COVID-19’s Impact on Pro Sports

Breaking down the problems and outcomes our sports leaders face as they tackle the novel coronavirus.

Hans Kamin
Apr 17, 2020 · 18 min read

Written by Anshul Shah & Hans Kamin — April 17th, 2020.

A zoomed-in shot of a lone football resting on the goal line. The football has a special NFL 100th Anniversary logo.
A zoomed-in shot of a lone football resting on the goal line. The football has a special NFL 100th Anniversary logo.

You’ve likely heard the phrase “these are unprecedented times” much more than you’ve wanted to over the past several weeks, but this sentiment grows stronger with each passing day.

Thanks to the coronavirus outbreak, global commerce, worldwide sports, and many of the other core functions of our society have dragged to a standstill. On April 6th, 2020, President Donald Trump hosted a virtual conference with some of the most powerful leaders in professional sports; attendance included Rob Manfred (MLB), Adam Silver (NBA), Gary Bettman (NHL), and Roger Goodell (NFL), along with commissioners from the PGA Tour, WWE, NASCAR, MLS, and UFC. During this call, the president insisted that the sports world should open its doors “sooner rather than later.”

While we’d definitely love to see our favorite athletes competing again within the next couple of months, we recognize that the real timeline is lengthier than we’d like. So, we’ve decided to highlight the major hurdles that our professional sports leaders must face before attempting to restart their seasons, as well as provide our own thoughts on how things may turn out.

We’ve ordered our analyses alphabetically by sport:

  • 2020 Olympic Games
  • Baseball
  • Basketball
  • Football
  • Hockey
  • NCAA (College Sports)
  • Tennis

The 2020 Olympic Games

One of the Olympic stadiums in Tokyo. The 5 rings of the Olympics are front and center.
One of the Olympic stadiums in Tokyo. The 5 rings of the Olympics are front and center.

As symbolized by the lighting of the torch, the quadrennial Olympics are a beacon of harmony and the greatest culmination of global athletic talent. For two weeks, all of the world’s problems are left in the rearview mirror as spectators across the planet cheer on their olympians with a unified sense of passion, purpose, and pride. At a time when people feel more divided than ever, the Olympics could be a momentary yet welcome respite from otherwise unyielding conflict…so it’s a shame we’ll have to wait one more year.

The process for a city to secure the right to host the Olympics is a dreadful, detailed, and lengthy one, to say the very least. In 2012, under the leadership of former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, Tokyo’s organizing committee officially submitted its bid to host the 2020 Olympics to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). After 10 months of rigorous social, political, and infrastructural reviews, Tokyo was awarded the right to host the games at the 2013 IOC meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This was the end of the beginning for Tokyo, whose host committee promised the IOC that the 2020 Olympics would be the most thoroughly organized games the world has ever seen.

In 2013, when Japan was awarded the 2020 games, the country determined that approximately $7.3 billion USD would be needed to create the infrastructure necessary to host the games. In late 2019, an updated estimate of expenditures brought that total up to $12.6 billion, excluding expenditures by municipal and national governments, which would’ve bumped it up to $26 billion. Furthermore, the postponement of the games for another year will only increase that cost again by several hundreds of millions, if not billions. In contrast, the 2028 games in Los Angeles are projected to cost only $6.9 billion, due in part to existing stadium infrastructure. Thus, COVID-19 has raised some alarming questions for the Japanese organizing committee: who will cover the extra costs, and where will extra funding come from?

Nonetheless, it’s the logistical concerns generated by postponement that are easily the biggest headaches of this whole thing. Here are just a few of the issues that need to be tackled between now and July 2021:

