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Volume 26 No. 174

Coronavirus and Sports

Andrew Cuomo's comments could open the door for Knicks basketball to return to MSG
Photo: NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
Andrew Cuomo's comments could open the door for Knicks basketball to return to MSG
Photo: NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
Andrew Cuomo's comments could open the door for Knicks basketball to return to MSG
Photo: NBAE/GETTY IMAGES

The governors of New York, California and Texas yesterday "expressed support for a return of major professional sports from their coronavirus-related shutdowns in the coming weeks, telling leagues that they should come up with plans if they want to host in those states," according to Oskar Garcia of the N.Y. TIMES. However, a "key caveat for all three states would be having no fans present." New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, “Hockey, basketball, baseball, football, whoever can reopen. We’re a ready, willing and able partner." Cuomo added that he had been "encouraging the leaders of major sports leagues to tailor their plans to television audiences." Cuomo’s support of sports’ returning could also "create a path" for tennis' U.S. Open, scheduled for Aug. 31-Sept. 13, to stay in Queens. Organizers have "considered alternative sites, including options in Florida and California." California Gov. Gavin Newsom yesterday said, “Sporting events, pro sports in that first week or so of June without spectators and modifications and very prescriptive conditions, also can begin to move forward." Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott "included sporting events in broader plans for reopening" (N.Y. TIMES, 5/19). YAHOO SPORTS' Dan Wetzel wrote this is the "clearest sign yet that pro sports at least are going to have the opportunity to give this year a go" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 5/18).

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH? Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said that he spoke with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred "earlier in the day" yesterday. THE ATHLETIC's Nicki Jhabvala noted after "reviewing the league’s extensive COVID-19 protocols that it proposed to players, Polis gave the green light to hold games in Colorado once the sides agree to a deal." Having games in any capacity "appeared to be a longshot just a month ago," and how MLB’s plan unfolds "could dictate the future of the NFL" (THEATHLETIC.com, 5/18).

STILL UNDER CAUTION: In Pennsylvania, Zach Sturniolo notes NASCAR "may hit the track" at Pocono Raceway as scheduled in late June if Monroe County "reaches the yellow phase of Governor Tom Wolf’s re-opening strategy in time." As the county "sits in the red, no official decisions have been made, though Gov. Wolf said Friday he had been in discussion with the sport’s sanctioning body" (POCONO RECORD, 5/19).

IMPACT ON CALIFORNIA: California's Newsom said he has spoken with “league representatives from all the major league sports.” In L.A., Bill Shaikin notes Manfred has recently "lobbied Newsom and other governors, assuring them the league could obtain the necessary coronavirus tests without depriving the local community." Manfred also has "arranged to convert the Utah laboratory used for minor league drug tests into a facility designated to process coronavirus tests." Newsom just a week earlier "stopped well short of endorsing the MLB plan to play fan-free games in home ballparks." Shaikin notes the "ultimate decision" on games returning will rest with each county (L.A. TIMES, 5/19). 

TRAINING DAYS: In S.F., John Shea notes Newsom's announcement "makes it possible the Bay Area teams would hold workouts at Oracle Park and the Coliseum rather than their Arizona facilities." One source called holding training camps in the Bay Area versus Arizona a “coin flip.” Arizona-based facilities are "more conducive to practicing, but high temperatures in the desert make it less than ideal." The 49ers are "scheduled to open training camp in late July at their Santa Clara facility and face the Raiders in their first preseason home game Aug. 21." Newsom on May 7 said that fans "wouldn’t be permitted into stadiums or arenas until a vaccine for the coronavirus emerges" (S.F. CHRONICLE, 5/19).

