The Big Question for Sports: When Will You Feel Safe Around 20,000 Strangers Again?

Sports will be back. At some point in the possibly distant future, athletes will head back to work in arenas, ballparks and stadiums, and leagues will promise a return to normalcy. There will finally be something to watch on television again. But there are some people who might not be ready so quickly: the fans. What happens next in sports may be beyond the control of leagues and the television networks that pay them billions of dollars. The people with the power are the ones who packed the stands. And sports will only be normal once the public decides it’s socially and psychologically acceptable to be around thousands of strangers again. When they can even begin to think about that is impossible to say. The novel coronavirus has caused so much damage and behaves so unpredictably that major events are canceled deep into the summer. It’s no longer a given that play will resume this year. “Until you’re widely vaccinated,” Bill Gates said last week of mass gatherings, “those may not come back at all.” President Trump told the commissioners of sports leagues on Saturday that he wants fans at games “soon—very soon.” “I want fans back in the arenas,” Trump said. “And the fans want to be back, too.” But the primary challenge for the business is not a political or financial one. It’s behavioral. “The overall biggest long-term problem for sports is the fear associated with public interaction,” Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob said in an email. “When does that go away? When will society decide that it is once again safe to interact in public? That is the big question for sports teams and leagues.” “The good news is that this virus will be beat and things will return to normal,” he wrote. “We know the enemy, and medical knowledge and capabilities are greater than ever in history.” How long that will take is a question that no one in sports is qualified to answer—and epidemiologists, immunologists and infectious disease experts are still trying to wrap their minds around. What they do understand, as the year slips away, is that how sports fans behave mirrors the behavior of large groups in society as a whole. Even if people were allowed into offices tomorrow, it’s uncertain when they would have the appetite to surround themselves with anywhere between 20,000 and 100,000 other fans at stadiums. Some leagues, governing bodies and even the International Olympic Committee have stopped trying to predict the future. The Olympics were postponed until next summer. Wimbledon will skip 2020. Belgium’s top soccer league simply declared a champion last week. The only thing for the rest to do is search for alternative dates and keep waiting. The NBA is exploring the concept of hosting the playoffs in a fan-free bubble if they get clearance from public health officials, while the English Premier League is contemplating a shift for the last quarter of its season to the middle of summer. But there are many skeptics in the NBA, including LeBron James, and the most ruthless soccer league on earth acknowledges that matches will be on hold until the conditions are “safe and appropriate.” Even if they manage to finish this season, they could find themselves in the same position next season. They could also find themselves running into ferocious competition for eyeballs with the NFL and college football—if those seasons begin on time. California Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Saturday that he doesn’t believe his state’s three NFL teams will be playing in front of fans come September. Amy Huchthausen, commissioner of America East Conference, said that she’s already noted small shifts in her own life that foreshadow larger ones in society. She notices the nearest person on the sidewalk when she’s outside now. That sense of heightened attention figures to be common in crowded stadiums. “I think we’re naive to think that’s not going to persist in a long-term way even when we’re past the virus and past the pandemic,” she said. “I have a hard time believing that once an order is lifted, people are just going to flock to go back to a 50,000-seat or 100,000-seat stadium like they did before.” That would render plans for near-term comebacks as useless as a face mask made of tissue paper. The basketball and soccer leagues in China, where the virus appeared to be dissipating under strict controls, hoped to return to action this month in empty venues. They quickly abandoned those hopes. South Korea canceled the rest of its basketball season. Japan has postponed baseball’s opening day—twice. Players and coaches are reluctant to rush back anyway. Not only do they balk at the prospect of playing in empty stadiums, but they also understand that the globetrotting nature of their jobs is a recipe for constant exposure. “I think we’re going to have to draw a line through the entire 2020 tennis season,” tweeted Amélie Mauresmo, the 2006 Wimbledon champion and former coach of Andy Murray. “No vaccine = no tennis.” Imagining a return to packed stadiums is even harder when the stern lessons of recent mass gatherings are only beginning to be understood. It isn’t just because fans will have less disposable income to spend on sports tickets. It’s also become clear that the outbreak of coronavirus in Northern Italy was turbocharged by a soccer game between Atalanta and Valencia in Milan on Feb. 19. Fans who attended other matches are now wondering if they are sitting on their own time-bombs. Matthew Ashton went to see Liverpool play Atlético Madrid on March 11 at a time when other European countries were already in lockdown. He persuaded his father, a 72-year-old season-ticket holder, to skip one of the club’s biggest matches of the season. But since he was young and healthy, Ashton made a different calculation for himself. “I think it’s the last chance I have to go see Liverpool play this year,” he told his father, who is also a public health expert. “It probably was the wrong decision. In retrospect, you think: Was it really worth it?” The weeks that followed saw a spike in cases in Liverpool that Ashton believes was accelerated by the Atlético match. Once people realize the consequences of being around each other, he said, they might have an unsettling thought: “Oh my God, perhaps I’m not as safe as I once thought I was.’” There’s a reason this is now on Ashton’s mind: Last week he was named the city of Liverpool’s director of public health.

Our thanks to Joshua RobinsonBen Cohen and Laine Higgins for that sobering piece.  

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