(CBS Local/CBS Detroit)- The coronavirus pandemic has made an impact across industries, countries and on the lives of millions of people around the world. While professional sports is a small part of the broader picture, the pandemic has made a sizable impact there as well with leagues and organizations suspending, pausing or generally canceling their events.
In the midst of this, fans and media alike have begun to speculate (and largely hope) when sports may begin again. The NBA and NHL have bandied about different ideas for a shortened end of their seasons. Major League Baseball has an agreement in place with its player’s association that could see its league year last deep into November.
But, while those reports and talks give us hope of light at the end of the tunnel, there is a certain point where the cost of re-starting the season may outweigh the financial benefit of doing so.
“The issue becomes, as the curve tails off and they get back to trying to run business, how much time do they have left? I think of hockey for example. It may hit them hardest. The first thing is, like all businesses, there’s a set of fixed costs they have to pay regardless of if they run a season or don’t,” said Dr. Rodney Fort, a professor of Sport Management and member of the Center for Sport and Policy (CSP) at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology. “The decision really is, if they fire up some sort of shortened season, is the cost of firing it up going to be offset by the revenues they can get from the shortened prospect.”
For the NBA and NHL in particular, the further that the potential restart is pushed into the schedule, the more competition they’re going to face in what is already a saturated sports television ecosystem. Both leagues are used to running their regular seasons up against the NFL and college football, but in this case, baseball is still likely to be airing as well.
Add to that the likelihood that in any rebooting scenario, fans would likely be unable to attend meaning no money from concessions, tickets, etc. And there are a combination of factors for leagues to consider that could lead them to decide that picking things back up again when the next season is supposed to start would be better.
“We’ll see the leagues very carefully assess by their best forecast on the shortened or altered season they have to put out there, the ability to generate enough money to make it even worth starting the season up,” said Dr. Fort “If they don’t find that, they just won’t, they’ll skip it. We’ll learn the best from the NHL and the NBA because they’re the ones whose season is rapidly evaporating right in front of their very eyes. There simply may not be enough time to fire up anything resembling anything that could go into the record books as a 2019-20 season.”
While it’s sad to consider the possibility of no finish to the 2019-20 seasons for the NHL and NBA, there is still much left up to timing here. Dr. Fort, along with the rest of the sports world, is carefully watching the “curve” of the pandemic here in the U.S. to see how far along we are and how far we may have yet to go. Either way, when sports do come back, don’t expect fans to come back with them.
“The way they’ll try to do it as quick as they can is to play without the fans because of the TV money. For a league like the NFL, this is of the utmost importance,” said Dr. Fort. “The National Football League makes enough money off of its TV contract, that they could cover I believe all but one team’s fixed costs including player contracts just from their TV contract. It becomes imperative to get the TV money fired up. I suspect that’s what we’ll see.”
Even if leagues like the NHL and NBA are forced to conclude that the end of their 2019-20 seasons just won’t work, Dr. Fort believes that won’t lead to higher ticket prices or higher cost of attendance for fans. Instead, he believes that once fans are allowed to come back to the arenas, the leagues will simply go about business as usual minus maybe some promotional items here and there.
“I don’t think you would expect any sort of interesting behavior on the part of the NHL or NBA other than, welcome back, free beer,” said Dr. Fort. “We really appreciate you and welcome back, now get ready to pay the same prices you used to.”
Though the leagues could certainly survive with TV money and fans not in the stands, having them back in the arena would clearly be more beneficial. However, with more than 10 million Americans already filing for unemployment, how those fans come out economically on the other side of this will have a large say in just how much revenue is lost by the leagues.
“The deeply-seated and underlying issue to me is how fans are impacted by this recession that’s being induced by the lack of humanitarian response,” said Dr. Fort. “The question then becomes how does recession impact sports? The answer has always been, depends on the recession. It’s not like a recession impacts everybody in the economy the same way. Some people don’t suffer anything, except a paper loss in their pension fund or retirement account. That’s not to say that other people in the economy aren’t dramatically injured by this episode. If they are sports fans in the meaningful sense of spending money, then there could be an impact on pro sports.”