  • International sports schedules: professional sports leagues around the world halt play or shift for two weeks to account for Olympic competition. Most American sports are not affected by the one-year postponement, but many other leagues (European soccer leagues, international volleyball, track & field events) are by design offset every four years to ensure their top athletes can participate in the Olympics.
  • Maintaining newly built venues for another year: the 68,000-capacity Japan National Stadium, built specifically for the Olympic games, will have to be kept in top shape for another year before it’s used as fully intended for the first time — not to mention smaller facilities built in the greater Tokyo area, like the swimming and diving center, the volleyball stadiums, and the Olympic Village.
  • Conference and hotel space rebooking: millions of fans across the globe booked hotel rooms and conference spaces for the original dates of the Olympics. The rescheduling of these reservations is now a top priority.
  • Storage of equipment: millions of dollars worth of equipment has already been purchased and delivered to event locations. All of it needs to be housed for another year, either at the event sites or elsewhere.
  • Contractors/Volunteers have to be rescheduled: these workers could be servers, broadcast technicians, event volunteers, transportation personnel, etc…
  • Flights have to be rebooked: millions of fans from around the world means millions of dollars spent on travel. All these flights will have to be cancelled or rescheduled to the following year. Thankfully, most airlines are providing free cancellations during the COVID-19 crisis anyway.
  • The Greater Japan area has to deal with an economic hit (more so than the rest of the world): Japan was expecting close to $6 billion in revenue from hosting the 2020 Olympics. Now this inflow of money will have to wait, and there’s no telling whether or not that revenue estimate ends up significantly lower due to global economic slowdowns and a decreased consumer capacity to spend on leisure and entertainment.
  • Reissue/refund of event tickets to fans: a massive portion of revenue from the Olympics comes from ticket sales, and now the Japanese organizing committee must decide whether to offer refunds to fans who can no longer attend the new dates, or trust those fans to resell their tickets on a third-party marketplace so that all seats are still filled.

On March 22nd, Canada and Australia became the first two nations to drop out of the games, citing concern for their athletes’ health and safety, and many other countries planned to follow suit. Even if the Olympics were to continue as planned, many large countries wouldn’t have been able to hold their Olympic trials, which subsequently would have made it exponentially difficult for these countries to choose their representative athletes. The 5 rings of the Olympic logo represent the 5 continents from which participant nations will gather (the Americas are considered one continent), so what’s the point of having the Olympics when pieces of those rings are missing?

The Olympics bring the world together in a powerful and healthy way, so the decision to protect public health by postponing the games was a responsible one. Assuming we all continue to do our part to flatten the curve, the likelihood of the pandemic continuing into 2021 is slim, but the danger still exists. This extra year without the games should be ample time for Japan and the IOC to come up with contingency plans if the worst-case scenario comes to fruition.

Baseball

An empty Detroit Tigers baseball stadium. It’s raining, and the diamond is tarped over.
An empty Detroit Tigers baseball stadium. It’s raining, and the diamond is tarped over.

Given that we should already be watching our favorite MLB teams on the diamond right now, there’s even more uncertainty when it comes to baseball. The league canceled the last week and a half of spring training, then followed this up with a postponement of the regular season until mid June. While this delay is a pain, it’s not unprecedented; the MLB has a history of shortened seasons for a variety of reasons:

  • 1918 — WW1 cut the season from 154 games to 140.
  • 1972 — A players strike caused a 1.5-week delay at the beginning of the season, but the league never made up the games, so many teams ended the season with a different number of played games than others. Quite the controversial situation.
  • 1981 — A mid-season players strike in June put the season on pause until early August, cutting it to a 107 game season for all teams.
  • 1994 — Teams played the first half of the season, then another players strike canceled the rest of it.

So how will the 2020 season play out? The 1981 season definitely appears to be the best model; every team still played the same number of games, so divisional and wild-card winners could still be crowned and the playoffs could resume as usual. When we have a season as long and demanding as baseball’s is, it’s also the much healthier option to refrain from packing in as many games as possible into a tight window, especially for pitchers who’ve likely been keeping their arms conditioned since the cancelation of spring training. Continuing with a 162 game season that carries into November/December would leave players with just about a month of offseason time before next year’s spring training preparations begin — it’s clear to see how horrible that would be for the players’ well-being.

The MLBPA has elected not to sue the league in the event of a total cancelation of the 2020 season. Over the next two months, the league will pay out $170 million, and the MLBPA will split that total amongst players based on four salary tiers. Should the season simply be shortened (as is likely the case), the payouts will be counted against players’ prorated salaries. In addition to this, a transaction freeze on potential roster moves has been placed on all teams, barring them from signing free agents, trading players, etc.