FINDING THE POSITIVES: In Houston, Brian Smith writes, "You take what you can get during these unbelievable times." The "return of 'professional sporting events in Texas' is the best news this sports columnist has heard in a while." At a time when good news "feels golden," the three most populous U.S. states "agreeing on the same thing right now surely represents something positive" (HOUSTON CHRONICLE, 5/19). In Ft. Worth, Mac Engel writes if Texas Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick "wants to show the type of leadership that people will have no choice but to respect, he needs to be the first one through the gate to have his ticket scanned." On May 15, Patrick made a "well-reasoned case to have fans return to sporting events in an op-ed published in The Dallas Morning News." He estimates a venue "could fill 30 percent of its capacity." Engel: "We don’t need sports. We need signs that we can gather in the same spot without any additional fear." Fans going back to sporting events is a "sign that a degree of safety is back" (Ft. Worth STAR-TELEGRAM, 5/19).

Agreeing on new safety protocols will be "difficult enough, but the more contentious challenge" for MLB and the MLBPA "might be resolving player salaries for a shortened 2020 season," according to Rosenthal & Drellich of THE ATHLETIC. It "seems almost unfathomable that an economic dispute might prevent a season from occurring, but the parties currently are entrenched in their positions," as the union "believes a resolution already is in place, while the league has yet to offer an alternative." The league says that the union "needs to drop its stance that the salary matter is closed before it makes a new proposal." But the union "does not think it should discuss sacrificing additional pay until the league demonstrates its financial distress with hard evidence." Rosenthal & Drellich noted the deadline to reach a new agreement, "if the season is to begin in early July, probably is around June 1." If owners do not want to pay the full pro-rated salaries, as they initially agreed to in March, "nothing forces players to take an additional pay cut." However, conversely, if players do not agree to renegotiate, "nothing forces the owners to start the season." The "worst-case scenario is that no games are played, one or both sides files a grievance and an arbitrator is left to decide potentially a half season’s worth of salaries, a process that could take years to complete and would cripple the sport" (THEATHLETIC.com, 5/18).

MLB's proposed health-and-safety protocols show that several new accommodations must be made
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
MLB's proposed health-and-safety protocols show that several new accommodations must be made
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
MLB's proposed health-and-safety protocols show that several new accommodations must be made
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

WORK LEFT TO DO: The WALL STREET JOURNAL's Jared Diamond writes baseball "might be played this summer -- but for everyone involved, it won’t be much fun." As "careful and thorough" as MLB’s new safety protocols look, they serve as a "stark reminder of the enormity of the undertaking at hand." Even the league "seems to recognize the challenge ahead" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 5/19). SPORTSNET.ca's Shi Davidi wrote MLB's proposed health-and-safety protocols serve as both a "starting point toward a potential return to play and an acceptance that with the coronavirus in our midst, the old normal is gone, and many unthinkable accommodations must be made." But for baseball and other sports to resume, for "life to really begin again, acceptance is the only path forward" (SPORTSNET.ca, 5/18). ESPN's Jeff Passan said the timetable is getting tight, as the parties have “a couple of weeks” to get Spring Training started by mid-June. Passan: "There's so much logistically that needs to get done" ("Get Up," ESPN, 5/19).

NOT A GOOD LOOK: In Detroit, John Niyo writes under the header, "Money Matters Could Cook Up A Bad Look For MLB." The virus will have the "final word on all this, but it’s not taking sides in a labor fight." The fans "might, though, and they tend to side with the owners in these matters." Both sides must "realize some things are more important than the bottom line." Niyo: "Turning a pandemic into a proxy war for the next labor fight isn't just bad business. It’s insulting" (DETROIT NEWS, 5/19).

Rockets Owner Tilman Fertitta during a roundtable White House meeting with restaurant execs told President Trump that "momentum is building for the NBA to resume its season," according to Jonathan Feigen of the HOUSTON CHRONICLE. Fertitta was giving his presentation yesterday about how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted Landry’s Inc. when Trump "asked if the NBA will return this season." Fertitta responded, "What they’re doing is waiting to see what happens in certain states and if we’re going to be able to play, making sure the virus continues to go in the right direction in the next few weeks. If things keep going the way that it’s going the past few weeks, I think the NBA, commissioner Adam Silver -- who has done an unbelievable job through this -- and the 30 owners will make the decision to try to start the season up again.” Trump then "asked if the NBA will finish its regular season or move directly to the playoffs." Fertitta: "There’s talk about finishing the season, playing X amount of games. The players need to play to get paid. Right now, they’re taking a 25 percent pay cut. They own 50 percent of our revenues, the players, unlike the other sports. So they want that revenue, the television revenue, even if it’s not the ‘people in the stands’ revenue, so they can get paid. I think we would play games just to get it going again and create the interest and then go right into the playoffs" (HOUSTON CHRONICLE, 5/19).

