Imagine an important football game this autumn at Ford Field, Spartan Stadium or the Big House in Ann Arbor. There aren’t many fans in the stands due to social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic.
But TV is there to see 22 players on the field. It’s fourth down and goal-to-go on the one yard line in the final minute of a close game. The coach calls a quarterback sneak.
When he takes the snap and plows ahead, the quarterback draws a cluster of 21 other bodies in a pulsating pile. No social distancing here.
A half-dozen whistle-blowing officials rush in to untangle the men, who expel their own spittle as they shout, grunt and curse. Oh, are they wearing masks?
By any chance, might one or two of these players carry Covid-19? Yes, of course, the athletes will be tested before the games. That’s what the leagues tell us. And if you think instant test results will protect everyone on that field, you are a trusting soul.
Fear of transmission during sports seasons is one more worry as we endure the fifth month of this pandemic in the United States. Some people didn’t take it seriously until last March, when the National Basketball Association stopped its season and the NCAA canceled its college basketball tournament.
The return of sports might play a nasty role in the coming presidential election. And the wishful thinking of the sports industry might lead to a fiasco and a business reformation. With all those 21st century luxury boxes vacant, franchise values might dip and bring salaries down with them.
In the meantime, marketers hope the return of college and professional sports on TV will bring back a sense of normalcy to a customer base that has learned it can get along well enough without these expensive spectacles.
A full century after the Big Bang moment in sports – the Boston Red Sox in 1920 dealt Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees – this thriving industry may be headed for its first major recession.
In Detroit, we already were in one.
Remember the Motor City mood in mid-March, when local casinos were just launching sports-gambling rooms? Nobody was betting on the local teams to win. The Tigers and Lions had finished in last place in their divisions.
The Red Wings – still playing – were last in their division. The Pistons – still playing – were one-half game out of last, just ahead of Chicago. Things were dreary.
Because the Wings and Pistons were so lowly, they won’t be back for the truncated seasons that start for the NBA on July 30 and, for the NHL, probably in August.
Of course, the Tigers will play at least a 60-game season when MLB returns on July 23. And the Lions will follow when the NFL kicks off on Sept. 10, with two exhibitions before that. Michigan and Michigan State will begin their football schedules on Sept. 5.
That could mean that most major sports (except college basketball) will be fighting head-to-head for TV viewers in mid-autumn – if all goes well. Baseball, basketball and hockey could be in their playoffs while pro and college football approach mid-season – if all goes well. That could lower ratings because too much product will be on the market at the same time.
And what if quarantined athletes with wives and kids back home pack up and go home because they miss their families? Or because the next road trip is to a virus-stricken city?
And what if some autograph seeker or casual acquaintance – away from the arena – passes the virus to a player? And with Florida spiking in virus hospitalizations, is it really a good idea for the NBA to set up its tent there and only there?
If one league shuts down due to a team outbreak, will other sports follow suit?
Now add politics
In addition, the timing of the seasons means that sports will command attention during the presidential campaign when a lot of people will still play it cautious by staying home and watching TV.
How will it go over when players take a knee before games as a gesture of support for the Black Lives Matter movement? Three years ago, in a stunt before an Indianapolis Colts game, Vice President Mike Pence staged a walkout after he was horrified to see such a thing.
Back then, President Donald Trump condemned black athletes as “SOBs” for using the genuflection gesture to protest the deaths of African Americans in police custody.
Since then, public opinion has shifted heavily toward BLM. Will Trump and Pence dare to turn it into a campaign issue? And how will they react when their Washington home team changes its nickname from a racial slur?
So it’s half a league onward as we charge toward the first pitch, tipoff, faceoff and kickoff and assume all sports complete their schedules and that renewed social mingling won’t force another major shutdown because Trump bullied the nation (including sports leagues) to reopen too soon.
Assuming sports betting returns returns with the games, you can go to your casino and bet your teams and pay your money and take your chances.
But if you follow the sports industry, you know all bets are off.