If you’re sick of reading “When and how will sports return?” posts, well, you and me both: There is something soothing about the idea of not looking any farther ahead than how to get through today, and leaving the uncertainties of the distant future (i.e., anything past this week) unconsidered. But there are some interesting disjunctions afoot, so once more into the breach:
The last few days has been full of speculation about ways to restart the sports seasons, and oh what speculative ways they are. An NBA tournament entirely in Las Vegas! Stanley Cup games in North Dakota! MLB games at spring training facilities! Only the NFL seems to be talking about playing a regular schedule in front of fans, though California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared Saturday, “I’m not anticipating that happening in this state.”
Meanwhile, the Washington Post skipped asking league officials or political leaders what they’re wishcasting for a sports restart, and instead went to infectious disease experts to see what their best predictions were. And the results weren’t pretty:
- “From my point of view based on data — and I’m huge sports fan, so this is really hard — I can’t really predict or truly speculate,” said Jared Evans, a senior researcher at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. “We need as a population to be prepared for anything. And also be prepared for that disappointment.”
- The best-case scenario, [Stanford infectious-disease doctor Dean] Winslow said, is that social distancing and other restrictive measures combined with higher temperatures lead to a dramatic decrease in cases by late May. “That would potentially give public-health people the incentive to at least consider starting to relax these restrictions,” Winslow said. “That would mean allowing potentially sporting events and concerts and that sort of thing to happen by the early fall.”
The problem with resuming sports even in quarantined spaces without fans, as several experts have pointed out, is that a quarantine only works if you can be sure that nobody within the cordon sanitaire is infected. “There are going to have to be considerations in place as far as making sure the participants are tested,” Evans told the Post. “You have to have an understanding where they were, who they were in contact with.” And if even a single player, or player’s family member, or league official, or camera operator tests positive, then you face the possibility of having to halt play entirely and quarantine everyone for another two weeks before starting up again.
The Post further notes that neither China nor Japan has been able to set a solid date for resuming sports leagues, which would be the best test of what a return to normalcy (or even semi-normalcy) might look like for the rest of the world. Meanwhile, in a worst- or even moderate-case scenario (this remains the best overview of the range of futures we could be facing), we could easily see organized sports entirely suspended until a vaccine can be developed, hopefully in 2021 — though I suppose in the interim you could see smaller groups of negative-testing (or better yet, already recovered from coronavirus) players competing in H-O-R-S-E tournaments or ad hoc War Cup–style competitions.
This, needless to say, would not only make 2020 suck even worse for sports fans, it would wreak havoc on every corner of the baseball economy, as leagues would be left battling with media partners over TV contracts, and teams with fans over ticket sales money, and TV carriers with fans over cable bills. It could also be devastating to leagues without much financial cushion; while global soccer teams might be helped out by FIFA’s huge cash reserves — who knew that one day we’d actually be glad for FIFA’s propensity for stockpiling gold and jewels? — that’s not going to help leagues like the WNBA or minor-league baseball that run on shoestring budgets and have either no parent leagues or ones that actively want them dead, though hopefully they’re at least getting to suspend rent payments during the pandemic, which should cut down on their costs. (Whether public stadium owners absolving teams from rent or at least letting them defer payments counts as subsidies is a question that normally I’d be all over, but under the circumstances we probably have bigger fish to fry.)
In other words, we probably have a lot of Marbula One in our futures. I wonder if the O’raceway was built with public funds…