RESTAURANT REPORT: Fertitta, the billionaire CEO of Landry’s, asked President Trump and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to create an additional category to the Paycheck Protection Program for the “larger private restaurateur” and to “do something with lease terminations” to provide his company financial relief during the pandemic. Fertitta explained that he had to "lay off 40,000 employees from his chain of full-service restaurants in March and that he had recently borrowed '$300 million at 12 percent' interest because he 'needed the liquidity to keep the company afloat.'" Fertitta also told Trump that he had "applied for and received PPP funding for Landry’s but that he 'sent it back and did not spend a dollar of it' because he had been criticized for the layoffs and was worried that he would be perceived as 'that billionaire who took the money from the little business'" (WASHINGTON POST, 5/19).

Monumental Sports & Entertainment Founder, Chair & CEO Ted Leonsis said that he "believes when the NBA, NHL and WNBA seasons resume amid the coronavirus pandemic, it will happen in host cities rather than in every team’s home arena," according to Matthew Paras of the WASHINGTON TIMES. Appearing on CNN’s “The Situation Room,” Leonsis said that he is "optimistic for the leagues to start up again, but added it would have to do so without fans." Leonsis: "We will try to create a safe haven, a bubble where the players and the NHL would pick a couple of arenas in North America, maybe a couple in Canada, and just put 40 or 50 people in each organization in a hotel, and then shuttle them to the arena, test them very often and just make sure that we can play the games and get to the playoffs. Not only do we owe the programming to the networks, but we owe it to our fans, and you’d like to be able to compete for the Stanley Cup and not have an asterisk" (WASHINGTON TIMES, 5/19). 

TIME TO GET IT RIGHT: Leonsis said that "leagues 'need to be very, very cognizant' of helping their broadcast partners, such as Turner, Disney and ESPN, which rely heavily on sports programming, and did not offer a timetable for a potential return." He added, “We have a lot of time to do it. There really isn’t the stress of when would a next season start, and so we get a chance to do our planning and create the protocols that really will maximize the safety for our players.” Leonsis noted that the defending WNBA champion Washington Mystics were scheduled to open the season against the L.A. Sparks at Entertainment and Sports Arena on Saturday and said, “We had to have a virtual celebration with our fans on some of the social media channels" (WASHINGTON POST, 5/19). 

Bettman said the NHL would need to resolve border issues to reconvene the players in full
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Bettman said the NHL would need to resolve border issues to reconvene the players in full
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Bettman said the NHL would need to resolve border issues to reconvene the players in full
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said that the league is "looking at 'probably eight or nine different places' that can accommodate 'a dozen or so teams in one location' as it explores options for resuming the season," according to Nicholas Cotsonika of NHL.com. Bettman during LeadersWeek Direct yesterday said that the NHL "would need to resolve border and quarantine issues to reconvene the players, 17 percent of whom are outside North America, the rest of whom are spread around the continent." Cotsonika noted if the NHL "uses centralized locations, it probably would need the ability to play multiple games per day without fans." The league also "would need the hotel space to house teams and the capacity to test personnel for COVID-19 without doing so at the expense of the medical community." Bettman: "I am told that there can be enough capacity, and certainly over the next couple of months, there will be more capacity. But that is a fundamental question, and we certainly can't be jumping the line in front of medical needs" (NHL.com, 5/18). 

