Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 26 No. 177

Coronavirus and Sports

A March 26 conversation between MLB and the MLBPA in which the league "portrays the union as acknowledging that a new negotiation was needed regarding how players would be paid this season could serve as an email version of a smoking gun," according to Joel Sherman of the N.Y. POST. The union claims that within the agreement finalized on March 26, players are "guaranteed their prorated salaries for games played." But a March 26 email from an MLB lawyer to top league officials "documents the substance of talks between two MLB officials and two MLBPA officials from earlier that morning." The email "covers seven points, including that MLB explained to the union officials that MLB would need a second negotiation if games were not played in front of fans to determine pay and claims that union officials understood that concept." As such, the email "seemingly offers evidence that the union was aware that further talks were potentially necessary." The MLBPA's position has been that "not only does the March 26 document support its pro-rata position, but that MLB has not made a clear case to the union that it is not economically feasible to pay the players in full even without fans." The union "still is waiting for a formal financial proposal from MLB" (N.Y. POST, 5/20).

MULTIPLE CHOICE: MLB Network's Jon Heyman reported MLB in recent talks "gave the union 2 options." One is to "negotiate a new financial arrangement" -- something other than "prorated pay for players playing games with no fans in attendance." The second is to wait for the coronavirus to "clear to the point where fans can attend games." MLB has been "espousing a 50-50 revenue split behind the scenes but no formal proposal has been made to players yet." In any case, players do "seem very much resolved not to agree to a revenue sharing proposal on principle" (TWITTER.com, 5/19).

UNION STATION: The POST's Sherman reports more than 130 players "participated in a union-run conference call Monday night mainly to go over MLB’s 67-page health and safety proposal for restarting the season." All 30 clubs were "represented on the call, which was led" by MLBPA Exec Dir Tony Clark and Senior Dir of Collective Bargaining & Legal Bruce Meyer. The call "lasted more than three hours and players asked questions and offered suggestions during it" (N.Y. POST, 5/20).

GETTING POLITICAL: ESPN.com noted ultimately, baseball can play "only where it's welcome." At the national level, MLB is "in sync with the White House." Sources said that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has a "good relationship" with President Trump. Additionally, Yankees President Randy Levine was considered a candidate to be Trump's chief of staff. MLB officials "believe the president's support will be an asset." Still, the politics for MLB are "far from clear in several places." For example, in Toronto, the Blue Jays are under Canadian immigration restrictions for travel to the U.S. Domestically, these "lines of authority also vary from state to state." In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey has "thrown out a welcome mat for MLB." But in other states, the authority "resides with county health officials" (ESPN.com, 5/19).

FROM THE EDITORIAL BOARDOn Long Island, David Lennon writes MLB "says one thing," and the union "insists the opposite is true." Lennon: "We’ve seen this movie many times before. And now it’s happening again." But the "clock is ticking." Two weeks is "shorter than it sounds for hammering out a financial system that works for both sides, especially when they could not be further apart at the moment" (NEWSDAY, 5/20). In Pittsburgh, Paul Zeise writes of MLB's 67-page health-and-safety proposal, "How about no baseball in 2020 and check in again in 2021 to see if it is safe to play yet? If this is what it is going to take to have baseball, then it isn’t worth it. It isn’t even realistic to think all of this stuff can happen" (PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE, 5/20).

Due to current circumstances, the Belmont's purse size will decrease to $1M from $1.5M
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Due to current circumstances, the Belmont's purse size will decrease to $1M from $1.5M
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Due to current circumstances, the Belmont's purse size will decrease to $1M from $1.5M
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Horse racing is “getting it right with its newly reconfigured Triple Crown,” which will see the Belmont Stakes lead off the proceedings for the first time, as the three-race event had been “temporarily reinvented in a way that could be really good,” according to Pat Forde of SI.com. There will be “better spacing between races … and hopefully fuller and more competitive fields for all three legs.” There also will be “some freshness to the musty series.” The Belmont, which depending on the status of a Triple Crown contender “sometimes is huge and sometimes a complete anticlimax, gets first run,” while the Preakness, “forever the overlooked middle child, has a chance to stage a grand finale.” Meanwhile, the Kentucky Derby will “retain its cachet as America’s greatest race while also experiencing some fleeting humility over its new place in the Triple Crown batting order.” Depending on the status of the NBA, NHL and MLB, the Belmont “could well command a prime spot on an otherwise sparse sporting calendar” (SI.com, 5/19). 

