delay may be longer. Rafael Nadal noted he expected a lengthy wait before tennis returns.

After the UFC’s attempt to return in April was cancelled, the most recent update is that a return is now planned on May 9.

The NFL and NFLPA have reached an agreement on a voluntary offseason program for 2020, that started April 20th and there is no on-field work until all 32 club facilities can reopen.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a memo to employees last Wednesday that the league plans to cut pay and furlough workers due to the financial strain caused by the pandemic.

What about college sports?

The sudden disappearance of sports will erase at least $12 billion in revenue and hundreds of thousands of jobs, an economic catastrophe that will more than double if the college football and NFL schedules are wiped out this fall.

The NCAA is still coming up with plans for multiple scenarios, but reports are that there is “strong conviction” that college football will be played this season. There is uncertainty about when—multiple scenarios are being debated—but they sound fairly certain that there still will be college football this season.

However, there may be a battle brewing between the NCAA and the “Big 5” leagues about football returning (without students on campus) stay tuned, as this may be the tipping point to redefine college football (and the NCAA) in our country.

“If [college] football goes down, that’s just a killer,” said Rick Gentile, a former CBS executive who still works in broadcasting and directs the Seton Hall University Sports Poll. “I don’t know how schools recover from that; God only knows. You could make a prediction, go crazy. The Pac-12 disbands? I’m making it up, but who knows?”

For team sports where contact is unavoidable, leagues will have to take extra precautions in order to ensure the safety of players and personnel. First and foremost, some feel the teams will have to be able to conduct widespread, rapid testing of players and personnel for resuming play to become even remotely possible.

The safety of all personnel and fans is of the utmost importance. That means any league entertaining the idea of resuming play will likely be playing without anyone in the stands.

The economic fallout.

Billions of dollars are at stake and already lost. Events like the Little League World Series—cancelled. The $19 billion youth sports industry is even more profound and far-reaching. A survey commissioned by the Sports Events & Tourism Association, which represents the sports travel industry, found that nearly 700,000 athletes were unable to participate in scheduled events in March alone, costing organizers more than $700 million.

Hundreds of organizations, including travel sports companies, Pop Warner Little Scholars and US Lacrosse, have petitioned Congress to create an $8.5 billion “youth sports relief fund” to “stabilize the industry and invest in recovery.”

Many organizations may be fighting to remain solvent after their losses, and experts say everything from team travel to fan attendance will have to be reimagined when kids return to action.

Not to mention how this is affecting sports related tourism, the sports gambling craze (legal or other) and the millions of people who support the sporting events that we consume, without us ever thinking of them as being a part of the industry.

If the sports world can start to get back on its feet, that will hopefully get us back to a point resembling “normalcy.” But don’t expect things to be the same. Ever.  DT

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