When Sports Re-Open
Updated: Apr 29, 2020
I was listening to 92.3 the Fan when a guest on one of the shows speculated that all sports will be back on track in the Fall, including playoffs for NBA and NHL.
That ain't gonna happen.
You don't care when sports come back? Fine. You can stop reading here.
If you're still reading, thanks, and let's hash this out together.
First of all, High School Sports.
I think that high school sports will re-open for partial business in the Fall with one caveat, no traditional high school football nights. I think every sport will continue with limited tickets. Let's use High School Soccer as an example. Every boy (or girl), on both teams, gets 2 guest tickets. The teams get to play in front of 75-80 people. (Just like most teams do now.)
In High School Football, every boy on the home team gets 2 tickets, every boy on the away team gets 1 guest ticket. The boys get to play in front of 150-200 people. (Way, way less then they do now.) No half time marching band, no 50/50 raffles, no cheerleaders, no concessions. Just football.
I work in a football crazy school district and they stress all the time that part of the football experience is unifying the community. For 1 year it will suck, but I believe if you take the community aspect out of football, you can make high school football work for the short term.
Why so cautious? The 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic came in 3 waves:
I'm no virologist, but I believe that the coronavirus will return in the late fall. As soon as it rears its ugly head again, Fall Sports will probably be re-cancelled in time for the playoffs. Most fall sports teams, though, should get in 75-80% of their seasons.
I started with High School Sports because it's the easiest to predict. Now it's going to get really, really dicey.
Pro-Sports will be varied:
MLS will return relatively unencumbered in August, but could shut back down around October. You may have missed it, but MLS was 2 games deep into their season when they closed their doors. With half empty stadiums over the summer and no playoffs possibly in their future for this season. Look for the 25 team MLS to look slightly different in 2021 with up to 3 teams either moving or folding.
The NHL is the hardest pro sport to predict because it is run by idiots (Gary Bettman specifically). What should happen and what will happen are 2 totally different things. I remember one of the times that the NHL owners locked out the players, Gary Bettman said that the owners were ready to shut down the league for "years" because if they didn't play, the owners were still coming out ahead because they weren't losing money.
So with that being said, if the NHL just came out and said "we're done. We'll try and start things back up in October." I wouldn't be happy, but I would understand. At least cancelling the Stanley Cup for a pandemic is a good reason to shut things down. (As opposed to cancelling the Stanley Cup over a labor dispute.) And, don't forget, the 1919 Stanley Cup was cancelled due to a ...
....flu pandemic. The right way to resume the 2019-2020 season, if that's the way you want to do it, is to cancel the regular season and go straight to a limited and modified Stanley Cup Playoffs. You pick 2 neutral sites not ravaged by the coronavirus, like Columbus (East) and Winnipeg (West) and make the Stanley Cup a televised event.
Top 4 teams in the West play a best 2 out of 3 series, (A) St. Louis v Edmonton and then (B) Colorado v Vegas. The games are played with hardly any fans, it would basically be a TV event. Then the winner of the A series would play the winner of the B series. The same exact scenario would play out in the East.
Then the East Winner would play the West winner in a best 3 out of 5 at a separate neutral site game, let's say in Nashville, for the Stanley Cup. Again, hardly any fans for a TV production. Stanley Cup starts August 1, over by mid-August.
Why in the world would you even try such a cockamamie idea? In case that second wave hits in the fall and you want some sort of barometer whether empty stadium televised games would be worth it. My plan isn't perfect, but it shows there are options if you want to return to hockey this summer. Again, I fully expect this season to be flat out cancelled, but I also wouldn't be surprised if Bettman tried to finish the season, with fans, and then had a Stanley Cup that was completed in September. That mess would push the 2020-2021 season start into mid-December.
The NBA, right now, as we speak, is considering a made for TV game of.... H-O-R-S-E. Seriously, I kid you not. You know why? Because the players don't want to play real games. I am not saying whether I blame them or not, I'm saying that I'm not going to speculate what an NBA 2020 Playoffs is going to look like because it ain't happening. You may argue that they want to play and I'd respond, "they want to get paid." Because NBA Players have guaranteed contracts, they think they're getting all of their 2019-2020 money. As soon as the owners try to pro-rate that down to number of games played, then the players will really make noise about wanting to play.
