In the madness of the COVID-19 pandemic, the yearning for a return to normalcy has been ever-present within the collective public consciousness. The world of entertainment has seen a massive shift with many films being premiered through online streams and musical artists turning to live stream performances in an attempt to recoup lost live performance income.
The world of sports has seen an even larger shakeup. From virtual game simulations to continuing games in empty stadiums, the sports media landscape has been drastically altered in the time without the industry’s most important asset, live games.
Traditionally, sports media is centered around games as the primary source of news and content. Since the collective shutdown, the industry has transitioned to a speculation market.
While large periods of speculation aren’t entirely unheard of with work stoppages due to labor disputes and the typical swarms around free agency or trade deadline periods, the last few weeks have been unlike anything that the sports world has ever seen during a pause between games.
This transition has taken the standard sports rumors around trading players and the guessing game around what could be the potential return for them to a swarm of articles featuring industry writers speculating on the future for sports based on sources within various professional sports leagues.
The ‘Big Four’ sports leagues have had to suspend or delay all future activities, starting with the NBA, which suspended its season on March 11th. The pause in the regular season and the off-season has had a profound impact on the news cycle as well as popular off-the-field events like the NFL draft, which was moved entirely online. Some of the only other top headlines have come out of the NFL Free Agency period, most notably the departure of longtime New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady.
The sports industry has had to get very creative. Teams like the Washington Capitals and San Diego Padres have begun live-streaming video game versions of the games that would actually be played on a given day, complete with broadcasters speaking over the simulated action in front of them.
Teams have also begun broadcasting classic games with live player commentary or reactions like the 2019 World Series Champion Washington Nationals did with their World Series Game 7 Zoom reunion watch party. These are just a few of the methods teams and leagues have used to keep fans engaged while they are unable to resume live games.
World Series champion
3x Cy Young Award winner
Max Scherzer has joined the Game 7 reunion special.
— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) April 15, 2020
While these side products are entertaining in their own right, they do not replace the vacuum left by the lack of real games. This has made any information concerning the resumption of games dominate the sports news landscape.
For many of these leagues, the remainder of the 2019-2020 season, or in the case of the MLB, the entire 2020 season is at stake. There has been considerable speculation that this calendar year won’t be completed unless fans are banned from viewing the games in person, a possibility that has evoked polarizing reactions from the industry.
Not interested in seeing ANY sport with no fans in attendance. Fans feed off the players, and players feed off the fans. Without them, it just doesn't work and only devalues the competitive element.
— Mike Mooneyham (@ByMikeMooneyham) May 1, 2020
The league with arguably the best chance of resuming is the MLB. While a baseball game without fans is strange, it has happened before. In 2015, the Baltimore Orioles hosted the Chicago White Sox in a game that was closed to the public due to the civil unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray.
Even without fans present, there are still risks of spreading the virus. Each team has large numbers within their management, training, and equipment staff that must travel with the teams. With both teams, their staff, and the league officials that must be present for games to occur, the risk associated with games occurring is still quite large.
Proposed plans include moving teams to a single metropolitan area with adequate facilities, like Phoenix, to moving teams into regional hubs in order to complete the remainder of a season. All this conjecture has left fans confused and pessimistic towards a short-term future with sports.