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Volume 26 No. 205

Coronavirus and Sports

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said under the league's restart plan in Orlando, the "belief is we would not have to shut down if a single player tested positive." Appearing Thursday on TNT's "Inside the NBA," Silver said, "We've been dealing with a group of experts plus public health authorities down in Florida and the view is if we were testing every day and we're able to trace in essence the contacts that player has had, we are able to contain that player and separate him from the team." He added, "Everyone is going to be tested, we're working through the logistics with the players." Silver noted the NBA has "learned a lot more about the virus since we shut down in March." Silver: "The data is demonstrating that for the most part -- there are exceptions -- that healthy young people are the least vulnerable." But he noted there are "people involved in this league," particularly older coaches, who are "more vulnerable, so we're going to have to work through protocols." Silver: "We have issues to work out with Disney in terms of playing in Orlando. But even when all those steps are completed, there are constant changes in terms of what we're learning about this virus" ("Inside the NBA," TNT, 6/4).

SMALLER FIELD WOULD MINIMIZE RISKS: Twenty-two teams are being invited to Orlando, and ESPN’s Mina Kimes said, “It should be acknowledged they are introducing an element of risk that they didn't have to with six teams” (“Around The Horn,” ESPN, 6/3). ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne noted Hornets Owner Michael Jordan "made an impassioned plea for the league to invite only the 16 teams currently in the playoff picture." He wanted to "keep as close as possible to the traditional format because of the increased risk of injury to players after such a long layoff, and the increased COVID-19 risk that comes with each additional person invited into the bubble." From his conversations with players, Silver "knew how important is was to them to have regular-season games before the playoffs began, to shake the rust off and minimize injury risk." Silver conveyed to owners "who favored the 16-team plan: If regular-season games were important to players, the league had to find a way for those games to mean something -- hence the invitation of six teams within six games of the final playoff" (ESPN.com, 6/4).

WELCOME TO THE SHOW, ZION: In DC, Ben Golliver notes the NBA's format tweak "accomplishes a few goals." It adds a "jolt of intrigue at the start of the resumed season, it allows the league to increase its television inventory, and it ensures" that star Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson "will compete" (WASHINGTON POST, 6/5). ESPN's Pablo Torre said of Silver, “He gets Zion Williamson for all of the cash that those ratings bring. He is somebody who has figured out, ‘I’m going to reverse engineer this thing and give it to fans,’ and this seems to be a pretty adroit reverse engineering” ("Around The Horn," ESPN, 6/3). ESPN’s Bomani Jones said the make-up of the 22-team field -- 13 teams from the Western Conference, nine from the Eastern Conference -- “sounds a lot like to me, ‘Dammit, (Williamson) is going to play in this'" ("Highly Questionable," ESPN, 6/3).

IN THE FIELD, BUT DO THEY WANT TO BE? Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes cited sources as saying that the Trail Blazers were the only team to vote against the NBA's 22-team return, as the club "preferred a 20-team return-to-play format." That is "one of the reasons why they voted no to the 22-team format" (TWITTER.com, 6/4). Trail Blazers G C.J. McCollum wrote he and his teammates "play for an ownership group that actually listens to its players and has a backbone." He wrote, "We voiced what we felt was the best option and they followed our lead. I commend our front office and Jody Allen" (TWITTER.com, 6/4). ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan said she was a “little confused" about the Trail Blazers' vote since they "actually could have a chance to win the play-in." The Athletic’s Frank Isola said it was “interesting that Portland is the team that doesn’t want to go” because they “could be a very dangerous team” in the playoffs ("Around The Horn," ESPN, 6/4).

Both the Bulls and Cavaliers were part of the eight teams not invited to Orlando
Photo: NBAE/getty images
Both the Bulls and Cavaliers were part of the eight teams not invited to Orlando
Photo: NBAE/getty images
Both the Bulls and Cavaliers were part of the eight teams not invited to Orlando
Photo: NBAE/getty images

There will be some "unhappy teams" that are left at home when the NBA begins its 22-team return in Orlando this summer, but the limited field was the "right decision," according to Gary Washburn of the BOSTON GLOBE. Bringing all 30 teams, some of which did not want to play, "would have been a farce," as would have been "limiting the field to 16 teams." The NBA "maintained its integrity," which is "all fans can ask" (BOSTON GLOBE, 6/5). However, in St. Paul, Jace Frederick writes there are "some questions, and possible lasting effects, that stem" from the NBA's announcement. The '20-21 season reportedly will begin in December, which means the teams not in Orlando will "go roughly nine months between games." That would seem to put them "at a competitive disadvantage heading into next season" (ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS, 6/5).