All this, and we haven’t even touched on the MLB Draft yet. College and high-school baseball seasons were canceled too, so guys hoping to make a strong impact on their draft stock this season are obviously no longer able to do so. That being said, given the significance that it carries, the draft will most likely be postponed and shortened to 10 rounds rather than canceled, as canceling it would yield too many problems when it comes to deciding the professional fates of 12th graders and college upperclassmen. If handling of the NFL Draft is any indicator of how other drafts will move forward, don’t be surprised if we see the MLB Draft in June/July, right around when the season is (currently) expected to start up.

Baseball, America’s national pastime, hasn’t been able to help us pass the time when we’ve needed it to the most. Here’s hoping that baseball’s back sooner rather than later.

Basketball

An empty Golden State Warriors basketball arena.
An empty Golden State Warriors basketball arena.

A slew of NBA players and organization members have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last month, making basketball one of the most directly affected sports in the world. The league suspended the season in early March under the pretense that it would be able to pick back up right around June/July, but as the national situation continues to develop, that expectation continues to be challenged, with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver still refraining from providing a timeline for the return of operations. In fact, the situation has changed so much in the past ~30 days that the teams themselves have started requesting that the NBA Draft be postponed from its current date on June 25th until at least August 1st, citing an inability to adequately scout prospects amidst the pandemic.

Most teams have anywhere from 15 to 17 games left to play this season, and there are only 3 undecided playoff spots remaining, so this was certainly not a great time for the season to halt and potentially be canceled. Assuming operations can resume in early-mid August, it’s tough to find a solution in which nobody gets the short end of the stick. Should the season’s timeline resume unchanged, there will still be one month of regular season games to play, followed by two months for the postseason, leaving the end of the season in November; given that NBA seasons generally start in mid-late October, the 2020–2021 season would have to be significantly delayed and shortened in this situation for everyone to receive a sufficient offseason and eventual return to normalcy. On the flip side, the options of canceling or shortening the remainder of this season come with their own drama, especially given the breakout year this has been for multiple players and teams.

In addition to what COVID-19 has done to the players and teams, it’s dealt a humongous financial blow to the NBA as a whole. The Washington Post reported that the league could experience as much as $1 billion in lost revenue, and that’s all independent of the hit the NBA took at the beginning of the season after the China fiasco with Daryl Morey (yeah…that was the beginning of this season). Taking all of this into consideration, and given that the salary cap was increased from $109 million to $115 million this year, it’s not out of the question that we see it drop down to as low as $100 million next season, which would make 2020–2021 only the third salary-cap decrease from the previous year in the history of the NBA. Furthermore, although players are still expected to receive their full paychecks on April 15th, the league’s financial woes have led to the NBA asking players to take a 50% pay cut while play is suspended. The players’ union responded by requesting a 25% cut that wouldn’t go into effect until May, so while it should still be a while before this has any tangible impact, the notion itself of players losing any portion of their salaries in order to keep the league afloat is nothing short of alarming, especially when some of them have been using their salaries to pay the game-day staff and other organization members who’ve lost their incomes.

Free agency in 2021 is sure to become one of the craziest in history, especially if our prediction of a salary cap decrease comes true. It’s all but guaranteed at this point that the transaction freeze that came about at the beginning of the shutdown will extend as long as the season is suspended, making next year’s offseason one that’s sure to be stacked. Kawhi, Giannis, PG, and numerous other stars and key players are expected to hit the market in 2021, and assuming that others with player-options or restricted status in 2020 choose to wait it out, there could be some insane super-teams forming in the near future.

Football

Two side-by-side photos of empty and abandoned NFL stadiums.
Two side-by-side photos of empty and abandoned NFL stadiums.

The NFL Draft, scheduled just a week from the time of this writing, is the most rapidly approaching problem to address in professional football. The league decided not too long ago to televise the draft with no live audience, sacrificing a huge revenue stream and brand-building mechanism. This comes with drawbacks for the players too: the unforgettable moment of walking across that stage and receiving their team’s hat in front of family, friends, and supporters — a lifelong dream for every player — has been ripped away from each and every single one of them. There’s no quantifying the emotional toll this takes, even when we all know it’s for the greater good.

