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Volume 26 No. 176

Coronavirus and Sports

MLB team owners said that their local TV money will be slashed by playing in Arizona
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
MLB team owners said that their local TV money will be slashed by playing in Arizona
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
MLB team owners said that their local TV money will be slashed by playing in Arizona
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Reports have circulated this week of MLB possibly looking at opening its season in Arizona without fans, but a pair of MLB owners said that they "would never approve any deal if there are no fans without requiring players to take a significant pay cut -- perhaps as much as 40%," according to Bob Nightengale of USA TODAY. No fans in the stands, no parking revenue and no concessions "wipes out" about $4B of the $10.7B in revenue MLB generated last year. Owners also said that their local TV money will be "slashed by playing in Phoenix." Nightengale notes there also is the "loss of corporate sponsorships, and stadium naming rights considering no games are being played at their ballparks." MLB is "trying everything to keep its hopes of a 2020 season alive, discussing a myriad of ideas, but the risk of playing anytime soon should dwarf the idea that entertainment in our lives will make this deadly virus any less tolerable" (USA TODAY, 4/8).

WORK TO BE DONE: In N.Y., Joel Sherman notes the Arizona plan has "gained the most traction" of anything thus far. But those involved in formation, potential implementation and need for ratification of such a proposal are "quick to mention a massive gulf exists between brainstorming on what is feasible and actually executing a plan considering all the risks and hurdles." MLB has "yet to submit a plan for approval nor has it received a formal green light from any government or health entity on a variety of scenarios that it has mulled." Still, the Arizona idea has "some momentum because behind the scenes it has received support from key government and national medical officials," who recognize the "symbolic value baseball could have for the country." Without a vaccine, MLB and its medical/scientific advisers are "strategizing about just how much risk can be minimized with disciplined practices," and the league is "hearing more frequently that testing will soon be more readily available and that regular testing of players and limiting their exposure outside of the bubble created in Arizona might provide an avenue to restart spring training as early as May" (N.Y. POST, 4/8). NBC Sports' Craig Calcaterra said the idea is only preliminary, as "you have to throw a lot of ideas against the wall.” But the "compacted timeline that came out ... is a bit unrealistic” (“Lunch Talk Live,” NBCSN, 4/7). ESPN’s Mark Teixeira said, “This current plan is completely unrealistic. If you actually look at the logistics … there is no way that you’re going to be able to bring guys to Arizona that early, mobilize them for a couple of weeks and start playing games” (“Get Up,” ESPN, 4/8).

WHATEVER IT TAKES: In Phoenix, Nick Piecoro notes the plan has been "greeted with skepticism from players, some of whom can’t imagine agreeing to be separated from their families for the duration of the season." D-backs C Stephen Vogt said, "I definitely think this is just a first idea that’s being thrown around." He added, "What I took away from this initial proposal is that it shows MLB's dedication to just, hey, we’re trying to do whatever we can to get the longest season possible for the fans, the players and everyone who works in the industry of baseball" (ARIZONA REPUBLIC, 4/8). THE ATHLETIC's Andy McCullough wrote the plan is "either a ray of light during a moment of national disillusion or a dystopian experiment with harrowing downsides." Among MLB players and managers, there is a "combination of excitement and apprehension," with expressions of hope "leavened by concerns about the safety of support staffers, the desert heat, the difficulty of maintaining quarantine and the strain of being separated from their families." However, it is "unclear when, or if, a better option may emerge" (THEATHLETIC.com, 4/8). ESPN's Michael Wilbon said the idea is "forward thinking and forward looking," as MLB "has to make plans (and) not just one plan” ("PTI," ESPN, 4/7).

SOOTHING FOR THE SOUL: In Chicago, Paul Sullivan writes people are "getting antsy for their sports, and the return of baseball would be a soothing balm to a country dealing with the depressing daily updates of the coronavirus pandemic" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 4/8). Also in Chicago, Rick Telander writes, "Crazy. The thing is, it would be baseball. With real major-leaguers playing. How could anyone be against that? Baseball is such a powerful symbol in America" (CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, 4/8). CBSSN's Adam Schein said, "If you're a baseball fan, a sports fan, if you’re someone who needs a distraction during these times, this is obviously some excellent news now" ("Time To Schein," CBSSN, 4/7).