ALL A MATTER OF TIMING: In Baltimore, Childs Walker reports industry observers expected the Belmont to fall first in the Triple Crown “after the postponed dates” for the Derby (Sept. 5) and Preakness (Oct. 3) were announced. A move to later in October “was impractical given that the Breeders’ Cup is scheduled for Nov. 6-7 at Keeneland.” However, the decision to make the race shorter (1 1/8 miles as opposed to the typical 1 1/2 miles) was “more controversial given the Belmont’s historical standing as a unique endurance test for 3-year-old thoroughbreds” (BALTIMORE SUN, 5/20). In N.Y., Joe Drape notes there is “some precedent for a topsy-turvy Triple Crown schedule,” as the Preakness from ’23-32 “preceded the Derby.” Churchill Downs officials picked Sept. 5 for the Derby “in hopes that shelter-in-place rules will be relaxed enough by then to welcome fans” (N.Y. TIMES, 5/20). However, in DC, Cindy Boren writes the move makes the Belmont “more of a prep race than a Triple Crown event, essentially a Kentucky Derby qualifier” (WASHINGTON POST, 5/20).

FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING: On Long Island, Andrew Gross notes this marks the “first time in Triple Crown history that the Belmont Stakes will be run first,” and NBC is planning “three hours of live coverage” from the race on June 20. The race will carry a $1M purse instead of the usual $1.5M, as the “altered circumstances, including the loss of video lottery terminal revenues from casinos, has forced NYRA to adjust its purses.” The race will be part of NYRA’s spring/summer meet at Belmont Park that begins June 3 (NEWSDAY, 5/20). NYRA President & CEO Dave O’Rourke said that fans who have “already purchased tickets for this year’s Belmont Stakes -- and the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival -- are entitled to a full refund or can receive a credit toward next year” (DRF.com, 5/19).

BAD BLOW FOR RACING INDUSTRY: In New Jersey, Stephen Edelson writes the “deconstruction of the Triple Crown has been a particularly cruel blow to an industry already reeling.” Instead of a five-week stretch “that can draw huge ratings and create some of the year's most memorable moments, the races will be drawn out over 3 1/2 months.” While it is a “great sign that the Belmont Stakes will be run, the seismic shift in the racing calendar could not have come at a worse time for an industry struggling to rebound from a disastrous 2019” (ASBURY PARK PRESS, 5/20).

The question of whether the NHL, or any pro sports, is an "essential service" resurfaced yesterday after Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that closure of the Canada-U.S. border "would be extended from May 21 to June 21 for non-essential services and travel," according to Ben Kuzma of the Vancouver PROVINCE. Teams are "operating under the assumption, and hope, that the league’s latest self-isolation edict will be lifted by the end of the month." That would allow "small groups to train and possibly skate in anticipation of a training camp, and eventual resumption of play." However, people arriving in Canada from the U.S. or Europe "would face an additional 14-day quarantine period." Trudeau has placed a "strict minimum quarantine for players returning from abroad, and his border dealings with the NHL are still in the discussion stage" (Vancouver PROVINCE, 5/20). NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly in an email said he is "hopeful" that the extended border closure "will not materially impact our return to play planning." In Winnipeg, Scott Billeck notes exemptions have been made to the mandatory self-isolation policy, and while they are "not specifically stated in the exemptions, provisions could be made for pro athletes, and may already be in place" (WINNIPEG SUN, 5/20).

CLOCK IS TICKING: THE HOCKEY NEWS' Ken Campbell wrote, "We are clearly running out of runway here, which makes the league's unwillingness to commit a little frustrating." It is "a little bewildering that the league hasn't at least put out some sort of framework of how the rest of the regular season and playoffs would look if it can return to play." The timing is "obviously out of the league's hands, but there is a growing sentiment that the NHL should get something out soon, with all qualifiers and caveats attached to it." That would "at least keep fans engaged until they know whether or not the league can pull this off from a logistical standpoint" (THEHOCKEYNEWS.com, 5/19).

