BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
April is arguably the greatest time of the yearly sports calendar. Opening Day ceremonies rouse fans from winter hibernations as the hope and promise of a new season beats in the chests of baseball fans across the nation. The professional basketball and hockey seasons roar down the stretch as teams jockey for playoff position, with pivotal games dotting the schedule several times a week. The NFL draft season is in full bloom, and projections of which college stars will be chosen later this month are published on a near daily basis.
Not to be outdone, college basketball crescendos three weeks of March Madness with the championship game on the first Monday of the month. The Masters gathers the best golfers on the planet in Augusta as duffers all over the country begin to dust off their drivers as they worship the pros coming around Amen Corner on Sunday’s final round amid the azaleas. The UEFA Champions League brings the best European soccer teams through the quarter-and semi-final rounds, enthralling entire nations of frenzied acolytes.Sports normally feeds the faithful on a daily basis in April, but in 2020, it will be deathly quiet from a sports perspective.
Aside from the NFL draft, which (as of this writing), is planning to proceed as planned starting April 23rd without fans via live video conferencing, none of the events previously referenced will take place. Professional basketball and hockey are suspended indefinitely, and the ultimate crowning of a champion in both sports is an afterthought as the nation, and the world, battle a global pandemic that threatens to get worse before it gets better.
While sports can represent a welcome, popular and incredibly lucrative diversion to our workaday existences, the drama and pageantry of the games is rendered frivolous and entirely insignificant in the fearsome shadow of COVID-19. The virus has infected more than a million people worldwide, resulting in more than 65,000 fatalities, including over 10,000 in the USA alone as of April 6th. The corona virus is the most serious pandemic the planet has seen in at least 100 years, and scientists and epidemiologists around the world still haven’t been able to find an effective vaccine, or to predict how many more will die before they do.
Shortages of testing kits, gloves, masks and ventilators for health care workers and treatment facilities to attend to the afflicted characterize multiple population centers in the USA and around the world. The need for those resources will only grow more acute as the virus rampages through our towns and cities, and may ultimately become as critical to our management of this crisis as finding a vaccine.
Is there a way for sports to play a role in this battle?
The following suggestion does not intend to underplay or to minimize the very real threats to our health, our economy and our very livelihoods that the current situation poses. It is only with an understanding that all of those considerations must be heavily weighted when designing a proposal to revive the sporting events that distract and entertain us that the idea below is brought forward.
Admittedly, there are logistical hurdles to overcome, but a proposal from one sports addled mind envisions a way for the athletes we idolize and deify (and help enrich well beyond any reasonable proportion) to play a role in this struggle.
The plan begins by organizing a process by which the NBA and NHL both complete their seasons with actual games to determine the champions in each sport.
The leadership of each sport, in conjunction with the players, coaches and referees, meet to work out a mutually acceptable conclusion to each regular season, and design the outline for a playoff process. Then, the network entities who own the rights to the regular season games and playoffs would be involved to streamline the logistics of the presentation of the games to fans via television and internet feeds.
These games would need to be contested in neutral, secure and completely COVID-19 free environments, which would necessitate them to be played without fans. The teams would have to insure the health and virus free status of their entire traveling organization, which would likely require true individual isolation of those entities leading up to the contests for 14 days or more. The same would be required of the coaches, referees and arena workers who would staff the venues, as well as the production crews who will be broadcasting the games live. There must be an assurance of an elimination of potential risk to anyone who is involved in this campaign or the entire idea collapses.
The various leagues would have a short ramp-up period to acclimate the athletes to the rigors of daily competition, followed by a shortened finish to the regular season, probably a handful of games in both the NBA and NHL, to complete the playoff picture. Then, the playoffs would begin, featuring a best of three first round, best of five second round, then traditional best of seven conference finals and championship rounds. Given that there would be no “home games”, travel considerations would be minimized, allowing the games to be played on a relatively accelerated schedule. If the seasons were ready to go by July 1, for instance, both leagues could be done by Labor Day.
Once those very crucial considerations can be locked down, the fun starts. Every game, from the regular season contests to the playoffs, generates revenue, the vast majority of which will be directed to COVID-19 management.
▸Broadcasts will sell advertising for the contests televised or streamed, and networks will pledge a significant percentage of those revenues to the fight against the virus. Ratings would be expected to far outperform traditional benchmarks given the lack of competing entertainment options and the collective population being confined to their homes, allowing the networks to sell advertising at a significantly higher rate than normal.