AT AN OFFSEASON DISADVANTAGE? In Chicago, Joe Cowley notes a nine-month layoff from competitive NBA games "seemingly would be punishment enough" for the Bulls, but they now are "officially removed from the Orlando recruiting game" as well. With the '21 free-agent class "arguably one of the most talented in league history, being left outside the 'bubble' could be a three-year sentence in solitary confinement." The bubble will "allow players to freely come and go from their hotel rooms" and socialize amongst each other. Meanwhile, teams such as the Bulls, Knicks, Cavaliers and Timberwolves are "hoping the NBA affords them some type of mandatory September training camp or a fall league in order to check out their players in a competitive situation and prepare them for the 2020-21 season" (CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, 6/5).

ANOTHER LOST OPPORTUNITY: In Charlotte, Rick Bonnell reports the Hornets will "still have room under the salary cap when the NBA’s next fiscal year begins, but likely not as much as projected before the coronavirus pandemic suspended the season." Loss of games, and gate receipts once games resume without fans at Disney World’s Wide World of Sports, will "cost the NBA more than $1 billion in lost revenue." In February, Hornets President of Basketball Operations & GM Mitch Kupchak anticipated about $28M in "off-season cap space." However, that was "based on the NBA’s projection then" of a $115M salary cap for each team. With league revenues "plummeting, that cap number will likely fall." So while the Hornets will "still be in an advantageous cap position, it won’t be as large" (CHARLOTTE OBSERVER, 6/5).

NBPA Exec Dir Michele Roberts expressed "concern over the NBA's tentative timeline to open training camps for the 2020-21 season on Nov. 10 -- less than a month after the proposed end of the NBA Finals in Orlando," according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.com. Roberts on Thursday said, "I was surprised to see it." Sources said that the NBA's revised dates include the "start of training camp on Nov. 10 and opening night on Dec. 1." Looming negotiations on a long list of '20-21 financial and competitive issues "will include the league's hopes of starting next season with such a tight turnaround after the season's Finals in October." Changes to the league calendar "would be among the items that have to be collectively bargained with the NBPA." Sources said that the NBA and NBPA "recently reached an agreement to extend until September the original 60-day window that preserves the league's right to terminate the collective bargaining agreement in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic" (ESPN.com, 6/4).

There remains "no outward signs" MLB and the MLBPA are "moving toward each other in time to begin the regular season with the optimum start" on July 4 weekend, according to Joel Sherman of the N.Y. POST. The union on Thursday night released a statement that said that its exec board and more than 100 players "talked via conference call and recommitted to wanting to play this year." But it also noted that players will not play "under the key demand of owners that they take a pay cut from their prorated salaries for games played." All of this "imperils the most ideal restart date of the July 4 weekend, when MLB would be able to best try to renew its historic place as the national pastime." But at this point, the sides "publicly remain entrenched in positions that not only threaten the best start time, but maybe the whole season" (N.Y. POST, 6/5). One player agent said that MLB "made it easy for players to take a firm position -- he called it 'low-hanging fruit' -- in part because it has not put forth another offer." The agent said, "If they want to unilaterally impose this bastard season, then so be it. And that will be what's expected. By doing that, they are galvanizing the union. The problem here is distrust" (THEATHLETIC.com, 6/4).

SHRINKING WINDOW: On Long Island, David Lennon notes MLBPA Exec Dir Tony Clark "maintains the topic of player compensation is closed, having been settled by the March agreement." So for now that "appears to be a dead end MLB insists that it needs to wrap up the entire season, including playoffs, by the end of October, in order to avoid a second wave of coronavirus wiping out the most profitable part of the schedule" (NEWSDAY, 6/5). USA TODAY's Gabe Lacques writes the window for an MLB season restart "still remains," but the opening is "getting quite narrow" (USA TODAY, 6/5). Smith College professor of economics Andrew Zimbalist said that baseball "could face a unique challenge" compared to the other sports if a season "isn't played because decades-long animus between owners and players cause these negotiations to break down." Zimbalist pointed to what happened after the '94-95 strike and lockout, when the "full-season attendance equivalent in the 1995 return season" represented more than a 20% decline from '93 (NBCSPORTSCHICAGO.com, 6/3).