TOUGH SELL: In Newark, Brendan Kuty writes the plan has "many holes" (Newark STAR-LEDGER, 4/8). In Minneapolis, Jim Souhan writes under the header, "Is MLB So Desperate To Squeeze In Season That It Would Put Lives At Risk?" (Minneapolis STAR TRIBUNE, 4/8). In L.A., Bill Shaikin writes under the header, "Plan To Launch MLB Season In A Coronavirus-Free Arizona Bubble Isn’t Airtight" (L.A. TIMES, 4/8). In Philadelphia, Bob Brookover writes playing the games "so the players can be paid and the owners can get their television money is not a good enough reason to start the season" (PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 4/8). In S.F., John Shea writes the plan "seems unrealistic, far-fetched and maybe even inappropriate," not to mention a "logistical nightmare" (S.F. CHRONICLE, 4/8). On Long Island, David Lennon writes if MLB or the CDC or the NIH "can’t devise a successful plan to shield players for up to five months in a major metropolitan area, there’s really no point investing any hope in a baseball season, as much as that stinks." Lennon: "MLB can’t force the issue" (NEWSDAY, 4/8).

For the NHL, a cancellation of its remaining schedule would mean losing out on $1B in revenue
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
For the NHL, a cancellation of its remaining schedule would mean losing out on $1B in revenue
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
For the NHL, a cancellation of its remaining schedule would mean losing out on $1B in revenue
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

The NHL "could be headed for choppy financial waters in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic -- even if teams are able to resume playing games in front of their fans," according to Patrick Johnston of the Vancouver PROVINCE. For the NHL, a cancellation of its remaining schedule "would mean, by most estimates, losing out" on $1B in revenue. That is a "big number, but even in a league that's already heavily built on credit, teams would be able to weather the loss in the short term." But credit rating agency DBRS Morningstar Senior VP/Sports Finance Michael Goldberg said that it is the "long-term picture that bears watching." Goldberg said that even if the NHL were "forced to call off" the rest of this season, it is the '20-21 season that "would have a bigger impact on the NHL's credit situation." He said that there are "two questions for next season" when "determining the ability of teams to finance their operations: Is it even possible for leagues to return to a normal playing schedule next fall -- or whenever it is they can actually begin play -- and how will the pandemic affect things like ticket prices and sponsor revenues?" Goldberg explained, "If there's a delay to start next season, as a lot of teams have to borrow to pay for salaries and other costs, the debt held by the franchise will increase" (Vancouver PROVINCE, 4/8).

SUMMERTIME IS HOCKEY TIME? NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman yesterday said he believes the league can "play into the summer, well into the summer, and even on the NBC platforms." Bettman: "The fact that the Olympics have been postponed gives us a broader window to focus on when and how we can play." But Bettman noted "right now, there is too much uncertainty" to decide when to return to the ice, but "hopefully we'll all know more by the end of April." He said, "We want to be ready to go as soon as we get a green light, and the green light may not be crystal clear because there may still be some places in the country where you can't play and other places where you can" (“Lunch Talk Live,” NBCSN, 4/7). Oilers GM & President of Hockey Operations Ken Holland said that even though it "doesn't look like it right now, time is on the NHL's side." In Edmonton, Robert Tychkowski notes playing well into the summer "seems to be an option everyone is comfortable with, which means there is still plenty of runway left before they have to abort the takeoff." Holland said, "If we have to play hockey in July and August, we'll play hockey in July and August. It's a different world and we have to adjust to what we’re battling against" (EDMONTON SUN, 4/8).