All pre-draft interviews with prospects will now be conducted virtually, and while this seems like a decision that should come with little to no friction, it’s difficult to predict what kind of effect this will have on front offices when it comes to player selection. Video conferencing has certainly evolved into an almost seamless experience, but when it comes to scouting a player’s poise, presence, and organizational fit, nothing beats an in-person meeting.

Then, of course, there’s arguably the biggest problem of them all: scheduling the entirety of the season — everything from OTAs, rookie minicamp, and training camp to the regular season itself. Assuming the NFL has the chance to begin the regular season as currently scheduled, which itself is a stretch in spite of President Trump’s desires, what happens to all the preseason functions we just listed? Every team needs preseason preparation, so it’s more likely that everything gets pushed back, and we end up with a Super Bowl that’s a few months later than usual. On the other hand, while the chances of a shortened season are slim, we can’t completely rule it out — football is a grueling sport, and cutting into the 2021 offseason because of a delayed 2020 regular season might not be the healthiest option for players.

Hockey

An empty Washington Capitals hockey arena.
An empty Washington Capitals hockey arena.

As of April 1st, two players and four staff members for the Ottawa Senators and two players for the Colorado Avalanche have tested positive for COVID-19. As the month progresses, it’s safe to assume that a few more people having some capacity of involvement in professional hockey will end up contracting the virus, so don’t be surprised if it isn’t until late summer that the league entertains the notion of resuming operations, if it even considers doing so at all.

We should be in the midst of a playoff hockey race right now, but with the NHL having indefinitely postponed its regular season and draft a little over a month ago, we’re left with nothing but uncertainty. From official press releases, the NHL has shown interest in potentially opening up a club training-camp period before continuing the season once the CDC relaxes its guidelines, likely as a way to give players the chance to get back into mid-season condition before diving into the most important stretch of games. Nonetheless, the question of how the rest of the regular season will play out is closely intertwined with how the NBA handles its situation; many NHL teams share arenas with their local NBA teams, so both leagues will have to work closely together on scheduling concerns if their seasons are to resume around the same time. While it may not seem like too daunting a task to coordinate scheduling — both leagues already play 82-game regular seasons within similar timelines to begin with — monetization concerns (e.g. broadcasting conflicts) need to be considered against all professional sports in order to minimize losses across the board, which will not be easy for any of the parties involved.

As previously mentioned, should the season resume, the NHL appears to be planning a chunk of time for players to get back into the groove of competition, but the grueling physicality of professional hockey brings into question the efficacy of such a move and the length of time that would be needed. One could argue that too much rest to the point of physical unpreparedness is likely to be the case for some players, making a relatively long period of training camp necessary for both performance and health.

Regardless of what happens to the remainder of this season, the NHL has insisted that it does not anticipate any scenario in which things leave an impact on next season. Nonetheless, it’s hard to see this remaining true if North America doesn’t find itself returning to normalcy within the next three or four months, especially since the league continues to leave questions surrounding salary implications and free-agency consequences unanswered.

NCAA (College Sports)

An empty college basketball stadium during March Madness.
An empty college basketball stadium during March Madness.

The NCAA has already made some huge moves in response to the pandemic, and things stand to get even more extreme if the situation in our country continues through autumn. About a week and a half prior to this writing, the NCAA cut $375 million in funding from Division I leagues, announcing that it expects each Division will lose ~70% of its estimated annual revenue this year. Sheeeesh. And it’s no stretch that this stands to get even worse if the college football season is affected later this year.

Watching programs take devastating hits because of the virus is painful to witness — but there’s hope for anyone whose season was cut short: the NCAA has granted those athletes another year of eligibility. However, the majority of affected athletes are questioning whether or not sticking around for another year is actually worth it. Choices on scholarships and financial aid are left up to the schools to make for themselves, so many athletes could end up eligible for another season but lacking the financial support to make use of that eligibility.

Then there’s the fact that these athletes would have to stick around for another year of school itself. At schools where tuition won’t be covered for the extra year, athletes must consider if an entire year’s tuition is worth it for a few more months of competition in the sports they love; unless there’s a solid chance of going pro or a strong case for immediately pursuing another degree, the tradeoff doesn’t appear to be in most athletes’ best interests.

