Sports came back in 2020. Now comes the hard part.
By Mathew Futterman
Professional sports figured out how to sputter back to life over the past three months.
The NBA finished its season with LeBron James on top again. The NHL has a new Stanley Cup champion. The WNBA also delivered a title team, including two of its biggest stars. The NFL is charging ahead despite a series of positive coronavirus tests among some of its 32 teams. And Major League Baseball this week, if all goes as planned, will become the latest elite sports league to pull off the small miracle of completing a season that once appeared beyond hope.
Against all odds, and with their financial futures threatened as never before, the leagues deployed aggressive, rapid-response testing that remains out of reach for the general public. Keeping spectators out or severely limiting attendance, they apparently avoided the calamity of a virus death traced to an event. And they pushed through, their schedules overlapping as never before, as the country was reeling from the pandemic and politics, and was not necessarily watching.
When things looked dire, as when NBA players refused to take the court in protest of the police killings convulsing the country, it took former President Barack Obama to step in and keep the action going, telephoning a group of players led by Chris Paul and James and persuading them not to abandon the season.
In a late-night call, after an acrimonious player meeting on Aug. 26 appeared to leave the season hanging in the balance, the former president, a fan of the game who is friendly with basketball luminaries, stressed to the players that they would be giving up a powerful platform if they stopped playing. Seen as something of a wise elder of the sport, he urged them to demand specific actions from the league before agreeing to return. (They resumed play in exchange for commitments from the league to work toward increased voting opportunities and to press for social change.)
Now comes the hard part.
The leagues succeeded because they are enormously wealthy. They had enough money not just to administer comprehensive testing but also to pivot quickly and do things that would have seemed unimaginable in the past, like relocating the Toronto Blue Jays to Buffalo, N.Y., and closing off hundreds of basketball and hockey players in bubble environments in two Canadian cities and at Disney World in Florida for two months.
Now the leagues have to figure out how to do it again as infection numbers have reached a record daily high in the United States, making it unclear how to protect players and personnel without spending exorbitantly again.
Baseball recently released its 2021 schedule with an April 1 opening day, but Commissioner Rob Manfred last week essentially said the schedule was little more than a series of dates on a calendar.
“The reality is all planning for 2021 for us, and for every other business in America, has to have an asterisk next to it in terms of what the course of the virus is going to be,” Manfred said on ESPN Radio.
Resorting to bubbles seems unrealistic for an entire season. And going without ticket sales and money from overpriced hot dogs, beer, T-shirts and parking has produced plenty of deep-red balance sheets.
The NHL, which should now be in the third week of the 2020-21 season, is targeting a Jan. 1 start date but has yet to post a schedule, as the U.S.-Canadian border remains closed. On Thursday, the league announced it was postponing its All-Star Game and the Winter Classic, an outdoor game scheduled for New Year’s Day.
The Lakers won the NBA championship on Oct. 11, ending a season just weeks before the next one would normally start. League officials have yet to say when play will start again.
“We will react to the state-of-the-art science,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. “I can’t say when, but I can say that whatever we do we will do with safety being our top priority.”
Casey Wasserman, the owner of a sports marketing and talent firm who has close relationships with the leaders of several leagues, said he was confident the NHL and the NBA would aim to start their seasons by early winter, perhaps with slightly shorter schedules of roughly 70 games, and to complete their playoffs in June, as usual, so they can return to normal schedules for the 2021-22 season.
Major League Soccer is considering starting sometime in April rather than in early March. The WNBA played 22 regular-season games this year instead of 34, as in 2019, but it ended at roughly the same time, putting less pressure on scheduling for next year.
Where allowed, teams will admit spectators in limited numbers, as some NFL teams have done. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays are playing the World Series at a neutral stadium in Arlington, Texas, that is about 20 percent full.
Still, as they so often do, sports are serving as a reflection of society. No one can say when most people will stop fearing large crowds, and the steps toward normalcy have had setbacks riddled with positive coronavirus tests.
Even with payment from media contracts, teams and leagues still stand to lose billions without fans in seats. Spectator spending brings in roughly 25 percent of the NFL’s $15 billion in revenue, about one-third of baseball’s revenue and roughly 40 percent of the NBA’s. For other sports, such as hockey, soccer and tennis, the share is substantially higher.
Also, for any number of reasons — including too much competition, an oxygen-sucking presidential election and a distaste for watching games in empty stadiums — millions of fans have largely rejected the version of pro sports that the pandemic has wrought.
Television ratings plummeted for nearly every league — 61 percent for the Stanley Cup playoffs compared with 2019, 49 percent for the NBA finals, and more than 40 percent for the U.S. Open tennis and golf tournaments and for baseball’s playoffs.
Ratings for the NFL, which did not have to alter its traditional schedule, have fallen the least, by 13 percent.
Throughout all the ups and downs, constant testing has been vital. Every league entered a contract with a private lab to perform multiple tests each week and produce rapid results, usually within 24 hours. NFL players are tested and screened for symptoms every day.
Already the league has conducted more than 450,000 tests, and the handful of positive cases have come not from the gridiron but from off-the-field activities like dining, according to the league and the players union. In Major League Soccer, tests occur every other day and the day before each match.
“The only way any of this happens is with vigorous testing and the protocols working in tandem,” said George Atallah, a spokesman for the NFL Players Association. “Testing alone is not enough. It puts everyone in the right frame of mind, but also gives a false sense of security. It’s not a ticket to ignore the protocols and do whatever you want.”
Agreements on testing, safety protocols and pay were crucial to persuading players to return for the 2020 seasons, but only the NFL has figured out how to manage its finances beyond this year.
In July, the NFL and the players association agreed to share the financial pain. The limit on each team’s player salaries, known as the “salary cap,” is currently $198.2 million. It will probably drop next year, but it cannot go lower than $175 million, with further adjustments possible in future seasons depending on how quickly life and pro football return to normal.
Other leagues still must find a way to get their players to share the burden of lost revenue without alienating stars like James, who is supposed to make nearly $40 million next season. Baseball, which nearly called off its season in July as owners and players bickered for weeks over pay, may face another bitter labor fight during the winter.
Wasserman remains optimistic.
“Everyone’s interests are really aligned here,” Wasserman said. “Right now everyone is just trying to grind through the year. In total, it’s 18 months of pain, and sports will be back.”