THE REAL ISSUE: ESPN's Jeff Passan said the "power really is more about 2021 when the current collective bargaining agreement is up," and the MLBPA "wants to show no mercy on that after getting pushed around for years." Passan: "The distress is really built into baseball, it’s a generational thing. That’s not going to be fixed anytime soon. The real area where they can and should make progress is with the money" ("Get Up," ESPN, 6/4).

MISSING OUT ON CENTER STAGE: NBC Sports Chicago’s Gordon Wittenmyer said the situation between MLB and the MLBPA is “classic baseball throughout history.” They are "going to get a deal done, and then they’ll kind of go right back into the mix with everybody else playing." But they "won't have the centerstage to themselves like they could have if they had been more aggressive with this.” Baseball "may have just shot itself in the foot again.” NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson said it is a “bunch of people fighting over a pile of money.” If the “original intent of doing this for the greater good in a safe fashion was legitimate, they would have already reached agreement by now” (“SportsTalk Live,” NBC Sports Chicago, 6/4).

ON THE OWNERS? THE ATHLETIC's Jeff Schultz wrote there is a "tendency in professional sports when collective bargaining talks break down for the general public to view team owners as levelheaded businessmen who are just looking out" for the fans. Baseball has an "opportunity to finally move toward starting," as other sports are "moving forward with plans to open/reopen." But MLB owners are "whining" (THEATHLETIC.com, 6/4).

The Rangers' new Globe Life Field could play host to about 20,000 fans under Texas' proposed guidelines
Photo: getty images
The Rangers' new Globe Life Field could play host to about 20,000 fans under Texas' proposed guidelines
Photo: getty images
The Rangers' new Globe Life Field could play host to about 20,000 fans under Texas' proposed guidelines
Photo: getty images

MLB is "inclined to allow local and municipal governance to take precedence when it comes to allowing fan attendance at games" if the '20 season is played, according to sources cited by Evan Grant of the DALLAS MORNING NEWS. Texas is the "only state to have opened to pro sports with fans, though some other states have indicated they would consider adjusting their stances as they meet various thresholds in containing the coronavirus outbreak." The state is home to two MLB clubs, the Rangers and Astros. Grant writes MLB’s position is "significant on two levels." The first is that it "could create something of an unequal home-field advantage for those teams that do allow fans." The second: It "could potentially create additional revenues that owners would be willing to share with players in the 50-50 revenue split the league proposed to the MLBPA when negotiations started." However, the MLBPA has indicated that it "views revenue-sharing as a de facto salary cap and considers it a dead issue." Grant notes the Rangers' new Globe Life Field "could play host to about 20,000 fans" under Texas' proposed guidelines (DALLAS MORNING NEWS, 6/5).

NCAA President Mark Emmert told congressional Republicans this week that the football season this fall "could be shortened, with the regular season perhaps ending by Thanksgiving because of the coronavirus pandemic," according to Blinder & Martin of the N.Y. TIMES. In a call Wednesday with members of the House Republican whip team and other sports execs, Emmert said that he "anticipated that the college football season would begin around Labor Day as usual if games could be held within the regulations and guidelines of individual states." But U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who participated in the call, said that Emmert also "said the schedule may ultimately be truncated and that certain championships, like conference title games, could be played by Thanksgiving." Blinder & Martin note college football "does not have a central governing authority, and Emmert does not have the power to set or modify the sport’s schedules." But he has been "advising conferences about how a season might proceed, and his cautionary words to lawmakers suggest that, despite many sports executives’ optimistic public ambitions, top officials have serious doubts about the trajectory of a season during a pandemic." Congressional officials said that leaders from NASCAR, the NFL, NHL and PGA Tour "also participated" (N.Y. TIMES, 6/5).

Mitch Daniels said some schools may face having to shut down teams due to an outbreak
Photo: getty images
Mitch Daniels said some schools may face having to shut down teams due to an outbreak
Photo: getty images
Mitch Daniels said some schools may face having to shut down teams due to an outbreak
Photo: getty images

Purdue President Mitch Daniels told a U.S. Senate committee member that "if one of the athletic teams at his school experiences an outbreak of COVID-19, that team would need to stop all activity, at least temporarily," according to Steve Berkowitz of USA TODAY. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) on Thursday during a hearing of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee asked Daniels, "What happens if you have an outbreak over the course of summer training or in the early fall on the football team or on your women's soccer team? What's your protocol? Do you shut that team down? Do they stop playing the season? Do you just segment off the players who have tested positive?" Daniels in response said, "You would shut it down. And I think that somewhere out there, someone may very well face this situation. ... We love sports, too. But first things first." Meanwhile, initial testing of athletes and staff at Ole Miss, Oklahoma State and Marshall have "produced a number of positive tests." Those schools have said that those who tested positive "have been quarantined and that contact tracing has been initiated" (USA TODAY, 6/5).