Tennis

An empty №1 Court at Wimbledon. The roof has been closed.
An empty №1 Court at Wimbledon. The roof has been closed.

Tennis is a grueling year-long sport, and the season usually runs from January to November (just one month of offseason!), so COVID-19 completely screws up the calendar for all players and events. In fact, given the nature of the sport and how its industry operates, tennis players and events are some of the most negatively impacted entities in all of sports during this crisis.

All ATP & WTA tournaments were canceled thru June 7th. The biggest tournaments previously scheduled to occur in the March-June time window — Indian Wells, Miami, Rome, and Madrid — all suspended their events and left postponement up in the air. The French Open, which was originally slated to begin May 24th, has been postponed to late September — just one week after the US Open.

The decision to hold two Grand Slams back-to-back shows little to no consideration for the challenge this poses for players. The dichotomy between hard courts and clay courts goes well beyond aesthetics; players must adapt to radically different ball speeds, footwork techniques, and movement styles, significantly changing the strategic approaches they adopt while on court. To put it simply, just one week of preparation isn’t enough for the vast majority of players, even the best ones in the world…there’s a reason why Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the US Open usually have those smaller, same-surface tournaments leading up to them. Furthermore, Grand Slams can be exhausting marathons if players need multiple 5-set triumphs on their way to the late stages of the tournament, so playing two Slams in a row is nothing short of depleting. Moving the French Open to this new time frame almost guarantees that many players will end up skipping smaller tournaments in October to rest.

Nonetheless, for the time being, the entirety of the clay-court section this season has been completely wiped out. Most of the smaller tournaments with less prestige, prize money, and points on the line will cancel if they haven’t already, a brutal scenario for players just outside the top 30 who were hoping to accumulate points before the French Open and Wimbledon.

Which brings us to the biggest shock of this entire fiasco: Wimbledon is canceled. For the first time since World War II, the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world will not take place. The shock of this announcement was felt everywhere, and while it’s certainly a gigantic revenue hit for the All England Club, the decision highlights an attempt at a unified front with the rest of the tournaments to be played this year in order to keep as many events going as possible.

The most worrisome question to arise, though, is how up-and-coming and lower-ranked players will deal with the severe dearth of prize money and point opportunities this year. Many of these players rely on earnings from previous tournaments in order to fund trips to future tournaments — an entire half-year’s earnings (possibly more) is completely non-existent now, and the odds are slim that the ATP and WTA provide some sort of financial relief in this situation. Some players will definitely bloom under this pressure, but the ones who don’t face a devastating set of circumstances.

LeBron James giving a speech at the Kobe Bryant memorial service, surrounded by the numbers 8 and 24.
LeBron James giving a speech at the Kobe Bryant memorial service, surrounded by the numbers 8 and 24.

The beauty of sports is that they engrossingly encapsulate the human condition in a way that few other experiences can. The raw ecstasy of a comeback victory, the palpable burn of a hard-fought loss, the gut-wrenching tension of those moments when the pressure’s mounting and everything’s on the line…these are ubiquitous feelings spread throughout our lifetimes, but sports package them in a digestible rollercoaster ride that leaves us incessantly yearning for more. That’s what makes every buzzer-beater, match point, and walk-off so meaningful and memorable.

We wrote this article because sports represent all of these things to us and more — and they probably do to you, too — which makes the crisis we’re facing today even more painful than it already is. But while we patiently wait for our global experts to figure things out, we’ll make do with the highlight reels we already have, relishing the fact that there’s always more magnificence to come.

Sources:

Home Stretch

The Intersection of Current Events, Business, and Sports, Explained.

Hans Kamin

Written by

alum @calpoly && software engineer @WalmartTech.

Home Stretch

Through research and interviews, we explain the impact of current events on sports-industry trends. We bring you easily digestible takes on the world of sports and the forces that drive it.

Hans Kamin

Written by

alum @calpoly && software engineer @WalmartTech.

Home Stretch

Through research and interviews, we explain the impact of current events on sports-industry trends. We bring you easily digestible takes on the world of sports and the forces that drive it.

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