CALL IT OFF? In Buffalo, Harrington & Lysowski offer their thoughts on five "return-to-play scenarios." On the idea of the NHL simply calling the '19-20 season off, Harrington writes, "I don't even want to ponder this and don't understand why so many people are so quick to go down this road. If we can have a tournament and award the Stanley Cup in August or September, why shouldn't we do it? Fans will watch and there won't be the asterisk on the championship." Harrington continued, "There are too many financial ramifications of not playing involving television rights, player escrow, the salary cap and the like to not make every effort to play." But if health officials "say it can't be done, so be it." Lysowski writes, "Here's an idea if the season is canceled: hold a World Cup of Hockey in August or September. Sure, you're probably bumping back the start of next season -- who needs the All-Star Game, anyways -- but you're going to recoup revenue and this would prevent players from not competing in games for seven months. There won't be fans in the seats, but perhaps there will be less risk involved late in the summer" (BUFFALO NEWS, 4/8).

While all sports leagues are looking to return to live game action when it is deemed safe to do so, The Ringer's Bill Simmons said he has the “most confidence in the brain trust” associated with the NBA, including Commissioner Adam Silver and team owners. Simmons said, “Maybe I should trust the NFL the most because those guys are ruthless and they’ll probably figure out the most ruthless way to do this.” The Ringer’s Ryen Russillo said, “The initial reaction is the NBA’s probably the most adaptable. I think they’re the most open-minded of any of the leagues. I don’t even think that’s debatable. But if we’re talking strictly who will get product on the television sets, the NFL is such a heavy favorite Vegas is taking it off the board.” Simmons: “They’ll just tell their players what to do. The NBA -- the players will have a relationship to the decision.” Russillo: “I feel like you’re underestimating … the number of NFL players that will say, ‘Even if there’s a little grey area, a little uncertainty, if things are coming around and we feel better about this but there’s still a level of danger, we don’t care. We’re risking concussions out there’” (“The Bill Simmons Podcast,” The Ringer, 4/5).

TOO MANY ISSUES TO OVERCOME? In Houston, Jonathan Feigen notes the idea of a “cloistered NBA salvaging a season in one location with no fans on site is one of many that could be considered.” However, the idea of “creating an NBA ‘bubble,’ similar to the Major League Baseball discussion about playing an entire season in one central location without fans, would pose enormous challenges.” Infectious disease specialist Dr. Richard Harris: “It sounds insurmountable to me. I assume this is before we get vaccinations. Before we get vaccinations, I’m not sure any of this is perfectly safe. … All it takes is a couple people, and this can start up all over again.” He added, “I just can’t see how you can do this safely. You’d be playing Russian roulette with this if you think you can do this absolutely safely” (HOUSTON CHRONICLE, 4/8).

FACE OF THE MOMENT: ESPN Radio’s Mike Golic Jr. noted Silver is “out in front of a camera … whenever we hear news about what’s going on in the NBA.” Golic: “Adam is a face for all this stuff. When we heard about the conference call with the President of the United States, it was Adam Silver speaking up on that call. It was him taking questions on Twitter the next day. Why is that not happening in other leagues?” (“Golic & Wingo,” ESPN Radio, 4/8).

Gundy said that college football must be played, with or without fans in the stands
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Gundy said that college football must be played, with or without fans in the stands
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Gundy said that college football must be played, with or without fans in the stands
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy has set May 1 as the "goal date" for when he "hopes to begin bringing back staff members through testing" for coronavirus, according to Jacob Unruh of the OKLAHOMAN. Players would "soon follow, though that can't officially happen until a month later, per Big 12 rules banning all in-person activities through May 31." Gundy said, "The plan right now is for that to start on May 1. It might get backed up two weeks. I don't know. I can't make that call. But if it does, we'll start with the employees of this company -- the ones that come in this building. Then we'll bring the players in. Slowly but surely, we'll test 'em all in." OSU in a statement last night responded to Gundy's comments, saying, "We will adhere to the advice of public health experts who are making informed decisions in the best interest of the citizens of our nation and state based on sound scientific data. We will also abide by the federal and state mandates as well as Big 12 guidelines." Meanwhile, Gundy yesterday also said that college football "must be played, with or without fans in the stands," and he believes the season "will start on time" (OKLAHOMAN, 4/8). OSU AD Mike Holder also "declined to back Gundy's timeline." Holder in a statement said, "May 1 seems a little ambitious" (ESPN.com, 4/7).

