Why Major Sports Might Risk Comebacks During the Pandemic


Once more, the pronouncements arrived in a torrent, though this time they were about rebirth rather than cancellation.

After months filled with pessimism, hesitation, quiet planning and uncertainty about whether major sports would happen again in 2020, nearly every sport was preparing to come back, provided that work agreements with players could be negotiated and that public health authorities raised no objections.

Player representatives, league officials, lawyers and business consultants who work closely with them say the sudden shift resulted from a mix of dramatic changes few could foresee a month ago.

“Science has advanced,” Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, wrote Wednesday in an email. “We know more than what we did before, and just speaking personally, my expectation is that science will continue to progress forward with therapies, testing and vaccines. I’m actually more optimistic about a vaccine coming early than what others expect.”

Not everyone is as bullish as Cuban about the prospects for a vaccine, with most experts saying one won’t be widely available until at least early next year. And while the coronavirus curve has flattened and testing has increased both nationally and in the hardest-hit areas, it remains below a level that some epidemiologists say is needed to help mitigate future outbreaks.

But with reopening plans underway in all 50 states and with elected officials and the public anxious for business activity to resume, league officials had a growing sense that there would be minimal opposition if they moved ahead with plans.

“The economics of missing an entire season are just really, really bad,” said Irwin Raij, co-chairman of the sports law practice at O’Melveny & Myers, who is in constant contact with numerous team officials and owners.

“We are all going to have to be a little less judgmental,” said Alison Riske, a tennis player who participated in a four-player event last weekend on a private court in the backyard of an estate in Florida, without her usual support team. “We have to roll with the punches.”

J.C. Tretter, the Cleveland Browns center who is president of the N.F.L. Players Association, said the desire to get back was strong, so long as it could happen safely.

“We all love playing football,” Tretter said Friday from Cleveland. “We also love our teammates and our families.”

Regardless of the dire financial consequences the leagues were facing, none would have been able to pursue plans to reopen without the promise of fast, widespread testing.

For two months, league officials could not talk seriously about acquiring the necessary tests without giving the impression that their needs were more important than the general public’s.

During the last two weeks, as testing became more widely available, even in the cities the virus has hit the hardest, such as New York, that concern has diminished. One top sports industry executive, who speaks regularly with the leaders of all the major sports, said the N.B.A. had already secured enough tests to screen all of the players as often as they want. An N.B.A. official, who asked not to be identified because the league’s comeback process is still evolving, confirmed that the testing hurdle had been largely cleared.

Baird said she had finally felt comfortable moving forward when medical experts signed off on an N.W.S.L. plan to test players before they arrive for the tournament in Utah, again when they show up, and then at least weekly during the monthlong competition.

As the major leagues waited for the right moment, they watched NASCAR hold races, golf stage two charity events, European soccer return and tennis pull off a backyard round-robin.

With the United States largely reopening in recent days, the governors of California and New York, the largest states to impose extensive stay-at-home orders, said they would consider sports events without fans, giving hope to league officials.

Even without the expense of having to stage games and pay players, teams need some revenue to cover fixed costs.

Some owners have borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire their teams or to build stadiums.

According to people familiar with its plans, the N.F.L. is weighing a series of scenarios in which it plays with no fans, or with stadiums at varying levels of spectator capacity.

McCarthy, the N.F.L. spokesman, said league was “preparing to play the 2020 N.F.L. season as scheduled and with increased protocols and safety measures for all players, personnel and attendees.” He said health was the league’s “primary focus.”

Playing without fans would hardly be a panacea.

Gate revenues, concessions and other money that fans spend at games account for roughly 25 percent of the N.F.L.’s $15 billion in revenue. Baseball collects about one-third of its $11 billion from the gate. But getting the games on television will generate at least some cash flow — and plenty of attention before fans decide to invest their passion and their disposable income elsewhere.

“You can offset some losses, but this is about going beyond 2020,” Raij said. “They need to keep the fans engaged.”


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