On Sunday evening, the BNP Paribas Open became the first U.S. sporting event to be impacted by COVID-19. Organizers scrapped next week’s ATP and WTA Tour tournament after the Riverside County Public Health Department declared a public health emergency (a local resident tested positive). The postponement (director Tommy Haas said he’s “prepared to hold the tournament on another date and will explore options”) of tennis’ ‘5th Grand Slam’ has sports fans wondering if it will be the first of many events eventually moved or cancelled due to the Coronavirus outbreak.
Howie Long-Short: Dr. Harvey Schiller said he doesn’t foresee Coronavirus turning team/league schedules upside down. The long-time senior sports executive remains convinced the majority of highly anticipated events on the March and April sports calendar (think: NCAA tournament, Opening Day, NBA/NHL games) will go on as planned. “No one can predict what tomorrow will bring, but if things remain as they are today – with the number of cases growing incrementally – Coronavirus won’t have much of an impact on sporting events [taking place] across America.” Schiller noted that even with all of the panic currently surrounding COVID-19, “there are all sorts of [conference] tournaments and pro sporting events going on that seemingly haven’t been effected.” Teams are traveling without issue and fans are still attending games.
Holding events with only mission critical personnel in attendance would seemingly be worst case scenario for the big four sports leagues and the NCAA (i.e. games aren’t getting cancelled). That means league revenues – outside of ticket sales and concessions – should be secure. Television coverage “will go on as planned” (and playing in empty buildings won’t impact lucrative broadcast deals) and “it’s not like an arena’s naming rights partner is going to pull their sponsorship because a few games within a long-term agreement are played without fans in attendance.” Worst case scenario may have arrived late Monday evening. Santa Clara officials announced a 3 week ban on any events – including San Jose Sharks games – with more than 1,000 people in attendance. The NHL is said to be exploring all of their options including the possibility of moving Sharks games to a neutral site or the road team’s home arena.
There is precedent for playing games without fans in the building. Back in ’89, the first round of the North Atlantic Conference tournament was played in an empty Hartford Civic Center following measles outbreaks on both the Siena College campus and at the University of Hartford. And in 2015, riots in Baltimore forced the Orioles and White Sox to play Major League Baseball’s first ‘crowdless’ game.
It’s possible -perhaps even likely – that an overnight spike in Coronavirus cases could force the postponement of some U.S. sporting events, but it’s all but guaranteed those games would eventually be made up. Both MLB and the NFL rescheduled games – they weren’t cancelled – in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Oakland A’s polished off the San Francisco Giants after an earthquake temporarily halted the 1989 World Series prior to Game 3.
While the 2020 Summer Olympics are not scheduled to get underway until late July, it’s logical to assume the heavy international travel associated with the event and the Games’ location (Tokyo) will eventually pose challenges for organizers that the U.S. sports leagues are lucky not to face. Schiller doesn’t believe that the athletes will express hesitancy in competing or have any issues traveling, but with “Japan and Asia having higher rates of infection [than anywhere else in the world], it’s possible that fans, sponsors and their guests will opt not to come. If that happens, [Olympic organizers] will have to decide if they want to put on events with a limited number of people [in the stands or move the Games to another country.]” Of course, if playing in front of a packed house is the concern organizers could always “give away tickets to the Japanese fans” and fill the stadiums with locals. Moving a high-profile global sporting event wouldn’t be unprecedented. The U.S. hosted the 2003 Women’s World Cup after a SARS outbreak forced the tournament to relocate from China. It should be noted that there was apprehension within the medical community regarding Zika virus in the months leading up to the 2016 Rio Games. That event went off without a hitch.
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