It’s been nearly two months since Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for Covid-19 and the NBA shut down its season. Within days, every major professional sports league in the country — NFL, MLB, NHL, and more —followed suit. Iconic sporting events like The Masters, Indianapolis 500, NCAA March Madness were all postponed or canceled.
That may change soon. As states like Georgia and South Carolina begin to slowly reopen, the drumbeat to bring back sports grows louder. President Trump recently held a meeting with big league sports commissioners and owners as part of his effort to reopen the economy.
The major ideas being floated to reopen sports all involve playing them with no fans in the stands. Both the NBA and MLB are contemplating playing games in a proverbial bubble, with only players, coaches, medical staffs, and skeleton crews for site security, venue operations, and media broadcasts on hand.
Playing sports in a bubble is far from fool-proof. Some players may decide to sneak out of quarantine or have friends over for visits that defy social distancing. Others, with families, may decide they do not want to be away from their wives, partners, and kids for months at a time. Contact can and does happen even in non-contact sports, like the brawl broke out in game shortly after Taiwan restarted its major league baseball season. If a player, coach or team or stadium staffer were to fall ill or die, the whole thing would be shut down again.
Games with no fans in the stands will have a distinctly strange and disorienting look and feel even on TV. There will be no crowd noise, no game day buzz, and no such thing as home field advantage. Sports fans are not hankering to return to the stands anytime soon. Roughly three-quarters of fans say that they are not likely to rush back to attend live sport events anytime soon, according to a recent survey.
So, why even do it?
For one, bringing sports back would be a big signal that the country is returning to some sort of normalcy. Just being able to watch a “live” basketball or baseball game or golf match on TV would do a lot to soothe our collective nerves.
Sports is one of the precious few things that brings us together across the political divide. As many as 150 million Americans of all political persuasions watched the Super Bowl earlier this year. Tens of millions watched the College Football Playoff national championship, the Kentucky Derby, and the Daytona 500 together
Even if we can’t have the kind of live sports we had before the virus, there are several things teams and leagues can do better prepare to reopen.
Some outdoor sports like baseball or golf may be able to come back with fans, eventually. This entails careful preparation; planning that must start now. It means reduced attendance to set up the space seating required for physical distancing, retrofitting stadiums with temperature sensors and redesigning concessions, lineups and seating for required physical distancing.
Even teams and leagues that must restart in a bubble can do things to enhance team spirit and the game day vibe. Lots and lots of people watch sports on TV anyway. Teams can develop online portals that can enhance the game day experience at home, through remote watch parties. Franchises can also eventually help mobilize fan activities like modified outdoor block parties and tailgates, of less than 50 people and appropriately socially distanced, and set up funds to help hire laid-off event staff as well as local chefs, bartenders, and performers to animate these events.
Sports are not just about team spirit and local pride; they are key contributors to local economies. This is one reason why local governments sometimes give tax breaks and other incentives to sports teams. Stadiums and arenas often anchor entertainment districts of bars, restaurants and swag shops, and in some cases residential development too. Beyond this direct economic impact, sports has a considerable “economic multiplier” effect, stimulating jobs and tax revenue in other parts of the economy.
Vast numbers of these sports-related businesses are under mortal threat from the economic fallout of the virus. Some projections estimate that as many as three-quarters of them may not survive the current crisis.
Current proposals to reopen sports without fans will do little to help the vast majority of America’s cities. The NBA is looking at holing up in Las Vegas or Los Angeles, the MLB in Arizona and Florida. This will do little or nothing to help most places.
Middle American cities like Indianapolis, Columbus, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Grand Rapids, which all number among the top 10 metro areas (those with over a million people) with the largest concentrations of sports jobs, will be especially hard-hit. And, so will smaller metro areas like Olympia and Spokane, Washington; Lawrence, Kansas; Bay City and Midland, Michigan; and Provo, Utah where sports comprises an even large share of the economy.
It makes sense for teams to help support these local businesses which will be needed to provide game day energy when sports finally comes back at full strength. Just imagine if stadiums and arenas reopen to block after block of empty storefronts and deadened streets.
Nothing can fully compensate for a packed stadium or arena, or the energy of fans at a full-fledged tailgate and packed deep into bars and restaurants. But the virus means we cannot have that back for anywhere from six months to two years depending on whether our medical professionals develop successful anti-viral therapies or an effective vaccine.
Still, there are things sports teams can do now to get ready for a new normal that brings back some of the energy, healing power, and economic stimulus that sports can offer a nation left reeling by the coronavirus.
Florida is University Professor at the University of Toronto, Distinguished Fellow at NYU’s Schack Institute of Real Estate. Igel is Clinical Associate Professor at NYU’s Tisch Institute for Global Sport. Caplan is the Director of the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Adler is Research Associate at University of Toronto and a PhD Candidate at UCLA.