Coronavirus and Sports: The Week After
Even though the Coronavirus is just starting to spread in the US, the effects on the sports industry have already been monumental. We have seen the NBA, MLS, NCAA, NHL, and MLB either cancel or temporarily postpone their seasons with other leagues around the world, mirroring these efforts to contain the transmission of the virus. For those that only delayed the conclusion of their season, as we see the severity of the virus increase, it becomes increasingly possible that we may not see these leagues for a very long time. It is easy to be upset at the absence of sports for the foreseeable future, especially as we are facing a prolonged stay at home without any sports to entertain us; however, much more is at stake than our personal enjoyment. As we are well aware, sports are a business, but the Coronavirus is hurting more than just the financial bottom line of these leagues. Many people rely upon the sports industry for their income, each having more at stake than the owners or the players.
The English Premier League joined most sports leagues in suspending their season. In all likelihood, all of the teams in the English Premier League will be just fine after Coronavirus passes, but that cannot be said for every other club in England. The soccer leagues in England run on a tier system in which teams are promoted or relegated based on their performance, creating an integrated hierarchy of teams across many divisions. It is easy to focus on these top tier teams because that is what most fans are used to watching and who they support, but there are smaller clubs that are reliant upon fan attendance to finance their operations. Fifth-tier side Barnet FC has had to lay off all non-playing staff because of their inability to pay them in the absence of continued play. The club is currently only employing players and their head manager due to a clause in his contract preventing a short-notice termination. The earliest that Barnet would be able to play again is April 3, but it seems likely for that to be delayed. Barnet is undoubtedly not the only team that will feel these effects. If Barnet succumbs to financial burdens, and other clubs inevitably follow, the whole hierarchy of English soccer may suffer, undoubtedly impacting the top rung of the ladder, the English Premier League.
In an address to the 56,000 people working in the German soccer industry, the German Bundesliga’s chief executive Christian Seifert reminded us that “It’s not only about the stars. More is at stake than just a few matches.” With the suspension of play likely to continue for the foreseeable future, Seifert notes the possibility of several clubs going bankrupt due to the lack of broadcasting, sponsoring, and ticketing income. The fact that the Bundesliga, one of the most prominent soccer leagues in the world, is facing the potential of individual clubs going bankrupt, is a scary prospect for leagues all over the world, in all sports.
When sports leagues do inevitably return, the world will be a different place than it is now. The concept of social distancing will have been the norm for a good amount of time, and I don’t see too many people jumping at the opportunity to pack a stadium for a basketball or soccer game. When these leagues do return, it will likely be with empty stadiums with the gradual reintroduction of fans to games, probably limiting the number in attendance. The notion of sports coming back as a cure for the ailments of these teams’ financial burdens is a false one. It will probably be a long time before we see teams operating their stadiums at full capacity and earning their standard level of ticketing and sponsorship income.
In light of the adverse effects of Coronavirus on sports, there have been some positive side effects. We often hear of the cutthroat nature of the sports industry or using the notion that sports are a business as an excuse for inhuman treatment of athletes; however, the Coronavirus pandemic has shown that some in the business still are human. We’ve seen Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, pledge to pay arena employees while the NBA is suspended. Later, roughly half of NBA teams announced a plan to help arena employees during the NBA’s hiatus. We’ve also seen players join the movement to support team employees. Zion Williamson, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Love, and Blake Griffin have all committed to helping out their organization’s employees in this troubling time. I foresee many more leagues, teams, and players following in these footsteps, helping to alleviate the struggles that hundreds of thousands of employees that help set the stage for Zion and others to perform. Hopefully, this support continues as many employees see the sports drought through a very different lens than us fans.