Sporting a Future

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I think it’s safe to say that right now we’re all missing something. Yes, we miss being able to go outside without restrictions but I’m talking about the little things. The unessential necessities. Maybe it’s an after-work happy hour or a Saturday afternoon pick-up basketball game. Dinner and a movie on Friday night; watching the game with friends. The small experiences that induce big feelings of togetherness.

In few places is that more apparent and missed than in sports – an industry and a lifestyle built on camaraderie both in teams and fans. Side-stepping through a row of strangers and spilling beer with each step may not sound like a good time on the surface but those of us who love sports know that means we’re about to watch our players, our team, our city take the field. It means cheering for something bigger than ourselves and probably spilling more beer in the high-fiving, chest-bumping excitement. Right now that picture is hard to even imagine but I can’t help but wonder if that’s really as far away as it feels.

In a recent ESPN study of over 1,000 sports fans, 65% said they were in favor of sports returning, with or without fans in the stands. That number jumps to 88% who consider themselves avid sports fans and say they plan to watch as many games as possible when sports return. I am one of those eighty-eight percent and though I’d rather watch a game played to an empty stadium than the replay of a replay on ESPN for the ninth week straight, I may be stating the obvious here but, the immediate future of sports is going to be very weird.

The NBA was setting up for what likely would have been an epic postseason. Still reeling from the tragic death of one its brightest stars, Kobe Bryant, the season was all but dedicated to his honor, as it should have been. Commissioner Adam Silver seems determined to finish out the season and every basketball fan is in favor but let’s take a minute to think about what that would look like. 

The top teams take home-court advantage but without fans, the color of the hardwood seems irrelevant. What about the teams building late-season momentum? That’s been gone for weeks already. Let’s consider each player on every team is cleared to play. How comfortable will players be with one another? Will fouls be called more often? Contact limited? I mean, will we, as fans, be comfortable watching players in this environment? Will we be as invested? Take a moment and try, just try, to imagine the feel of a Game 7 in an empty stadium and see if your interest in the NBA finals doesn’t dwindle just a little. 

With the NBA’s current 25-day startup period, other sports could potentially overtake some of the excitement if the season resumes. According to CBS, “the most recently reported plan to bring basketball back involved a 25-day preparation period in which players would work out individually for 11 days before coming together as teams for a 14-day training camp.” The last NBA game was played on March 11. The next could very easily be in July.

Let’s consider the NFL, which recently held its draft virtually for the first time in history and released its schedule on May 7th. Unless the league wants to populate fans using the draft’s Brady-Bunch backdrop, there’s going to be some serious changes in how fans attend games, assuming games are played. Putting aside the potential reservations of watching a close-contact sport, there certainly can’t be close-contact in the stands. Sure, this may mean more television viewership but those viewers won’t be tuning in to the same game they have in seasons past. In Week 3 for example, the last two league MVPs face off on the NFL’s biggest primetime regular-season stage – Monday Night Football – but with potential new guidelines in place, it could feel more like a full-pads scrimmage.

The Miami Dolphins were the first to release their plan for fans to attend which could echo the rest of the league’s ideas, depending on when things resume. This includes limiting tickets to 15,000 of the 65,000 seats available. Tell me – how do you decide which season ticket holders get to attend? And will people even want to attend if the stadium is only a fraction full? The atmosphere has all but disappeared at that point. From scheduled entry to pre-ordered concessions, the big games inside the country’s biggest stadiums will feel very small. And we haven’t even mentioned the effect on huge-money stadiums, like Los Angeles’ SoFi Stadium, that is set to open and will host two teams in one of the country’s largest sports markets.

Then there’s America’s pastime, Major League Baseball, on the precipice of its season when the virus broke out and has since delayed Opening Day indefinitely. Players remain optimistic they’ll play this season but per Sports Illustrated, “there has been no official word on when the season may start. Possibilities for baseball, other than empty parks, have included playing all games in the same state or same few states with lower COVID-19 cases and looser stay-at-home regulations, though the goal remains to play as many games in as many states as possible.”

The NHL, which was also in mid-season, played their last game on March 12 and seem in no rush to resume competitive play, focusing instead on timelines, including when to hold their annual draft. They are even entertaining the idea of drafting players before this season’s completion, which would create a whole other host of issues for teams.

However, with all that said, it isn’t all bad outside of America’s top four major sports leagues. 

The PGA Tour is moving forward, sans fans, meaning tournaments will look and feel very different for players without spectators lining the fairways or hearing the literal roar of Tiger Woods fans just a few holes away. We’ll get our first taste of this new format on May 17th with a skins game to support COVID-19 Relief efforts. The players will be carrying their own bags too, something even amateur golf fans might enjoy. The following weekend will then see the second installment of Tiger Woods v. Phil Mickelson, only this time they’ll be joined by NFL superstars Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. No word on who’s carrying who’s bag as of yet.

Something else to consider is how this current sports lapse may allow typically smaller market sports to grow thanks to previously unheard-of national viewership. What’s more, is that with smaller markets come fewer personnel – how these leagues manage their season could set the tone for the reopening of the other leagues.

One great example is the Premier Lacrosse League, which became the first professional sports league to announce it’s model for the 2020 season. The seven-team league will play their season – the league’s second – in a tournament-style called the PLL Championship Series that will crown the season’s champion. Play is set to begin July 25th with only essential personnel, no fans, and will feature three phases of COVID-19 testing prior to play.

Of course, you can still relive your team’s glory days on YouTube and, if you live in Florida, watch live wrestling because it’s apparently essential. You even tune into literally anything on ESPN 8 and find games you’d normally only find in your backyard. Hell, you could probably even play along. Cornhole and Spikeball championships, axe throwing, putt putt, stone toss, it’s all there.

Look, I know sports may not seem essential and games themselves certainly aren’t, but what that competition stands for is a necessity. Bringing people together, uniting under a common purpose, cheering for something bigger than ourselves – sounds more like sport than we may realize. 

Until then, check out the current state of the sports world and tune in to The Last Dance on ESPN when you’re not watching the Cherry Spitting Championship.

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