Since all anyone wants to read about right now is the spread of coronavirus — technically “the new coronavirus” or “COVID-19” since lots of things are already coronaviruses, including many common colds, but the peorple have spoken and far be it from me to argue — let’s talk about this new impending pandemic, the global reaction, and what it could mean for sports and sports venues, in both the short and long runs.
- Everybody is wildly recalibrating on a daily basis to decide whether to go on with events that would draw large crowds. France has banned all public events set to hold more than 1,000 people through April 15, meaning soccer matches will be played before empty stadiums; Germany has not, even though the two nations have about the same number of cases currently. Some large music festivals have been canceled, some have not, and others are furiously looking around at each other and at their insurance policies to determine the best course of action. The NCAA basketball tournaments are still on but may be played at fewer venues (because concentrating people from across the country in just a few cities is epidemiologically better, somehow?), while a high-school soccer team in California had to forfeit its semifinal game even though both teams were already on the field.
- There is growing belief that the new coronavirus could become endemic, which is different from pandemic — pandemic has to do with how far it has spread, while endemic is about staying power, with the new virus getting added to the flu as a yearly seasonal danger.
- Despite the fact that the world’s biggest liar made mention of it, it is true that viruses spread faster in the winter, possibly because they survive longer in cold, dry air, possibly just because everyone stays inside in the cold, breathing recirculated air. So there could be a dropoff in coronavirus spread once the weather warms, only to see it scale up again at, oh, World Series time.
- One clear directive is that people over age 60 or with other risk factors (asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure) should be staying away from possible exposure routes as much as possible. Neil Young is already rethinking his planned tour out of concern for his “older audience,” and coaches could be forced to stay home as well.
In short, it’s a giant mess, with no clear directives from either government officials or disease experts, in part because nobody knows yet which measures for preventing spread will be most effective, and in part because people are panicky and prone to making decisions more on the basis of what they think will get them in the least trouble rather than what’s good science. It should all shake out more clearly in the next few weeks, but until then it’s likely to remain fairly chaotic and contradictory, in both the sports world and elsewhere.
The more long-term question, meanwhile, is whether virus fears will create lasting changes in how people think about watching sports. Already we’ve seen indications that many fans would rather sit at home and watch on their hi-def TVs than deal with increased ticket prices — which has encouraged teams to target their marketing even more on selling fewer tickets at higher prices to fans for whom money is no object. Will this new virus scare only further encourage people to just watch sporting events (and concerts) on livestreams, since watching things in person will suddenly be seen as a health risk? If, say, NBA or NHL playoff games have to be played in front of empty seats, will sports leagues begin rethinking how they make their money, with an eye toward a business model based even more on charging viewers at home? And if so, will we see even more sports teams demanding smaller stadiums or arenas with fewer, more lavish seats (and six feet in between them) to fit the new normal?
There are still many, many different ways this can go, both epidemiologically and in terms of fan and league behavior, so I’m not going to pretend to have an answer to any of these questions. (Except that sports team owners will surely choose whatever route they think will make them the most money, because that’s their one job.) It’ll all worth keeping an eye on, though, and not just if you, like me, have baseball tickets for later this month and are wondering if you’re going to get to use them. Hopefully by then more rational heads will have prevailed and there will be a clear path to keep everyone healthy while minimizing disruption — though nobody ever went broke wagering on “people will do the dumbest thing possible in order to cover their own personal butts,” so maybe best not to hope too hard.