Boy, do I miss my baseball season! Where’s the box score I can peruse before going to bed each night? Where’s the split screen on my computer I can zoom in on when the Twins rally? Where’s the intellectual stimulation of thinking how I would have managed the game differently? Where’s the agony of seeing the Yankees win again? This would have been such an entertaining year to be a Twins fan – even better than 2019 if Buxton and Sano could somehow stay healthy and show more maturity and Donaldson could play as advertised. But would I want a season played entirely in Arizona begining July 1? It’s hard to say something wouldn’t be better than nothing, but so much of the beauty and legitimacy of baseball comes from its 162 (or 154)-game schedule. If the season were only a month long, Chris Colabello would be an RBI champion and Eddie Rosario would have led the league in home runs. A shortened season would be of interest, but not something to take too seriously.
The big issue for all sports is economics. Would the owners lose more if games were played without spectators in a truncated season than if the season were called off? Every sport is different in this regard. I can see golf coming back online well before anything else. One, there are no salaries. Prize money can be set at the discretion of the tournament, and players could participate or not. They could practice social distancing, just like country club golfers are already doing. And spectators are of less importance to golf than any other major sport, both in terms of revenue and atmosphere. So, to be sure, let’s get enough testing in place to test the golfers and their caddies, then bring on the Masters.
The NBA was far enough into its season that it could go right to the playoffs without complaint, whenever health requirements permitted. Spectators add a soundtrack, but games on the playground can be plenty competitive, as would games with pros. Contagious contact is a given – and the NBA was early in identifying cases among its players – so testing before every game would be a necessity, but that could be done for 12 players and 3 coaches per teams and 5 officials. 35 tests a game is not outrageous. If spectators were eliminated, there would be no compelling reason to hold games in the teams’ own cities, and concentrating play in central locations would eliminate travel that is often an issue. Basketball revenue, I am sure, comes largely from TV; so the owners should want to put on the show. Players’ salaries will be the big sticking point. How do you “pro rate” if you’re only playing playoff games? What about players on non-playoff teams?
The NFL is the first to take the spotlight, with its three-day player draft this week. This provides a veneer of activity, but it’s basically a mirage. The numbers in football dwarf those in basketball; testing would almost have to be universal before it could be considered safe to play (not that football is terribly “safe” to begin with). Social distancing is impossible. TV revenue is still the king, but ticket-buyers must be a much bigger revenue source than in any other sport, and the absence of crowd noise would also be a much bigger factor. A shortened season would create competitive disadvantages, but that could be accepted, given the circumstances. There isn’t the option, as there would be in basketball or baseball, of compressing or extending the schedule. Football is truly “America’s Sport” now, and this will be where the rubber meets the road: will the NFL have a 2020 season?
Tennis is like golf, except for the relative lack of TV revenue. The game could be played quite safely, and there are no salaries that owners have to pay. The question is, would anyone put up enough prize money to make it worthwhile for enough name players to compete? People will watch golf on TV for the sake of the game. People will not watch tennis unless they care about the participants. Both golf and tennis rely on corporate sponsorships and naming opportunities for the events. Will a corporation, struggling with its bottom line in a faltering economy, throw a chunk of money at a sporting event without spectators and, perhaps, dubious TV viewership, just to get its name before the public?
As is my wont, I will pass on hockey.
In all of the above I see a goldmine for lawyers and agents. How much less money will professional athletes be willing to accept? Some seem willing to play for the love of the game. Others measure their worth by how much they get paid. Collective bargaining agreements between players and owners take months, if not years. Will there be time, given the fluid health advisories, to strike a deal and get in a reasonable facsimile of a sports season? I have no one to bet with, but my guess is that golf and tennis will both resume activity in 2020, with golf leading the way. Baseball, basketball and football will have enough to do, figuring out their responsibilities to their 2020 contracts, and will cross their fingers and hope to resume in 2021.