CASTING SOME DOUBT: Gundy said that he "hopes that coronavirus testing can begin for all 100 employees of the OSU program" by his May 1 target date. Gundy said that once each person is cleared, that person "can return to Boone Pickens Stadium and 'get back to work.'" In Tulsa, Bill Haisten notes after coaches and support staff are "in place," each of the 105 OSU players "would be tested." But Haisten wonders, "For people who are asymptomatic, will tests be that commonly available by May 1?" In addition, only three of those 105 players "currently are in Stillwater" while the rest are "scattered all over North America." Mass testing "would require incredibly precise coordination" (TULSA WORLD, 4/8).

IRRESPONSIBLE PLAN: USA TODAY's Dan Wolken writes under the header, "Mike Gundy's Latest Ridiculous Comments Out Of Touch With Reality Of Coronavirus." Gundy is "pushing for something different, something so tone-deaf that it's obvious he sees himself not as part of an institution of higher education but as the head of a professional franchise that operates as a separate entity entirely." Gundy said that he "didn't see a problem with a college football team being on campus while the rest of the school was shut down." Wolken: "That's not just ridiculous, it's self-defeating." If Gundy "hasn't realized by now that the current coronavirus situation is not going to end based on the college football schedule, he's probably never going to get it" (USA TODAY, 4/8). SI.com's Pat Forde wrote Gundy's statements "could be considered ignorant" or "dangerous" or both (SI.com, 4/7).

Sports leaders are performing a difficult balancing act between the financial incentive to return to play as soon as possible and the social responsibility to keep their employees and fans safe. The pressure to responsibly lead is shared by team and league executives and players alike. On the most recent episode of the “SBJ Unpacks -- Weathering COVID-19” podcast, our Bill King speaks with communications consultant and attorney Matthew Hiltzik about how to talk to fans, staff, sponsors and each other during this unprecedented global crisis.

On how athletes can best use their platform and resources to support their communities:
Hiltzik: There’s a helplessness a little bit that athletes have about not always knowing how to do that, and here, I think it’s really important to follow guidance from the mayors and governors and other community leaders who really have an understanding of where the needs are.

On how leagues and team owners can navigate the minefield of reopening their sports:
Hiltzik: Ensure the safety and security and the comfort level of the athletes and of everybody else involved with the teams and the leagues and the employees and make sure you’re taking steps so that you’re adding to the dialogue more broadly in a positive way. … The commissioners are fairly wise men who have learned things. The leagues will be smart about it.

On how sports leagues can avoid a public relations debacle by having a player test positive for COVID-19 after rebooting the leagues:
Hiltzik: A lot of it is understanding that the best preparation is to not start until you’ve decreased the likelihood of that happening so significantly that you won’t have to make necessarily the same contingency plans. I think being patient is probably the most important thing. ... This is more of a science issue than a media or communications issue, and if you’re following those processes right, then you can just share and communicate them and be very transparent about what your plans are.

On advice he would give sports leaders who communicate their plans with the public:
Hiltzik: Things like that are going to continue, where someone who has significant means is going to be questioned or tested a little bit about how are they caring about their communities and their players. ... Say, "Look, we’re looking at the big picture." Strategically, and philosophically, when we look at things, we try to look at the medium-to-long term interests, understanding that short term can have an effect on that, but you have to really keep that longer view.