Jason Kenney noted Edmonton has the highest per capita COVID-19 testing in North America
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Jason Kenney noted Edmonton has the highest per capita COVID-19 testing in North America
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Jason Kenney noted Edmonton has the highest per capita COVID-19 testing in North America
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Edmonton is the "safest place" the NHL "could find in the continent" as the city bids to secure a bulk of the games should the season resume, according to Terry Jones of the EDMONTON JOURNAL. If safety of the players and everybody involved is "indeed the NHL's No. 1 priority, Kenney certainly emphasized that first and foremost." He added Edmonton has the "highest per capita testing in North America, if not the world." Kenney: "We have one of the best facilities -- I would say the best facility -- with the brand new Rogers Place Arena. ... All of the services are right there to be safely integrated in a protected zone that would keep the players and staff insulated. So I think we have a very strong pitch to make." Meanwhile, Jones notes Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson was "already one step ahead" of Kenney, having "sent an official letter of support" to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman last week. The NHL "recently indicated it was down to seven or eight possible hubs, including Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton in Canada, and Las Vegas" (EDMONTON JOURNAL, 5/20).

OTHER CITIES INTERESTED: In Nashville, Gentry Estes reports the city is "interested in serving as a neutral-site host." Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. President & CEO Butch Spyridon said, "We have the practice facilities, the game facility, the walking distance of hotels. I think we're as well-equipped (as anyone), when you add in our geographic location for teams to get here." Spyridon said that he has communicated with Predators President & CEO Sean Henry about "supporting the idea of hosting games, though Spyridon doesn't know where Nashville stands in the NHL's ongoing process" (Nashville TENNESSEAN, 5/20). In Minneapolis, Sarah McLellan cites a source as saying that the Wild are interested in St. Paul "being one of those hubs" for a restarted season. Xcel Energy Center has "six locker rooms on its event level, and the Tria Rink -- the Wild’s practice facility -- is less than a mile away" (Minneapolis STAR TRIBUNE, 5/20).

ONE POTENTIAL CONCERN: In Denver, Mike Chambers notes Lightning analyst Brian Engblom "sees a crack in any plan to resume the 2019-20 season before the U.S. and Canada have a better handle on the coronavirus pandemic." Engblom said, "What if a player from one of the playoff teams says, 'I'm not doing this. I'm not comfortable. I'm not playing, end of story?'" He added, "People are afraid and they have every right to be. If you have one player, and maybe he's a real key player. What do you do? It's a free country. That person is allowed to say no. These are unprecedented times. How can you make them do anything?" Chambers notes NHL players are "owed just one more regular-season paycheck, and they will collect that at the end of the month or, for players under contract next season, it will be put into escrow until play resumes." Players "aren't paid in the playoffs." Thus, at-risk or concerned players "don't have a huge financial incentive to return this season in relation to what they make during the regular season" (DENVER POST, 5/20).

Tom Gaglardi said the idea of coming back to the ice with no fans is a "bit of a horrifying thought"
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Tom Gaglardi said the idea of coming back to the ice with no fans is a "bit of a horrifying thought"
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Tom Gaglardi said the idea of coming back to the ice with no fans is a "bit of a horrifying thought"
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

The NHL returning to the ice without fans would be a "tough pill to swallow" for Stars Owner Tom Gaglardi, according to Joey Hayden of the DALLAS MORNING NEWS. Gaglardi in an interview yesterday with Dallas-based KTCK-AM said, "It's kind of a bit of a horrifying thought, to be perfectly honest, and I sure hope it's not a road we end up having to visit. And if we do have to visit to get our season completed, I hope it's not for long." He added, "I don't think we need a vaccine, per se, to start to see fans in arenas and stadiums. We've got models for 4,000 people in our stadium -- plus or minus -- that we could possibly social distance. So, there's all kinds of conversations and topics going on." Gaglardi on health-and-safety measures said, "That's the biggest challenge is the logistics of how to test, how often, what the protocols are. It's going to get crazy. Once we get these logistics figured out, we've got jurisdictions to worry about, we've got players to fly in from Europe -- it's a crazy amount of stuff that we have to clear over to get ourselves in a position to play, but we're determined to do it. And I think we'll play" (DALLAS MORNING NEWS, 5/20).

