Everything sports leagues are getting wrong about letting fans into games, ranked

Another week, another pile of news about sports leagues grappling frantically with what to do about a world where, on the one hand, billions of dollars of revenue are at stake, and on the other, if you let people gather too close to each other for too long, lots of people could die. Let’s start with the NBA, which just completed its successful playoff bubble for the 2019-20 season and is currently trying to figure out how to play next season starting in maybe January:

  •  “Roughly 40 percent of the NBA’s annual $8 billion revenue is tied to arena-related spending on tickets, concessions, parking and merchandise,” notes the Washington Post. Since the NBA salary cap is tied to revenue, this means the league and players will either need to reach an agreement on adjusting that formula for the upcoming season, or seeing draconian cuts in how much each team is allowed to spend.
  • The just-completed playoff bubble worked well, but asking players to spend months more away from their families is likely a non-starter — especially, says the Post, “because the NFL and MLB are operating without bubbles.”
  • NBA commissioner Adam Silver has pointed to “rapid testing” as a necessary advancement before fans can be allowed back in arenas. “If it becomes possible to administer coronavirus tests and get instant results, such a process could be added to the check-in procedure at NBA arenas and facilitate fan attendance,” writes the Post. “‘There are a lot of pharmaceutical companies focused on that,’ Silver said. ‘There’s a huge marketplace for that.'”

Okay, a couple of things here. First off (no, I’m not really going to be ranking these, headline poetic license, sorry), it’s more than slightly worrisome that the MLB and NFL non-bubbles are being used as precedent for the NBA’s plans, since those two have each led to significant outbreaks on several teams. At least these have mostly so far been nipped in the bud by fast quarantines; so if the NBA doesn’t mind scheduling a bunch of makeup doubleheaders, it might work, depending on your definition of “work.”

As for rapid testing: Yes, it is a big problem that testing takes so long right now, as most people are really only able to find out whether they were sick several days ago, which isn’t nearly as helpful from a prevention-of-disease-spread standpoint as finding out if you’re sick right now. But if Adam Silver genuinely thinks you can just scan everybody at the turnstiles and turn away anyone who’s positive and thus create a safe bubble, he needs to read up on how this virus works — for starters, you can be infectious for 48 hours or more before you start testing positive, so while rapid testing could screen out some disease spreaders, it’s hardly a panacea.

The NBA still looks like a bastion of public health concern, though, compared to college football, where the approach is neatly summed up by Lauren Theisen’s Defector article “A Willingness To Risk A Superspreader Event Is Now A Competitive Advantage“:

  • Texas A&M not only admitted 24,709 fans for Saturday’s game against Florida — just under 25% of the 102,733 capacity at Kyle Field; the state of Texas actually allows 50% capacity, though no one’s tried it yet — but it packed fans pretty close together in sections near the field, for maximum intimidation factor, but also minimum social distancing.
  • In response, Florida head coach Dan Mullen now wants his stadium at full 90,000 capacity, “to give us that home-field advantage that Texas A&M had.” The state of Florida has no official limits on fan attendance currently, and Theisen warns that this “could become a dangerous arms race over the next several weeks of the season.”
  • In the largely unregulated world of the NCAA, this is likely to be decided unilaterally by individual schools, just as they’re now deciding whether to cancel games based less on whether they’ve had positive coronavirus tests than on whether they’ve been forced to admit they’ve had them.

And then there’s baseball, which let 10,000 fans (more or less — on TV it looked like less, anyway) into Arlington’s new stadium for last night’s first game of the NLCS between the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers, raking in their first ticket sales of the year. (Though not for outrageous prices by postseason standards, if StubHub is any guide, with some seats available for under $50.) The roof was open and usable seats were distanced, though they appeared not to be staggered by row — it was tough to tell given how the Fox broadcast avoided any crowd shots. And one 9th-inning homer was followed by an image of two bros hugging each other while unmasked, which may help explain why Fox mostly eschewed crowd shots.

