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What The Sports Shutdown Means For Leagues … And Fans

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): The coronavirus pandemic has affected every slice of life in the past week for most Americans. The sports world has played an interesting role in all of this, serving as a harbinger in some ways: The suspension of the NBA season after the positive test of Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz emphasized the seriousness of the virus for many people.

We can’t know how the next several months will play out, but we wanted to talk through what the suspension has meant for our leagues — and ourselves, as fans.

What do you each see as the most significant effects of the suspensions?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): In the immediate, it might be just how each league crowns a champion in 2020, or if they do at all.

The NBA and NHL might have to get creative about how to stage the playoffs, if they can even come back in time to do it. And of course, the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments will have no champions.

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): Exactly. There was initially hope that a shorter hiatus, to allow for quarantines, might be sufficient. A few days later, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said it would be at least a 30-day hiatus. And now the CDC’s recommendation is that all events be held to 50 people or fewer for the next eight weeks. That would be a logistical challenge for the NBA, which has 30 players and coaches alone for each team, not to mention the referees, statisticians, announcing crew (assuming the game is televised), etc.

We’re looking at months, at least, if this is even under control by then.

travis.sawchik (Travis Sawchik, sportswriter): The number of MLB games that will be played remains highly uncertain. I think the best-case scenario is a mid-June return with another ramp-up period for pitchers, which would result in something like a 100-game season. But it’s possible there are far fewer (if any) games played. Assuming MLB games return at some point this late spring or summer with fans able to be in attendance, it will be interesting to see if consumers of the sport rush back to stadiums or are hesitant to return.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Of the major sports, the NFL was the least affected. The biggest news was that the NFL draft, which is set to be held April 23-25 in Las Vegas, has been closed to fans. According to the NFL, it will still be televised, and frankly I’m interested to see if it might actually be a more interesting product to watch on TV. The other league event that will likely be impacted are the early May rookie minicamps, when teams get to spend some hands-on time with their new draft picks.

neil: All of this plays into one of the biggest long-term effects as well: the economic impact. Billions upon billions will be lost by not being able to play these games.

chris.herring: It’s still nuts to think about how much the nation has shifted in less than a week.

sara.ziegler: It really is!

neil: It remains surreal.

travis.sawchik: I assume most MLB owners can weather this in the short term, but you wonder what impact it will have on business operations. If the MLBPA thought recent offseasons were tough in terms of free agency and arbitration, what about next winter? And you have to feel for minor league players who are not paid until the season starts. Many are in a very, very tough position.

Then there are the local economies that are affected by the lack of baseball, which is such a volume business, particularly hourly workers at local restaurants and bars and those within the actual stadiums

chris.herring: Even once it became clear that this was a more serious thing, the NCAA folks were brainstorming how to scale down the tournaments, perhaps to 16 teams instead of 68. Then the positive test for Gobert went public, and every hope for that, or anything really, was shattered. A billion-dollar event, just gone.

sara.ziegler: I feel for those kids the most, for sure — and all the college gymnasts and baseball players and wrestlers, etc.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I actually view Gobert as something of an anti-hero now. Without his antics, we may have delayed our collective response even longer.

neil: Totally agree, Josh.

Rudy Gobert was kind of a stand-in for us all.

sara.ziegler: #WeAreRudy

neil: His shift from not taking it seriously enough to realizing just how bad it is really mirrored the nation’s reaction, I think.

chris.herring: And as we type, now the Brooklyn Nets announce that four of their players have tested positive for the virus, including Kevin Durant. That alone more than doubles the number of NBA cases — Gobert, Donovan Mitchell and Detroit’s Christian Wood tested positive before — that we knew about previously.

neil: It is a little sad that we as a country have to take direction from our sports leagues, but that’s another matter…

sara.ziegler: 🔥

How do we expect this to change contracts for players in different leagues? I was wondering if there would be more short-term deals in the NBA, given that the salary cap is likely to be lower.

chris.herring: It was already set to be a strange NBA free agency in 2020 anyway, partly because there won’t really be any superstars on the market. We have seen teams mostly agree to short-term deals before — that was the case in 2018, as clubs were trying to save their money for last year’s star-studded class — but it’s probably a bit too soon to know what will happen a few months from now.

What is clear is that the salary-cap projections are going to take a hit. They were already scaled down because of the fallout from Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet that impacted the league’s relationship with the Chinese market. (Silver said it may have resulted in a $400 million hit.) There’s no telling how much money will be lost, depending on how many games are cut from the calendar to try to finish the season. And again, that’s if the season gets completed in the first place.