▸Teams will be able to sell uniform patches of their choosing, with most of those funds being directed towards virus treatment and containment strategies. European soccer has long featured uniform advertising, and the NBA has begun down that road over the past two seasons. If ever there were a situation to overcome purists objections to having uniforms festooned with advertising, this is it. If necessity is the mother of invention, this pandemic can be considered the father of resourcefulness.
▸Individual players will feature live streams from their perspectives (on helmets for hockey players, headbands for NBA and soccer players) that will provide audio and video perspectives to fans around the world who would pay relatively nominal fees ($10-20 per person) to see and hear the game from their favorite player’s point of view. Each player would nominate a local (or national) charitable effort that is directly virus related to donate the vast majority of the proceeds of this endeavor. A portion of those funds could also be shared equally among the athlete’s teammates, eliminating the star-centric favoritism inherent in such a venture.
▸Venues that host games would be converted into hospitals or other treatment facilities upon completion of the games, the construction of which is generated by some of the revenue generated by the events held there. Arguments that could reasonably be raised that question the use of any resources to stage sporting events in the face of the crisis would be assuaged knowing that the end result of these efforts will be more money to combat the virus, and more health care facilities to care for those afflicted.
▸Wagering on the games, legalized for these contests, would be encouraged, with at least 15% of all monies wagered on the outcomes passed along directly to virus research. Bettors are used to having to pay a premium for the privilege to do so, and would likely accept a greater rate than usual to benefit the cause in question. Betting centers from around the world would be set up to handle the massive influx of likely action, and would be heavily audited to insure that the revenue being wagered ends up where it is needed most.
It is important, if not instructive, to try to identify where the motivations for the various entities involved in this endeavor might lie, and thus to understand how each might be inclined to go along with such a scheme.
The Networks: The rights fees for the broadcast of NHL and NBA games are sunk costs for the networks, but without games to televise, they can’t generate valuable advertising revenue. The opportunity to sell ads for any and all games played would likely be very enticing, especially considering that they could rely upon much higher ratings than typically expected with much of the country confined to their homes, limiting entertainment options.
The Owners: The owners of the professional sports franchises aren’t generating revenue from ticket sales and other associated event related economies, but they also aren’t paying the players their salaries in full. They would likely be footing the bill for much of the logistical requirements of the plan, so they would have to be assured that they could at least break even during this process. The sale of uniform patches to advertisers would probably be their primary source of revenue to help offset those costs.
The Players: The players want to play games, and earn salaries. The average NHL and NBA player will have between five and six seasons to capitalize on their athletic skill. The idea that they would be losing approximately 10% of their career earnings by skipping the remainder of the regular season and playoffs is certain to hit home. Players would relish the chance to play for a championship, especially players on those teams considered playoff favorites. With the idea of selling pay-per-view video and audio access available to them (a portion of which would be earmarked for division among all roster players), the concept of playing games in empty venues might just be palatable. Their competitive and financial interests would seem to be sufficiently piqued by this idea.
The Fans: Sports fans are starving for content at the moment, so it would be easy to imagine that the chance to see live games contested between professional players as a way to distract from the very real challenges of daily existence in the world of COVID-19 would be remarkably appealing. Those with the means to do so would also fuel the pay-per-view market through individual players, and offer a unique viewing experience that can also be utilized as a tax write-off (charitable donation), easing financial concerns about paying for such a luxury.
Everyone in each of these groups would also have to realize that by their collaboration, potentially millions of dollars would be raised to help fight the pandemic both in the USA and Canada, but in the case of a possible soccer concept of the same design, in the rest of the world as well. When the end result benefits the single biggest challenge humanity has faced in decades, it is feasible to become optimistic about what it would take to overcome the hurdles required to stage these events.
History has seen collaborative efforts on a global scale in the past. Live Aid was staged on seperate continents in 1985 to help raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia and Africa, and resulted in nearly $127 million dollars of donations. It wouldn’t be difficult to project that the net result from NBA, NHL and European soccer broadcasts as described above to propagate enough interest that such a figure would be but a fraction of the total funds made available for COVID-19 relief.
Sports have always represented a way to bring people together, united in a common rooting interest that helps knit families, communities and entire areas. During the current crisis, it would seem that those types of opportunities are few and far between. Fans would know that no matter the outcome of these contests, just the fact that they are played at all could potentially benefit all of humanity. Never before would winning or losing a game seem less important.