The proposed salary cuts would impact the entirety of the MLSPA membership
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
The proposed salary cuts would impact the entirety of the MLSPA membership
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
The proposed salary cuts would impact the entirety of the MLSPA membership
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

The MLS Players Association "sent a counterproposal" to MLS regarding player salaries for the '20 season, with the union "confirming that the amount of economic relief would exceed" $100M, according to Jeff Carlisle of ESPN.com. Sources said that the proposal -- made over the weekend -- includes "salary reductions, salary deferrals and significant reduction of bonuses, as well as future relief due to the suspension in play related to the coronavirus pandemic." The concessions amount to "roughly a third of the league's total payroll" of about $310M. The cuts would "impact the entirety of the MLSPA membership." When these economic concessions "would go into effect is still to be determined." It was reported May 9 that MLS had "offered the players a 20% salary cut across the board for the remainder of the 2020 season, plus additional unspecified reductions in overall compensation." That offer was made after MLS "floated an offer of a 50% pay cut as it pertained to the entire 2020 payroll, with players under $100,000 not affected" (ESPN.com, 5/19). 

CRITICAL JUNCTURE: In Salt Lake City, Alex Vejar notes the salary talks are "particularly important" given that the CBA, "tentatively passed before the season," has yet to be ratified. The MLSPA’s counteroffer "signals a desire on the players’ part to meet the league halfway after MLS, like many other sports leagues, has suffered deep financial losses due to the coronavirus pandemic" (SALT LAKE TRIBUNE, 5/20).

Tretter believes the NFL and NFLPA reaching an agreement about returning to the field is still a ways out
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Tretter believes the NFL and NFLPA reaching an agreement about returning to the field is still a ways out
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Tretter believes the NFL and NFLPA reaching an agreement about returning to the field is still a ways out
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Browns C and NFLPA President JC Tretter indicated that the coronavirus "has created too many unknowns to speculate about what football will look like as the year unfolds," according to Nate Ulrich of the AKRON BEACON JOURNAL. Tretter indicated that there is a "'long list of hurdles' that need to be cleared before players will be comfortable returning to work in the traditional sense, let alone playing in games." Tretter: "Coming in contact with other people is a risk of exposure. So that's never going to be down to zero. Our job (at the NFLPA) is to try to get that to as close to zero as possible, and that's why you kind of have to look at everything." He said testing is "going to have to be real important" for the league to move forward with the season. He also "repeatedly stressed the importance of being open to new ideas." Tretter indicated that he believes the league and NFLPA "reaching an agreement about returning to the field is 'still a ways out.'" However, Ulrich noted Tretter "pointed out the two sides have time on their side." Meanwhile, since the pandemic has "changed everyday life, Tretter has been involved with biweekly conference calls the union has held for players and their wives to address" potential concerns (AKRON BEACON JOURNAL, 5/20).

Dr. Sikka (l) is currently one of 10 people serving on the NBA's sports science committee
Photo: NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
Dr. Sikka (l) is currently one of 10 people serving on the NBA's sports science committee
Photo: NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
Dr. Sikka (l) is currently one of 10 people serving on the NBA's sports science committee
Photo: NBAE/GETTY IMAGES

The Mayo Clinic and T'Wolves VP/Basketball Performance & Technology Dr. Robby Sikka are spearheading an NBA study that "aims to establish what percentage of NBA players, coaches, executives and staff have developed antibodies to the coronavirus," according to Malika Andrews of ESPN.com. The initiative, which is supported by the league office and the NBPA, is "expected to have the participation of all 30 teams." As practice facilities begin to open around the league, NBA officials are "continuing to seek information about best practices to mitigate risk of infection for players and staff." Sikka, one of 10 people on the NBA's sports science committee, has "become one of the league's resources." Assessing the "prevalence of antibodies in NBA personnel will help teams identify which people might have a lower risk of contracting COVID-19." The study is "expected to be completed in June." It could help "identify which NBA personnel have had the coronavirus but were asymptomatic and, therefore, help map the spread of the disease in the league." The Mayo Clinic "hopes the study will help validate the less-invasive method, making it easier for widespread antibody testing in the general public" (ESPN.com, 5/19).

