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Volume 23 No. 17
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Forum: ‘It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done’

The virus is in charge.

I was hoping I wouldn’t still be writing that, but it remains clear after my conversations over the past few weeks. While the virus determines the path, what shouldn’t be overlooked is the amount of work, thought, time and energy spent among sports leaders and staff to plan, develop and implement return-to-play efforts. I have never seen anything like it, which is understandable considering the pandemic. The size and scope of what these organizations are taking on and executing is truly remarkable. One league leader after another has told me, “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” and there are usually a few expletives thrown in.

Use MLS’s return to Orlando as an example. If you watch these games, what they’ve been able to execute on the campus and on what really are youth soccer fields has been almost herculean — they will play 51 games in 35 days, every single day, two to three games a day. It’s World Cup/Olympics-lite. What the leagues are doing is truly unprecedented in U.S.-based sports. 

“Everybody’s managing through the same thing,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber told me, in talking about the preparations it takes to return. “Weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks, seven days a week, almost 18, 20-hour days to create the protocols, to get our players to agree to those protocols, to get our infectious disease doctors to accept those protocols.” And that’s just to get the plan in place. “Think about the fact that we’re a sports league trying to play games. We can’t do it in our home markets, and we have to come up with a new plan,” Garber added. “That plan is to work with Disney, send what is almost 2,000 people into a controlled environment, playing games every day, testing every day, producing games, reviewing different broadcast partners, and try to keep everybody safe and healthy.”

Of course, it’s not just MLS. Look at the work the UFC is doing on “Fight Island” (see story), or the efforts NASCAR has taken to bring fans back to the stands, to what the NWSL has done in Utah, to the PBR and the PGA Tour. It’s remarkable for entities that traditionally operate within well-designed lines of competition and commerce. 

Now, it’s still early, and while the initial indicators on the testing, and the limited number of positive tests, is encouraging, there’s a long way to go. And the uncertainty among leadership is palpable. One commissioner last week told me he was still “knocking on wood,” while another had “fingers crossed.” But, so far, their exhausting planning is working. I continue to believe in — and stress — the leadership role sports has played in society during this pandemic. We are experiencing that leadership again in providing a model for how other industries may ultimately open, all while fully understanding that the virus is in charge.

I want to share some thoughtful takeaways from Don Garber on what he’s learned during a pandemic:

“You can’t plan enough, and you must accept that even if you have the best-laid plans, you must be flexible and nimble because something will happen that will change your plans in a nanosecond.”

“If you have great qualities, they’re going to be elevated. If you have bad qualities, they’re going to be elevated. We need to really focus on those good qualities because you need to dig deep, and you need to really understand that you’re going to be tested in ways that you never really dreamed of.”

“Owners in sports believe so deeply in their investments and their commitments to their teams, and their communities. You’ve got to knock them down pretty hard before they get nervous and break. The level of commitment and belief from our ownership and strength has been absolutely remarkable to me.”

The comment about ownership struck me — this crisis is magnifying whatever the strengths and weaknesses are of ownership. Owners who are strong, steady and creative in the good times are showing even more of that strength, steadiness and creativity now that we’re in a crisis. Let’s hope owners will have the fortitude and guts to stick with their investment and remain true to the mission of being good stewards while continuing to spend as losses mount. That takes resiliency and courage, which the sports industry will need from these leaders in order to return to prosperity.

 

First Look podcast, with what Abe's watching this week, at the 28:46 mark:

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.