Learfield IMG College has instituted a 90-day cost-savings plan that includes furloughs and salary reductions across a portion of its 2,200 employees. The company, which owns the multimedia rights to 200 colleges, said that its finances have been adversely affected by the coronavirus pandemic and these personnel moves were in response to lost revenue from canceled college basketball tournaments and spring sports. "We've instituted a temporary cost-savings plan, but we haven’t eliminated any jobs. We see these as temporary measures for a temporary problem," the company said in a statement. This is a tough way for Cole Gahagan to take over the company -- he was promoted to President & CEO last week, replacing longtime company chief Greg Brown. Learfield IMG College already had encountered financial headwinds from last year's integration of the two companies after the merger and COVID-19 has only contributed to it. Learfield IMG College did not say specifically how many employees are affected by the cuts or how much of a pay reduction they took. The execs who make the most took the biggest hits, the company said. The company over the last few days has been reaching out to ADs and sponsors to share the news about furloughs because their point of contact might be changing at the property level.

Arum now hopes that Fury-Wilder III will be able to take place sometime in the fall
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Arum now hopes that Fury-Wilder III will be able to take place sometime in the fall
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Arum now hopes that Fury-Wilder III will be able to take place sometime in the fall
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Top Rank Chair Bob Arum said that while MMA is set to resume with UFC 249 on April 18, boxing "will not be following suit anytime soon," according to Case Keefer of the LAS VEGAS SUN. Arum said, "All the boxing promoters realize we're in this together and we’ve got to cancel the events and keep them canceled until we get the all-clear from the governmental authorities." Keefer notes at present, Top Rank's schedule, which included a pair of title fights this month, "remains in limbo." But Arum is "preaching patience to his stable of fighters," understanding the "desperation from fighters to stay active, even in the midst of a global pandemic." Keefer notes fighters, as independent contractors, "don’t get paid unless they perform, leaving many in a panic to make ends meet as bouts are canceled." Regarding Fury-Wilder III, which was postponed late last month, Arum now "hopes that fight can take place in the fall instead, but thinks putting any firm timetable in place is a mistake" (LAS VEGAS SUN, 4/8).

WHY THE SURPRISE? In L.A., Dylan Hernandez writes the "defiance that UFC President Dana White showed this week when announcing Tony Ferguson would fight Justin Gaethje on April 18 was founded in the same us-against-the-world spirit that fueled the rise of what was once a fringe sport." Still, that "doesn't mean the upcoming show should be staged." Hernandez: "Sports inspire, but in this case, what would they be promoting? The idea that collective efforts to slow the spread of the virus should be disregarded?" This "socially irresponsible but undeniably creative form of problem solving used to be the trademark of MMA's drunk uncle, boxing" (L.A. TIMES, 4/8).

Elkington said that the matchups will all be at private venues that are closed to the public
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Elkington said that the matchups will all be at private venues that are closed to the public
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Elkington said that the matchups will all be at private venues that are closed to the public
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Golfer Steve Elkington and his partners have created the "Secret Golf Match Play Series for COVID-19 Relief," which will "consist of up to six matches that will be played prior to the continuation of the PGA Tour season," according to Adam Schupak of GOLFWEEK. The matches are "expected to be shown on television -- negotiations are ongoing and event production is pending discussions with the PGA Tour -- and streamed via the Internet to a global audience along with a companion app that includes exclusive behind the scenes and interactive content." Among those "committed to partake in the stroke-play matches" are Marc Leishman, Jason Dufner, Russell Knox, Andrew Landry, Ryan Palmer and Pat Perez. Each has been "allowed to challenge a player of their choice to face them that may not be on its roster of more than 30 tour pros, male and female." Potential women Secret Golf ambassadors include Stacy Lewis, Brittany Lincicome and Gerina Piller. Elkington said that the matchups will all be at "private venues that are closed to the public." Schupak noted players will "wear microphones as they talk, interact and informally educate fans about the shots they are going to hit and just hit." Elkington "will provide on-course commentary and color throughout the match." Proceeds from these events "will go to the charitable foundations of participating players as well as the United Way Pandemic Relief Fund" (GOLFWEEK.com, 4/7).

F1 teams are "working long hours to accelerate the production of much-needed ventilators, and across athletics many sporting goods manufacturers are repurposing their factory floors and lending their equipment, material and know-how in a widening team effort to fight Covid-19." Bauer now is "turning out larger plastic face shields, similar to welding masks, to be used by hospital workers." New Balance is "making cloth face masks for doctors, nurses and hospital staff." N.C.-based TheMagic5, which produces goggles for competitive swimmers, has been "sending custom-built goggles at cost ($15) to several dozen emergency medical workers, nurses and doctors in New York" (N.Y. TIMES, 4/8).

