The coronavirus outbreak has forced difficult decisions for the sports-event industry. Nearly every major sporting event has been canceled, moved or postponed. Here is a look at where things stand.
Friday, January 22
NFL: League Announces Super Bowl Attendance Policy
Should the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at the Green Bay Packers, it would be the first team to play at home in the Super Bowl. That would certainly bring even more attention on two pieces of the Super Bowl LV planning: Stadium capacity and ticket prices.
The Super Bowl is always one of the richest tickets in sports and between a severely restricted capacity and potential for a home team being involved, the market for tickets will do anything but soften. The NFL’s official hospitality provider, On Location Experiences, is currently selling tickets for $7,000 with fees involved, up nearly $2,000 from a month ago. And as for stadium capacity, which fans and media had been waiting for official word on for weeks, that came Friday morning: The NFL will invite 7,500 vaccinated health care workers along with 14,500 others to be at the game for a total of 22,000; the Buccaneers were allowing about 16,000 at home games this season.
The majority of the health care workers will come from hospitals and health care systems in the Tampa and central Florida area. All 32 NFL clubs will select vaccinated health care workers from their communities to attend the Super Bowl as well. Gameday protocols at the stadium will include mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing plus seating in pods, touchless in-stadium experiences for concessions and restrooms as well as controlled entry and egress.
“These dedicated health care workers continue to put their own lives at risk to serve others, and we owe them our ongoing gratitude,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “We hope in a small way that this initiative will inspire our country and recognize these true American heroes. This is also an opportunity to promote the importance of vaccination and appropriate health practices, including wearing masks in public settings.”
The NFL’s official announcement followed discussions with public health officials, including the CDC, the Florida Department of Health, and area hospitals and health care systems. The Super Bowl capacity will be a little less than what the AFC and NFL Championship Games combined will have for attendance.
“While this was already shaping up to be the most meaningful Super Bowl in our hometown’s history, the NFL deciding to welcome and honor our local vaccinated healthcare workers to Super Bowl LV takes the importance of the event to an all-new level,” said Derrick Brooks and Will Weatherford, co-chairs of the Tampa Bay Super Bowl LV Host Committee. “The unsolicited outpouring of appreciation that we’ve received in support of this initiative from our local healthcare workers across the community has been truly amazing. These heroes inspire us every day, so we couldn’t be more thankful to the NFL for working to safely create this monumental effort to celebrate them.”
When the Packers beat the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Divisional Playoffs last weekend, it was not too surprising given the home team’s traditional postseason dominance at Lambeau Field.
There was one notable difference in the atmosphere, though; the Packers’ victory was the first time this season that the team allowed fans into the historic stadium. After allowing the families of team employees to attend the final three games of the regular season, about 6,000 season-ticket holders along with employees’ families and invited front-line healthcare workers brought the total attendance to 8,456.
“Oh man, talk about just pure joy, running out of that tunnel,” Packers Quarterback Aaron Rodgers said after the game. “We’ve had a few hundred for a couple games, but it felt like 50,000 when we ran out of the tunnel. It really did. It was such a special moment. I forgot how much you truly, truly miss having a crowd there and obviously that wasn’t a normal like last year against Seattle type of crowd. But it felt like 50, 60,000. It really did.”
The Packers will have a slight increase in attendance for the NFC Championship game against Tom Brady’s Buccaneers: 6,500 plus families and workers will be welcome on Sunday.
By comparison, the Kansas City Chiefs — who host the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship Game — have had fans at every home game this season. The team has been allowed to host up to 16,811 fans this season; the Chiefs have averaged 13,153.
The Packers say protocols for last weekend’s game will continue on Sunday with fans in socially distanced groups throughout the stadium and no access to suites or club suites because they are indoor venues. The team also said tailgating will be prohibited; it said the same before last weekend’s win although there was plenty of evidence that the policy was not strictly adhered to.
While the season remains in play, the league is already looking ahead to one of its prime offseason events and making changes. The NFL Combine, which typically brings thousands of prospective draftees plus coaches, scouts and team executives to Indianapolis, will not be held in its traditional form. Instead, this year’s draft prospects will have on-field workouts held on campus with the league working to have a uniform process for each prospect. A memo obtained by ESPN says the league does not outline what precautions will be in place but indicates that more details will come at a later date. All team interviews will be done virtually.
Tampa Bay at Green Bay, 12:05 p.m. EST: Up to 6,500 fans will be allowed
Buffalo at Kansas City, 3:40 p.m. EST: Up to 16,811 fans will be allowed
Thursday, January 21
OLYMPICS: Concern Over Tokyo’s Ability to Host Rescheduled Games Persists
With less than 200 days from the rescheduled Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo, Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga recently declared a second state of emergency after another wave of COVID-19 cases throughout the country and expects to lift the emergency order on February 7. The moves, however, reinforce the size of the task the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo 2020 organizers are trying to accomplish with a rescheduled Games.
There is continued negativity throughout Japan about the rescheduled Games; recent polls by the Japanese news agency Kyodo and Japanese broadcaster TBS show over 80 percent want the Olympics canceled or postponed or believe they will not take place. Some recent messages are leaving up in the air whether the Olympics will require testing and quarantines for athletes coming into Japan, let alone spectators. IOC senior member Richard Pound recently said making athletes a priority for vaccination would be “the most realistic way of it (Olympics) going ahead,” which is the opposite of IOC President Thomas Bach’s comments encouraging participants to be vaccinated while saying vaccines will not be required for athletes.