Games might end up being played with no fans in arenas, which would allow for high TV ratings. But the teams themselves would still lose considerable money from concessions and obviously ticket money.

travis.sawchik: While rosters and deals are mostly locked in for 2020, I suspect we’ll see the mid-tier type of free agency and arbitration-eligible player in MLB further squeezed and MLB will continue to trend younger, which it has been doing for more than a decade. The collective bargaining agreement is up after next season, so this could make those negotiations even more contentious. I wonder if this will increase the chance of a work stoppage beyond this year.

sara.ziegler: Ah, that’s interesting — I hadn’t thought of that, Travis.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think COVID-19 affected NFL contracts in that there was a sense of urgency by the league and NFLPA to not move back the start of the league year despite the crisis. The final vote was very close — 1,019 to 959 — and I think they were concerned that with more time for players to reconsider, it might not have passed.

neil: Yeah, the players were pretty opposed to the 17-game schedule addendum.

sara.ziegler: I’m still surprised that passed, tbh.

Josh, do you have a sense that any of the deals agreed to now will be affected at all? Or is it more business as usual for the NFL?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think it looks like business as usual for most of these contracts.Ryan Tannehill got a very competitive contract at about 15 percent of this year’s cap, on average, per year. That doesn’t strike me as a contract much impacted by the crisis.

neil: The NFL really does think it can sit back and not be affected much by this, doesn’t it?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think it’s a bad look personally, but yes.

sara.ziegler: So let’s turn away from the leagues themselves and talk about what this means for fans.

Sports so often bring us together, and we could use that now more than ever. It’s a strange feeling to be without it.

neil: It feels so selfish to think of sports at a time like this, but it’s also leaving a huge emotional void for the country.

chris.herring: Yep. And assuming we get them back in the late summer/early fall, it will be strange, because pretty much everything will be in season by then. So it will be a jammed schedule.

It kind of epitomizes why right now is so strange: We went from having our normal lives to being sheltered in place. And when sports come back, we’ll go from not having them at all to having them in abundance.

neil: Sara, think of all the times we complained that there were “too many sports!” for which we needed to plan coverage. What we wouldn’t give now for just one or two leagues to be active.

sara.ziegler: Haha — I’m kicking myself.

joshua.hermsmeyer: For me it’s just very strange and slightly unsightly to be reading and commenting on million-dollar contracts when people’s jobs are — right now — being wiped out and businesses shuttered. It’s still an escape for some, but the money part rips me right back into the here and now.

sara.ziegler: 100 percent.

travis.sawchik: It was surreal to see all the spring training camps close in Florida and know that MLB stadiums (and NBA and NHL arenas) are going to be empty for weeks if not months. I’m curious if fans rush back to view games in person when they can, or if this keeps folks away in large numbers. I wonder if the behavior will change.

MLB already has an attendance issue, with five straight years of decline. Plus, disposal income could be down for many.

neil: The upside is that there will be a lot of fan excitement when sports do finally return. That will probably have to manifest itself from afar, with games at empty venues at first, and it might be blunted by fear about crowds when they are allowed to exist. But I think there will be an outpouring of interest when the leagues resume, as much because it will mean some degree of normalcy has returned to life.

sara.ziegler: That will be a beautiful day, whenever it comes.

travis.sawchik: Indeed! For MLB, this could very well be the shortest season in terms of games played since 1981, a strike-shortened year.

neil: That was a wild season.

travis.sawchik: A shortened season split into two seasons!

From a fan perspective, I wonder if such a truncated schedule could increase interest if the volume of games are down — each one becomes slightly more meaningful. It perhaps also helps give some underdog-type teams slightly better odds in a smaller sample of games. Many have called for a shorter MLB schedule, but of course no one wanted it to be caused by a deadly pandemic.

neil: Similarly, the NHL has talked about a 24-team playoff if they come back with any time to do it!

(I kinda doubt that will be possible though.)

sara.ziegler: So many interesting options!

travis.sawchik: The 1981 season did give MLB expanded playoffs, which, curiously, they didn’t turn back to again until 1995.

sara.ziegler: I’m reminded again that sports are a great diversion from real life … but they’re not real life. I love the Minnesota Vikings, but whether they win a Super Bowl doesn’t have any bearing on, say, finding a cure for cancer. (Which is good, since they’re obviously never winning a Super Bowl.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: lol

I’m looking forward to Stefon Diggs reenacting the Marshawn Lynch Dave and Buster’s video after a month in Buffalo.

sara.ziegler: Hahahahaha


neil: It’s been nice to see that reaction across most of the major sports. NBA players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Zion Williamson stepping up — really makes me appreciate those guys and the good they do in their communities.

travis.sawchik: That’s great to see. I saw Kevin Love donated $100,000 to arena workers in Cleveland as well.

neil: And for us fans, until real games come back, I created a playlist of old classic games to watch on YouTube:

joshua.hermsmeyer: Nice!

neil: Put that thing on shuffle and get a dose of SPORTS. The other great thing is, for many older games, I’ve now forgotten who won. So it’s like it’s new again.

Why it only took one player with coronavirus to shutter sports

Sara Ziegler is the former sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Travis Sawchik is a former sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer was a football writer and analyst.