Special Briefing: Will Sports Ever Be Worth as Much Again?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this isn’t just a game.
By Dan Peleschuk
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What’s happening? For the first time since the Second World War, sports leagues across the world have suspended games and events en masse. Last month’s postponement of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo was the watershed moment — while on Thursday, the UFC appeared to be the final holdout to fold after it caved in to demands from ESPN and Disney to call off an April 18 event. But with many countries still only approaching their peak infection rate, sports executives from Germany to South Korea are already asking when it might be fair game to return.
Why does it matter? Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy made waves this week when he suggested there was too much money at stake to postpone a return to his sport for much longer. He was widely panned, but his remarks illustrate how in a matter of weeks, the $500 billion global sports market has become more vulnerable than ever before. Between the collapse in revenue and shifting spectator habits, athletics around the world may be changing forever.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
Early return. Gundy didn’t exactly approach with caution, claiming that most of his players are fit enough to fight off the coronavirus and even recommending that any infected athletes be sequestered on campus. But far calmer minds are already planning their own returns. In South Korea, where new COVID-19 cases have been steadily falling, the Korea Baseball League could start exhibition games as early as April 21. Germany’s Bundesliga soccer teams have already hit the practice field to prepare for matches starting early May. And the NFL, which is gearing up for its first-ever all-digital draft later this month, is still hoping to launch its season as scheduled in September.
Who’s there? Most of those leagues, however, are staring at a stark new reality: playing in empty stadiums. Whether it’s German soccer or American football, taking the field to near-silence seems to be the safest, if uninspiring, compromise. And it could help millions of fans watching on television, desperate for a sense of normalcy in these times, experts told OZY in March. It’s a sentiment similar to what we witnessed when Major League Baseball returned days after the Sept. 11 attacks. Yet it’s unclear how many fans will return even when the threat of the virus fades — in a recent Seton Hall University poll, 72 percent of respondents said they would wait for a vaccine to be developed before returning to sporting events.
Cash cows. Uncertain return dates and empty stadiums are bad news for teams and organizing bodies around the world. Losing out on uber-lucrative broadcast deals, advertising contracts and game day spending, leagues are looking to short-term creative solutions, such as charging for access to archived games or giving broadcasters extra rights. But if the pandemic drags on longer than expected, it’s difficult to see how the average value of an NBA team transaction, for instance, will remain around $1.85 billion, as it has in recent years. Top league executives have already reportedly taken a 20 percent salary cut. Across the pond, the English Premier League is pressuring players to take a 30 percent reduction in pay, though it remains to be seen if they’ll succeed. Even in comparatively less lucrative international sports, like rugby and racing, some are already speculating that governing bodies could begin considering more stringent regulations on spending.
Wave of the future. Despite the gloom, it’s the perfect growth opportunity for the billion-dollar esports industry. Online viewership has leapt during the last quarter, suggesting advertisers would be wise to turn their eye to that space. Esports isn’t without its own challenges, since big-ticket live events are major money makers. But industry whizzes have been quick to surmount that challenge: After being suspended last month, the League of Legends North America League Championship Series was up and running remotely within days. Even traditional big-league sports are getting more serious about online gaming, with the NBA 2K Players Tournament pitting real-life pro ballers against one another this week from the comfort of their couch. Perhaps surprisingly, though, it’s NASCAR that’s long been ahead of the curve: Having launched virtual racing a decade ago and made it a key part of its brand, the organization is now well-poised to meet the new moment.
WHAT TO READ
Coronavirus Closes Sports Venues, Opens Door for Creative Fan Engagement, by Jeff Eisenband on OZY
“The general public and their sporting heroes need one another. Fans need an escape, even if temporary, from the uncertainty all around them. Players need to stay connected with fans to maintain their brand.”
‘We’re All Effed. There’s No Other Way to Look at This, Is There?’ by Ross Dellenger and Pat Forde in Sports Illustrated
“The gravy train has hit a snag. If it leads to a major downturn in the college football economy, then what?“
WHAT TO WATCH
Coronavirus Update: NFL Seasons Could Go On, But Other Sports Are In Jeopardy
“Every baseball fan has to be prepared — at least starting to prepare mentally — for the worst-case scenario: that there is no season.”
Watch on CBS New York on YouTube:
Belarus Is Tackling Coronavirus with Vodka and Soccer
“If we’re being honest here, it’s a lot worse than [the] Premier League, or Spanish football, or Italian football. But it’s football — it’s something.”
Watch on VICE News on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
Lessons from history. For anyone lamenting the loss of sports to a global pandemic, they should take heart: We’ve been here before. After a world war and the Spanish influenza together claimed tens of millions of lives, the Inter-Allied Games brought together more than a dozen nations to compete in ad-hoc competitions like grenade throwing and tug-of-war alongside traditional sports.
- Dan Peleschuk