When will sports fully resume? The answer is obvious.
Tom Brady may never play again in front of fans. The same for LeBron James, too. Games are halted, leagues are suspended, and mega sporting events are postponed. Will the Tokyo Olympics happen next summer? Will the Boston Marathon be run this September? It’s looking less and less likely by the day. FIFA? It remains a great video game. Recently, a minister in the British government suggested footballers there ought to take a pay cut for the season. Italian players agreed to one. In reality, the players should be offered a retirement plan.
The rapid spread of the deadly coronavirus, which has upended nearly every aspect of our lives, has decimated both the global sports calendar and players’ careers for the foreseeable future. Models indicate that the world of sports as we know it may be over — at least until a vaccine is found. The timeframe for finding a remedy has profound implications for team and stadium owners, athletes, and fans all over the world — it also threatens industries that live off sports.
At the beginning of the outbreak in the U.S., most league executives said they expected games to resume within a month or so. Today, the notion that athletes and teams would quickly return from their hiatus seems shortsighted; and the hope that fans would happily squeeze back in their seats at Fenway Park or Madison Square Garden seems hopelessly naïve.
Epidemiologists say that the date for “back to normal” is unclear. Dr. Anthony Fauci, U.S. health adviser, warned that we may never return to normal. This current period of lockdownsand quarantines is necessary to slow the spread and flatten the curve; but the war against this virus is long-term. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 spanned two years, and other pandemics have had similarly long trajectories. Most had three consecutive waves with a long tail of lingering months of death. We are now surfing on the peak of the first wave.
Consequently, stadiums are unlikely to reopen any time soon. Would you be willing to bet your safety — or the safety of your loved ones — for a game? Certainly, owners of large venues will be reluctant to reopen. If a player, coach, or spectator tested positive for coronavirus, the entire operation would need to be shut down again — similar to what happened to cinemas in China. Stadium owners could also face lawsuits by patrons who fall ill because of an overhasty return to business as usual. The fact is, the longer we live in this new regime, the longer it will take to renew public trust in large gatherings.
This points to dire financial consequences. Consider Boston’s TD Garden, which was recently renovated with a private investment of $100 million. It’s empty. For how long — and at what cost?
League economics will change. The dynamics of team ownership will shift. And television and sporting media outlets will suffer. While it is too early to know precisely how big these losses will be for the industry and for specific sports or teams, investors and owners are already beginning to rewrite their business plans for the long haul.
Players, too, face uncertainty. It requires many months — and sometimes years — to train individuals and teams for peak performance. The Olympic Games take place every four years; the World Athletics Championships every two. Athletes, many of whom are currently operating under strict social distancing measures like the rest of us, now must stay in shape and maintain their skills from their homes. Teams aren’t able to practice. And coaches must use virtual means to prepare their players for competition.
Careers are at stake. Age plays a big role in sports — just ask Brady, who turns 43 this summer. Athletes who trained for the Tokyo games may lose their opportunity. High school and college players, meanwhile, may not get a chance to make their mark and get attention from recruiters.
For fans, the loss of sports has been particularly hard to take since we’ve been instructed by our leaders to stay home. Televised games, usually a reliable diversion, are absent. Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, admitted that he, “would love to see sports back, [to] help with cabin fever.” But he acknowledged that it may be a long time coming. In the meantime, what will happen to the thousands of small businesses that cater to sports fans — bars, breweries, food trucks, and pizzerias? Will they survive?
There is, of course, an obvious answer for when sports will resume: when scientists find a cure for the coronavirus. True, the discovery of a vaccine is a year away at best, possibly two. And during this global pause in sports, entire seasons may be lost. Teams may dissolve. Venues may have to file for bankruptcy. And some athletes may be forced to take an early leave.
But if scientists are allowed funding for developing the vaccine for the coronavirus, we might still get a chance to hail Tom Brady.
Professor Gad Yair is the WollensChair in Educational Research at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an Israel Institute visiting professor at MIT Sloan School of Management.