How dangerous is all this? We simply don’t know yet. We do know that outdoors is safer than indoors, but also masked is safer than unmasked and distanced is safer than not distanced; whether piling 90,000 college football haphazardly masked college football fans on top of each other outdoors would spread more virus than distributing a few thousand masked-and-rapid-tested NBA fans around an indoor arena is something that we can only know for sure after someone tries it and sees whether it leads to bodies piling up in hospital corridors. There is some promise in reports that universal masking can result in infections that are less deadly, thanks to reduced viral load — basically, less virus at one time may give the immune system a fighting chance. But even then those less-sick people could still go home and spread virus all over a relative who then gets really sick, so it’s still more silver lining than actual solution.

In a sane or at least less profit-driven world, we’d all be waiting for the results of studies like the one in Germany where they simulated virus spread at an actual indoor concert with masked and distanced fans. But that’ll take a while to get the results from, and college football has to be played now, dammit. Instead, we’re likely to get a patchwork of policies, which could be a disaster or could be totally fine, and we won’t know which until after the fact. Just keep in mind that even if it does turn out totally fine, that doesn’t mean it was a good gamble — just because the surgery worked doesn’t mean it was worth the risk. That’s probably an especially hard lesson for sports fans to learn, since sports analysis is so prone to “pinch-hitting with your worst hitter was a genius move, because he ended up hitting a home run!” reactions, but it’s an important one if you want to successfully win games or ward off a virus, more than once in a blue moon.

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6 comments on “Everything sports leagues are getting wrong about letting fans into games, ranked

  1. I know this is a little off topic but… sports cartels have never been shy about allowing people to die/be injured/endure lingering suffering in order to advance their business interests.

    I mean, the very fact that this site exists to parody/ridicule/callout outrageous taxpayer subsidies to millionaires and billionaires should be evidence enough.

    Given that municipalities close or sell off schools and hospitals to fund professional sports venue subsidies (which many have historically done), it’s difficult to argue that anything has really changed in the professional sports extortion game.

    Ordinary people (often ones who don’t or can’t go to games) have always borne the brunt of this system of welfare for billionaires. The poor kids who lose their library, school or local hospital typically aren’t the ones who attend games either.

    That doesn’t make what’s happening “ok”, but it should mean it is not surprising.

    Given the general madness across the nation at the moment, should we really be surprised that the sports world is displaying it too?

  2. “But if Adam Silver genuinely thinks you can just scan everybody at the turnstiles and turn away anyone who’s positive and thus create a safe bubble, he needs to read up on how this virus works”

    Also, if you’re turning people away at that late they’re likely spreading it to others in line to continue the spread, even if you don’t let them in the building. Unless you have a really complicated system with lots of space to get people in, which may work somewhere with a big parking lot, but I don’t see it working in say DC or NYC.

  3. Given yesterday’s turn of events (Florida has shut down their football operations), perhaps Coach Mullen has learned not to mess with the Rona Gods.

    Naaah, probably not.

    1. Florida’s coach Mullen had some comments earlier in the day – after the university said several times they weren’t changing capacity.

      “If you look at what we’ve been able to do … I think we’re a model of safety of what we’ve been doing during this time period. I’m really proud of how we’ve handled everything and how safe we’ve been with everything we’re doing and all the precautions we’ve had in place during this time.”

      He still wanted his 90k fans!

      And then it was reported that around 20% of the team had tested positive and they shut the facility.

      But they made a point of saying that they haven’t canceled this weekends game (yet, anyway).

    2. This is a good headline:

      https://www.newsweek.com/florida-coach-wanted-90000-fans-home-this-week-now-his-players-have-covid-1538880

  4. Regarding the NBA players being away from family, I had an image in my head of a surreal disney ad where the voice over says “you just won the championship what are you going to do now?”

    Player looks into the camera and says “I’m leaving disney world!”

    Pretty much all of them said it was difficult in some way.

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