NASCAR's latest round of cuts, which saw an estimated 100 people laid off, was "accelerated by the coronavirus outbreak," according to Godwin Kelly of the Daytona Beach NEWS-JOURNAL. When NASCAR bought ISC in December, most "figured that staff across the board would be downsized and systems would be streamlined under one umbrella." There was an earlier workforce cut of "about 70 employees in April." NASCAR Exec VP & Chief Marketing and Content Officer Jill Gregory said, "None of those decisions get made lightly. We had an intersection of business concerns and challenges. The NASCAR-ISC integration was well underway and then this crisis hit, which even further complicates matters." Gregory said that the merger, along with the business effects of the coronavirus pandemic, "made the reduction a necessity for survival." Gregory: "We had pre-existing business challenges that were layered on to the COVID-19 crisis. That made it a time to act very thoughtfully, but decisively, to set the sport up for success in a much different environment that we could have ever imagined." Meanwhile, Kelly notes those who will remain with NASCAR are "working from home as the inside of the International Motorsports Center goes through a social-distancing redesign" (Daytona Beach NEWS-JOURNAL, 5/20).

The MLB Giants told roughly 350 full-time workers at Oracle Park yesterday that they will be "paid at least through the end of the scheduled regular season in late September, and those who earn at least $75,000 will take pay cuts," according to Henry Schulman of the S.F. CHRONICLE. Giants Exec VP/Communications Staci Slaughter said that the decision also "covers full-time employees in the baseball operations department such as scouts and the minor-league field staff." Schulman reports employees who earn at least $75,000 will "take a 25% cut of all pay above that threshold, so higher earners will lose a bigger chunk of their salary than those who earn less." The pay cuts are "expected to average 10%." Meanwhile, part-time employees whose functions are "tied mostly to games were told they are being furloughed." The Giants plan to "pay them monthly supplements to augment their unemployment benefits, similar to money they committed to game-day employees. The club is "expected to maintain health and other benefits for those part-timers who had them" (S.F. CHRONICLE, 5/20).

In the past two weeks, UFC, NASCAR and golf have put on live events that offered a glimpse at a return to what we currently consider normalcy in the sports world, but is normalcy even possible in the aftermath of COVID-19? On the most recent “SBJ Unpacks -- Weathering COVID-19,” our Terry Lefton spoke with former SEC Commissioner, Turner Sports President and USOPC Exec Dir Harvey Schiller to discuss the future of sports during and after the pandemic.

On the challenge of pulling viewers back to sports after COVID-19
Schiller: I was looking at the numbers from the golf tournament that was on Sunday and the Darlington NASCAR race. There was a lot of excitement about the ratings and how high the number of viewers were, but I’m not sure I feel the same way. It’s going to be hard to get fans to return unless sports executives and marketers think out of the box on how to get people to return, whether it’s watching on television or going to the games. There were a little over six million viewers that watched Darlington, the NASCAR, and that’s one of the best ratings they’ve had in a long time. There were a little over 2 million that watched the (Taylormade) golf involving four golf stars. If you add that up, it's less than 10 million people watching two sporting events on a Sunday. However, there are over 300 million people that are stuck at home, and I’m wondering what they’re doing. There’s a real challenge to return people to watching sports. It’s not going to be as easy as people make it out to be.

On strategies college administrators are using to ensure they can get students on campus safely
Schiller: One of the things that administrators are talking about is starting school earlier. Instead of late September, starting it in August so they can keep the students on campus through Thanksgiving. They didn’t want them going home and then coming back to the campus and bringing the virus back. That plays very well into the requirements by NCAA that their students be taking classes during their participation, and that will be one of the clues as to how things go forward. As the major universities start doing it, others will follow. We’ll be in some kind of herd immunity at some point, and that will work.

On how the sports landscape will change when the pandemic ends
Schiller: Some of the less popular sports are going to not make it financially. … If you dropped some of these sports that have some popularity, they’ll create some kind of vacuum for something about that sport that will bring younger people in. People have to be smart enough to create different kinds of competitions. … The next part is some extension of the professional sports that we have. How can baseball, basketball or football create something else around them that can bring in additional revenue when they’re challenged without ticket taking or lack of sponsorships?