USA Hockey has instituted tiered pay cuts for staffers amid the coronavirus pandemic, the national governing body confirmed to THE DAILY. A source with knowledge of the situation said the pay cuts tiered between 10-20%, with Exec Dir Pat Kelleher taking a 25% reduction. Some lower-level employees were exempt from the salary reductions, sources said. The pay cuts were instituted sometime during the week of May 18. According to sources, revenue loss from USA Hockey’s membership base, as well as the cancellation of recent events, played a role in the salary reductions. On March 11, USA Hockey canceled National Championships across youth, girls, high school, adult and sled divisions, some of which were scheduled to begin on March 26. That same day, USA Hockey cancelled the Disabled Hockey Festival, which would have occurred on March 26-29 and April 2-5. Earlier this week, the NGB also announced the cancelation of all player development camps this summer, with a full return slated for '21.

Game-day employees at KeyBank Center "will be compensated" for Sabres games canceled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Lance Lysowski of the BUFFALO NEWS. A source said that employees "scheduled to work the Sabres' final six home games will be paid Friday, providing financial relief for part-time workers in security, ticket takers, ushers and freelance broadcast workers." Pegula Sports & Entertainment has "followed through with a similar plan following the cancellation" of three NLL Buffalo Bandits games at KeyBank Center, seven AHL Rochester Americans games and four NLL Rochester Knighthawks games in Blue Cross Arena (BUFFALO NEWS, 6/5).

Esports have, at least temporarily, gone mainstream. Within the past two months, Snoop Dogg competed with Ravens WR Marquise Brown in a Madden celebrity tournament, NASCAR drivers zoomed through virtual recreations of famous tracks and tennis stars, including the Williams sisters, came together with celebrities to compete in a Mario Tennis Aces tournament. On the most recent episode of “SBJ Unpacks: The Road Ahead,” our Bill King talks with EA Senior VP & GM, Competitive Gaming Division Todd Sitrin about the mainstream window that esports has opened for sports video game publishers during the pandemic.

On the benefits of getting athletes and celebrities involved in esports:
Sitrin: When I think about the last few months, I would describe it as a tectonic shift in the esports landscape. The shift that’s been made is about accelerating into the mainstream, and one of those factors has definitely been the use of people who are famous for something other than playing video games. Up to this point, the esports industry has been about trying to get viewers to have an emotional connection to people who are famous for playing video games. That is a tougher thing to do than to utilize somebody who is already famous, and that’s where we’ve gone because celebrities are also at home. … It’s made it that much easier for people who maybe have rejected esports or not been aware of esports to say, “I know that person. I want to see that."

On changes to event presentation and broadcasting:
Sitrin: Prior to where we are now, we had a focus on utilizing the model that had been created by traditional sports broadcasts. You have a play-by-play person. You have a color analyst. You have sideline reporters. You kind of present it in that sort of way. Where we have moved to, and we were moving this way prior to COVID, but it has very much accelerated, is moving towards entertainment. That’s a little bit different, so we’re changing the tonality of our broadcast. We’re thinking about an audience of sports fans that are not video game players. How do you speak to them? What do you bring to them? In the past we would have done a deep dive analysis of play calling and why that was successful because we had an eye on video game players, but we’ve now really shifted to more of an entertainment presentation, which puts a focus on “Let’s just assume that the people are watching are sports fans who have never played a video game in their life."

On the value of being involved in the esports landscape:
Sitrin: It’s adding marketing value to the company to acquire new players to our games, get them engaged more in our games and generate revenue from that. Absolutely we’ve seen that over the last four years. This is a great way of getting people to embrace our games, but it’s more than that for what we’re trying to accomplish. When we set up the division, we said we believe that this can have revenue that is outside the game. Revenue through sponsorship. Revenue through media rights. Revenue through licensing fees. These are all the revenue streams that traditional sports see. When we think of our business, we think of it through both of those lenses.