THE NEW NORMAL? A 24-team postseason proposal is being discussed for when the NHL returns, and in Toronto, Michael Traikos writes fans should not be "surprised if it becomes the norm." Adding eight more teams into the playoffs this season is "mostly out of necessity." However, the "real reason for expanding the playoffs is that it puts more cash in the owners' pockets." Traikos: "Do you honestly think the owners, who could potentially lose more money next year if fans are still not allowed back in the buildings, will want to go back to 16 teams? No chance" (TORONTO SUN, 5/19). However, in Chicago, John Dietz writes the 24-team proposal is an “awful idea.” He writes, “Contracting the field would crown a truly deserving champion and also condense the postseason to the point where next season's start date wouldn't be compromised. As we've seen quite often in recent years, however, decisions are made because of the almighty dollar. We can hope more intelligent heads prevail” (Chicago DAILY HERALD, 5/19).

GETTING CLOSER: In St. Paul, John Shipley cites a source as saying the league and NHLPA are “aggressively working on a plan … that could reopen the playoff season later this summer.” Wild G and NHLPA union rep Devan Dubnyk "confirmed the working relationship between the league and players." Dubnyk: “I wouldn’t say it’s promising, but it’s refreshing that both sides basically are working toward the same solution.” Dubnyk said that the NHL's hub cities plan was "not ideal," adding that "no NHL player wants to be sequestered in one city, away from his family, for what could be two months." But, he said that "every player he has talked to wants to finish the season and has an open mind about how to do it." Dubnyk said that talks with the league thus far "haven’t focused on details such as host cities but details such as when teams might be able to return to practice" (ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS, 5/19). 

UFC President Dana White responded to criticism levied on the MMA promotion over the weekend by HBO's John Oliver, stating the comedian's commentary was a "perfect example of how you can control the narrative by using selective facts." Oliver during a segment about the return of sports noted fighter Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza tested positive for coronavirus prior to his May 9 fight at UFC 249, adding that this showed holding events was not safe. White wrote on Twitter, "We did approximately 1,100 tests, only 3 were positive, it was a fighter and his 2 trainers and we had 3 events NOT 1" (TWITTER.com, 5/18).

MORE OF OLIVER'S COMMENTS: Oliver noted sports coming back safely and responsibly will be a "mammoth undertaking" and said, "Clearly, staging events is risky at the moment." After referencing Souza's withdrawal, Oliver said, "If you want to come back completely without risk, that's just not possible right now. Yet, many sports organizations are feeling real pressure to ignore that risk.” Oliver: “Profit is a powerful motivator here, especially for some team owners who won't be the ones taking the risks. And it's why major sports, like baseball and football, are so eagerly pursuing plans to come back. But assuming that you can't just stage all events in Jacksonville or on some stupidly named island somewhere, how do you do it in the safest possible way?” He added, "You just isolate everyone involved and test the hell out of them, which intuitively seems like it might work. ... But when you think about that for more than a second, it all becomes much, much more complicated. ... By one estimate, even a bubble league would require nearly 10,000 people, all of whom would need constant testing." Oliver concluded, "As hard as it is to hear, we might need a little more time to make sure that we get this right” (“Last Week Tonight,” HBO, 5/17).

The NBA Kings informed employees that "more than one-third of the team’s full-time workers will be furloughed for four months beginning June 1 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic," according to Jason Anderson of the SACRAMENTO BEE. Kings President of Business Operations John Rinehart explained that the sports and entertainment industries were "hit hard by the suspension of NBA play and live events at Golden 1 Center, resulting in 'an unprecedented impact on our bottom line' and 'significant fiscal uncertainty about the future.'" A source said that the furloughs "will impact about 100 employees representing approximately 34 percent of the team’s full-time workforce." The source added that essential basketball operations functions, "including front office, health and performance, and scouting/analytics positions, will not be impacted" (SACRAMENTO BEE, 5/19). 

