NEW YORK • Professional sports figured out how to sputter back to life over the past three months.
The National Basketball Association (NBA) finished its season with LeBron James on top again.
The National Hockey League (NHL) has a new Stanley Cup champion. The Women’s National Basketball Association also delivered a title team.
The National Football League (NFL) is charging ahead despite a series of positive coronavirus tests among some of its 32 teams.
Major League Baseball (MLB) this week will become the latest elite sports league to pull off the small miracle of completing a season that once looked beyond hope.
Against all odds, and with their financial futures threatened as never before, the leagues deployed aggressive, rapid-response testing that remains out of reach for the general public.
Keeping spectators out or severely limiting attendance, they apparently avoided the calamity of a virus death traced to an event.
They pushed through, their schedules overlapping as never before, as the United States was reeling from the pandemic and politics, and was not necessarily watching.
Now comes the hard part.
The leagues succeeded because they are enormously wealthy.
They had enough money not just to administer comprehensive testing but also to pivot quickly.
They did things that would have seemed unimaginable in the past, like relocating MLB outfit Toronto Blue Jays to Buffalo, New York and closing off hundreds of basketball and hockey players in bubble environments in two Canadian cities and at Disney World in Florida for two months.
Now the leagues have to figure out how to do it again as infection numbers have reached a record daily high in the United States, making it unclear how to protect players and personnel without spending exorbitantly again.
The only way any of this happens is with vigorous testing and the protocols working in tandem. Testing alone is not enough. It puts everyone in the right frame of mind, but also gives a false sense of security. It’s not a ticket to ignore the protocols and do whatever you want.
Baseball recently released its 2021 schedule with an April 1 opening day.
But commissioner Rob Manfred last week essentially said the schedule was little more than a series of dates on a calendar.
“The reality is all planning for 2021 for us, and for every other business in America, has to have an asterisk next to it in terms of what the course of the virus is going to be,” he said on ESPN Radio.
Resorting to bubbles seems unrealistic for an entire season and going without ticket sales and money from overpriced hot dogs, beer, T-shirts and parking has produced plenty of deep-red balance sheets.
The NHL, which should now be in the third week of the 2020-21 season, is targeting a Jan 1 start date but has yet to post a schedule, as the US-Canadian border remains closed.
Last Thursday, the league announced it was postponing its All-Star Game and the Winter Classic, an outdoor game scheduled for New Year’s Day.
The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA championship on Oct 11, ending a season just weeks before the next one would normally start and league officials have yet to say when play will start again.
“We will react to the state-of-the-art science,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. “I can’t say when, but I can say that whatever we do, we will do with safety being our top priority.”
Casey Wasserman, the owner of sports marketing and talent firm Wasserman, which has close relationships with the leaders of several leagues, said he was confident the NHL and the NBA would aim to start their seasons by early winter.
Next term may consist of slightly shorter schedules of roughly 70 games, and to complete their play-offs in June, as usual, so they can return to normal schedules for the 2021-22 season.
Major League Soccer (MLS) is also considering starting some time in April rather than in early March.
Where allowed, teams will admit spectators in limited numbers, as some NFL and MLB teams have done.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays are playing the World Series at a neutral stadium in Arlington, Texas, that is about 20 per cent full.
Still, as they so often do, sports are serving as a reflection of society. No one can say when most people will stop fearing large crowds, and the steps toward normalcy have had setbacks riddled with positive coronavirus tests.
Even with payment from media contracts, teams and leagues still stand to lose billions without fans in seats.
Spectator spending brings in roughly 25 per cent of the NFL’s US$15 billion (S$20.4 billion) in revenue, about one-third of baseball’s revenue and roughly 40 per cent of the NBA’s.
For other sports, such as hockey, football and tennis, the share is substantially higher.
Also, for any number of reasons, millions of fans have largely rejected the version of pro sports the pandemic has wrought.
TV ratings plummeted for nearly every league – 61 per cent for the Stanley Cup play-offs compared to last year, 49 per cent for the NBA Finals, and more than 40 per cent for the US Open tennis and golf events and for the World Series.
Ratings for the NFL have fallen the least, by 13 per cent.
Throughout all the ups and downs, constant testing has been vital. Every league entered a contract with a private lab to perform multiple Covid-19 tests each week and produce rapid results, usually within 24 hours.
NFL players are tested and screened for symptoms every day. Already the league has conducted more than 450,000 tests, and the handful of positive cases have come not from the gridiron but from off-the-field activities like dining, according to the league and the players’ union.
In MLS, tests occur every other day and the day before each match.
“The only way any of this happens is with vigorous testing and the protocols working in tandem,” said George Atallah, a spokesman for the NFL Players Association.
“Testing alone is not enough. It puts everyone in the right frame of mind, but also gives a false sense of security. It’s not a ticket to ignore the protocols and do whatever you want.”
Agreements on testing, safety protocols and pay were crucial to persuading players to return for the 2020 seasons, but only the NFL has figured out how to manage its finances beyond this year.
In July, the NFL and the players’ association agreed to share the financial pain.
The limit on each team’s player salaries, known as the “salary cap”, is currently US$198.2 million. It will probably drop next year, but it cannot go lower than US$175 million, with further adjustments possible in future seasons depending on how quickly life and pro football return to normal.
Other leagues still must find a way to get their players to share the burden of lost revenue without alienating stars like James, who is supposed to make nearly US$40 million next season.
Baseball, which nearly called off its season in July as owners and players bickered for weeks over pay, may face another bitter labour fight during the winter.
In many ways, the fallout for the industry is just beginning. In a note to investors, Chad Lewis, a senior director at Fitch, the ratings agency, wrote that “leagues, teams and facilities took action by expanding borrowing facilities, drawing down on lines of credit, managing expenses and delaying capital projects”.
Leagues are considering loosening regulations to allow private equity funds and other, publicly traded financial instruments to invest in teams.
Steve Horowitz, a principal at Inner Circle Sports, which specialises in sports finance, noted that “in the pandemic, values of teams are down across the board because you have lost a tremendous amount of revenue”.
Wasserman remains optimistic. “Everyone’s interests are really aligned here,” he said.
“Right now, everyone is just trying to grind through the year. In total, it’s 18 months of pain, and sports will be back.”