The only thing to do is to wait for the blame game. I also think that the NBA Players want to say "we wanted to play, but Donald Trump would't let us." And I think that Donald Trump wants to say "we're not cancelling their season, the players just have to wait to play and the NBA is going to have to modify their operations."
And speaking of waiting to play, MLB schedule-makers are frantically trying to piece together a 70 or so game season that starts August 1 and ends September 30, including some 7 inning double-headers. The problem with MLB is that if you just scrap the whole 2020 season, it might actually be a better business model for the owners than trying a 70 game season and having no one show up at the ballpark. Professional Baseball's revenues are about 30% ticket sales driven, so if no one shows up, that's a big dent in the business plan, and owners who are getting soaked in real life may not want to take big losses in order to keep playing baseball.
Whereas in the NFL, about 15% of their revenue is driven by ticket sales, meaning no sport, pro or college, is better positioned to absorb playing in front of no fans and still make a boatload of money. On the same token, the NFL is more beholden to television than any other sport. Of all the sports, the NFL is most likely to play all of their games, either with or without fans in the stands. Just like any TV production, you can pipe in sounds like fans for the viewers at home.
And back to the NBA argument, President Trump doesn't want to cancel NFL games, that would be very unpopular in an election year. With millions of Americans sitting at home and millions on the unemployment rolls, the NFL is the perfect diversion from the real world.
Sadly, the players can't afford to lose a season either. Of all of the major sports, the average NFL career is by far the shortest at just over 3 years. If I had to bet money, I'd say that the NFL would be the league with the greatest chance of playing a complete regular season, even if it was in empty stadiums. Hall of Fame Broadcaster Greg Brinda used to say that "owning an NFL team is a license to print money." No one associated with the NFL is willing to stop milking that cash cow.
Oh, and speaking of betting, the gamblers want the NFL back more than any other league as well.
College Sports is going to turn into anarchy.
How do I figure? Let me use Ohio State as an example. Every time Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith even skirts controversy, he plays the 'I'm in charge of 37 different varsity sports at Ohio State, not just football.' Technically, he's right.
So does Women's Fencing continue in the Fall?
How about the Men's Swim Team?
Let's say that Fall Sports at Ohio State will continue with only limited spectators, similar to the high school model proposed above. What happens to Ohio State Football? I cannot even imagine a college football game with 100,000 people in attendance for the first week of September. I can't even imagine that in the first week of September 2021.
Because none of the athletes in any of the 37 sports are getting paid, what happens if the Men's Pistol Team wants to play but the Women's Pistol Team doesn't due to localized coronavirus outbreaks?
What if Ohio State cancels all fall sports, except for Football? Why would they do that? They could argue that they are bound to play due to television contracts. Could the Women's Pistol Team turn around and sue the school for violating Title IX?
What if some sports cancel, but some sports don't?
What if some leagues cancel, but some leagues don't?
What do I mean by that? Let's use football as the example. The Big Ten says that they'll play with limited spectators. Then let's say that Ohio State says they will play football with limited spectators. Then the MAC Conference says "you know what? We are shutting down all sports across the board." All of a sudden, Ohio loses 2 opponents off of their 2020 schedule.
Even if there's a second wave of coronavirus in the fall, I can't imagine the SEC cancelling any football games. What happens when some SEC football players don't want to travel across the country for a football game? In high school, most football games are with neighboring communities within an hour drive of the high school. Travel is a very difficult component to predict in this equation. Since college players aren't paid, what happens if a college student passes on playing this fall? They don't want to take that cross country flight. Do they lose their scholarship? Will the NCAA allow them to keep their scholarship but extend their eligibility?
And let's drag President Trump back into the conversation. What if he says that the NCAA is free to do what they want, but there's a 1,000 spectator limit no matter what the event. Men's Pistol just said "okay." In places like Tuscaloosa or Clemson, you just heard the sounds of a thousand heads exploding.
In high school sports, I believe that administrators will err on the side of the students.
In pro sports, I believe decisions will be made by money and optics.
In college sports, I anticipate lots and lots of lawyers getting rich.
Editor's Note: Accidentally deleted one line from the NBA paragraph, had to re-insert one day later.
Editor's Note: 5 days later, Gene Smith had an interesting interview with ESPN.