PANTHERS GIVING SUPPORT: NHL Panthers G Sergei Bobrovsky "pledged $100,000 to cover the salaries of the 200-plus part-time workers at the BB&T Center." After Bobrovsky made his donation, teammates "jumped on board" and team Owner Vinnie Viola "pledged to cover the rest and to make the employees whole until they can get back to work." Bobrovsky also is "working with the Panthers' Foundation to equip first responders and medical workers with N95 masks" (THEHOCKEYNEWS.com, 4/7). Meanwhile, the Panthers are hosting a "Territory Trot Virtual 5K" to support the club's foundation and its relief efforts around COVID-19. All participants will be asked to pay a minimum of $10 as they run through their neighborhoods, yards and homes April 17-20. The Panthers are encouraging fans to share videos of their run using the hashtag #TerritoryTrot, so they can re-distribute the content across social media. Baptist Health South Florida is sponsoring the health and charitable initiative (Mark J. Burns, THE DAILY).

GETTING AN EXTRA PUSH: The NHL Kings, barely a week after the NHL season was suspended last month, "launched a 'Blood and Pucks' initiative, offering two free tickets to games next season to any healthy fan" who goes into Children's Hospital Los Angeles' clinic to donate blood. In-house donations from CHLA's more than 5,000 employees have "helped, but so too has the Kings' doubling-down on donation efforts." While the hospital "doesn't track exactly how many walk-ins are a result of the Kings' marketing efforts, the anecdotal evidence has been overwhelming" (L.A. TIMES, 4/8).

STEPPING UP: Falcons Owner Arthur Blank created a $1M "emergency relief fund for associates and gameday workers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium." The fund will "provide assistance for the venue's event-based associates, including those employed by third-party companies Levy Restaurants and SAFE Management." Blank, who also owns Atlanta United, "already pledged to pay all of his hourly workers." In addition, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation is distributing $5.4M to "organizations in Georgia and Montana for immediate and long-term assistance" (PROFOOTBALLTALK.com, 4/7).

EVERYONE DOING THEIR PART: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar "provided 900 pairs" of safety goggles for UCLA Health workers and "another 900 pairs for those working on the front lines at Scripps Health in San Diego" (L.A. DAILY NEWS, 4/8)....Sabres LW Jeff Skinner over the past week made "three separate $53,000 donations -- a reference to his jersey number, 53 -- to Covid-19 related causes in Buffalo" (BUFFALO NEWS, 4/8)....Astros P Joe Smith and his wife, Turner Sports' Allie LaForce, yesterday "engineered the delivery of 350 to 500 meals" to Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital (HOUSTON CHRONICLE, 4/8)....Austin FC collaborated on a group effort to get meals from Torchy's Tacos, Emojis Grilled Cheese Bar and P. Terry’s Burger Stand "delivered directly to the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis." The deliveries served "about 1,000 workers at St. David's HealthCare facilities" (AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN, 4/8)....Falcons DT Grady Jarrett is "providing meals to first responders in the city of Atlanta and Rockdale County throughout April." He will "provide nearly 5,000 meals by the end of this month" (ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION, 4/8).

CAMPUS CONTRIBUTIONS: Ohio State football coach Ryan Day, men's basketball coach Chris Holtmann and AD Gene Smith are "combining to donate $35,000 per month from April through August to the Mid-Ohio Foodbank's COVID-19 Emergency Fund." Each $1 donated "results in more than $9 of groceries purchased," so the "total donation of $175,000" will result in more than $1.5M in groceries (Cleveland PLAIN DEALER, 4/8)....Univ. of Oregon football coach Mario Cristobal and his family yesterday "sent the Eugene Police Department boxed lunches to the Eugene Police Department" (Portland OREGONIAN, 4/8).