Monster Energy Team Challenge in mid-July will be PBR's first event open to fans since early March
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Monster Energy Team Challenge in mid-July will be PBR's first event open to fans since early March
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Monster Energy Team Challenge in mid-July will be PBR's first event open to fans since early March
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

The PBR announced that spectators will be allowed in for the finals of the Monster Energy Team Challenge July 10-12 in Sioux Falls, the property’s first event “open to fans since early March and likely one of the first national events to feature spectators since the COVID-19 crisis began,” according to Brian Haenchen of the Sioux Falls ARGUS LEADER. ASM Global, which manages the Denny Sanford Premier Center, will activate its Venue Shield, an “advanced environmental hygiene protocol that reduces physical touch points, increases venue sanitization and cleanliness, and provides various health monitoring guidelines and services.” Specific guidelines to be implemented include the following:

  • Tickets will be “for only approximately 35% of the capacity for PBR events at the arena.”
  • Seating that separates fans with a “minimum four- to six-foot buffer between ticketed seats and minimizes the potential for crossover for fans entering and exiting their seats.”
  • Medical testing and screening for “all staff as they enter the venue,” as well as “complimentary facial coverings for fans.”
  • More efficient “'top to bottom' exit following the event to reduce aisle, hallway and exit congregation” (Sioux Falls ARGUS LEADER, 5/19).

The Int'l WELL Building Institute announced the launch of a health and safety rating for facilities, accompanied by a new advisory group of sports and entertainment industry leaders. The WELL Health-Safety Rating for Facility Operations & Management is an evidenced-based, third-party verified rating focusing on operational policies, cleaning protocols and design strategies after COVID-19. The WELL Advisory on Sports & Entertainment Venues will advance the completion of the rating specific to participating venues. Taking part in the program will require venue owners and operators to submit policies, protocols and strategies for third-party document review and annual compliance verification. The WELL rating will launch in June, leveraging extensive input gathered from the advisory panel (IWBI).

ADVISORY GROUP FOUNDING MEMBERS
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona
Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke
Yankees Senior VP/Stadium Operations Doug Behar
Yankees Environmental Science Advisor Dr. Allen Hershkowitz
CAA Icon CEO Tim Romani
Jani-King VP/Sports & Entertainment Partnerships Mike Biggs
Legends President of Global Planning Bill Rhoda
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Advisory Council Members

When the Univ. of Oregon announced that students would not return to campus after Spring Break, most thought they would be back within a few weeks. But it has not turned out that way. On the most recent episode of “SBJ Unpacks -- Weathering COVID-19,” our Bill King speaks with UO Warsaw Sports Marketing Center Dir Whitney Wagoner to look back at the road the Class of 2020 has traveled at sports management programs across the country, and ahead to what awaits them.

On how the pandemic has prepared students to join the workforce:
Wagoner: One of our guest speakers said this really is the future of work. This is the future of global work in the 21st century. This person encouraged our students to look at this time as an opportunity to get good at working this way. Here is an opportunity to hone your skills at remote work … (because) the better you can get at communicating and working and being efficient and productive on these remote platforms, the better employee and more attractive as a job candidate you will be.

On ways graduates should position themselves in a dire job market to differentiate themselves when the economy turns:
Wagoner: Disruption is a time for new thinking, and what our students can do during this time is work on some ideas and write some briefs and write some pitch documents on new thinking. When companies are going to be coming back, when companies are going to be considering the road forward, it will require new thinking and outside the box ideas. We’re just really encouraging our students to be that voice and to come to any conversations they have with industry with ideas, positioning themselves as part of the solution.

On broadening horizons to non-sports-related jobs in order to develop skills that will be useful within the sports industry when it revives:
Wagoner: This is about maximizing the number of potential doors you can walk through, and that does mean broadening. The conversations we’re having are still about focus. Let’s say it’s business in science and analytics, or it’s loyalty and retention, or it’s digital marketing. The skill focus stays the same, but to broaden the potential applications is important and pragmatic in these times. I definitely have been counseling students that if you’re a data analytics person and what you really want to do is work for a sports team and dig into the profile information you have in your various fan databases, maybe consumer packaged goods, health care, transportation or other tech is a place where you can get a job in business and hone your chops on various pieces of software.