And given the scale of what the Olympics means in the sporting world, plenty of headlines were generated by Sir Keith Mills, deputy chairman of the London Organizing Committee for the 2012 Olympic Summer Games, telling BBC Radio 5 that it “looks unlikely” in his view that the event would be held. “If I was sitting in the shoes of the organizing committee in Tokyo,” he added, “I would be making plans for a cancellation and I’m sure they have plans for a cancellation.”
Putting aside the absurdity of how much attention was given to the opinion of a person who has no role whatsoever in the planning for this summer, Tokyo’s view since the postponement has been consistent and was reinforced again on Tuesday when CEO Toshiro Muto said “we are not discussing cancellation. Holding the Games is our unwavering policy and at this point in time we’re not discussing anything other than that,” according to the Japan Times.
Muto did make the allowance that it was “not desirable to hold the Olympics without fans, but not out of the question,” which would be an economic punch in the gut — to put it mildly — to the host city. But it was also notable given the realization of the scale or what Tokyo and the IOC face when it comes to making sure that the Olympic Summer Games are held, finally, this summer. Bach’s comments on Thursday to the Kyodo News were along the same lines, saying “we have at this moment no reason whatsoever to believe that the Olympic Games in Tokyo will not open on the 23rd of July in the Olympic stadium in Tokyo.” But, like Muto, Bach said the possibility exists of reducing the number of spectators.
Whether some of the comments out of Tokyo are essentially a trial balloon sent into the world to measure public opinion, there is no doubting that the rescheduled Games are becoming as stressful to organize this year as they were in 2020. What it will almost assuredly come down to is economics.
Tokyo 2020 organizers have reportedly spent as much as $15.4 billion with nearly $1 billion related to COVID-19. The Olympic Games, whether Summer or Winter, generate revenue that the IOC distributes to international sports federations and more than 200 national Olympic committees. The Games itself are the lifeblood of the IOC’s own bank account; its long-term broadcast deal with NBC alone is 40 percent of the IOC’s total income and worldwide broadcast rights bring in 73 percent of the IOC’s revenues.
All involved in the event’s organization have been firm on one point: If the Summer Games are not held starting July 23 with the opening ceremony, they will be canceled completely especially with the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing scheduled to start in 13 months. And with that opening date in mind, another date to watch closely: March 25, when the torch relay is scheduled to begin in Japan with more than 10,000 participants. It was in late March last year that the Olympics were also postponed to this summer.
If the recent talk surrounding the Games had not drawn enough attention, the debate broke into even broader view when the Times of London on late Thursday published a story claiming the Japanese government has privately concluded that the Games will have to be cancelled because of the coronavirus, adding that the organizers’ focus was going to shift toward securing the Games for the city in 2032. The story — based on one anonymous source — spread like wildfire to the point that the USOPC released a statement on Twitter: “Any official communication on the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 will come from the IOC, Tokyo Organizing Committee and the Japanese government. We have not received any information suggesting the Games will not happen as planned, and our focus remains on the health and preparedness of Team USA athletes ahead of the Games this summer.”
Wednesday, January 20
COLLEGE BASKETBALL: This Won’t Be Your Traditional March Madness in Indianapolis
For what will be an NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament unlike any other, the schedule will be fittingly different than what college basketball fanatics have seemingly known by heart for decades.
The NCAA has announced dates for the 2021 preliminary rounds that will be played in Indianapolis and the surrounding area. Mackey Arena in West Lafayette and Assembly Hall in Bloomington will each host two First Four games and will join Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indiana Farmers Coliseum and Lucas Oil Stadium as hosts of first-round games on Friday and Saturday, March 19 and 20.
The four venues in Indianapolis will host the remainder of the championship, including second-round games Sunday and Monday, March 21 and 22. The Sweet 16 will be played at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday and Sunday, March 27 and 28, with each of the eight games getting its own television window. The Elite Eight will take place in prime time Monday and Tuesday, March 29 and 30, and the Final Four is scheduled for Saturday and Monday, April 3 and 5, at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The preliminary rounds have typically taken place on back-to-back Thursday-Sunday weekends. But with teams needing to fly to Indianapolis after Selection Sunday and go through testing, having First Four games within 48 hours would have been too quick a turnaround.
“The 2021 March Madness schedule is primarily a function of the health and safety protocols for all participants, respecting conference tournaments, balancing time away from campus for college student-athletes, competitive considerations for a national championship and fan engagement during a relatively traditional tournament timetable,” said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball.
Moving to a single-site NCAA Tournament will be a boost for Indianapolis as a destination — and the city may end up with more than just March Madness. The ability to be in the city right away before the NCAA event is why CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein reported that the Big Ten may move its conference tournament, scheduled to be held in Chicago, to Indianapolis because of the convenience for the teams involved. The Big Ten typically has its championship game on the afternoon of Selection Sunday, so it could make sense for the league to make sure that whatever team wins the tournament is right in Indianapolis and in a controlled environment.
One of the Big Ten’s teams will be going on a pause this week, though, as Nebraska announced over the weekend that Coach Fred Hoiberg and seven players, plus four other team staffers, have contracted COVID-19. Hoiberg said he tested positive on Friday and has been isolating since and is experiencing symptoms; the number of positives on Nebraska was eye-catching but the Cornhuskers are far from the only team that have had an outbreak in the past week or two: Michigan State, Georgetown, West Virginia, Iowa State and Oregon all either paused activities or have dealt with outbreaks.
Some of the conferences have kept to normal scheduling practices this season, leading to some turnarounds that could be seen as questionable given the status of COVID-19 in the country — the ACC has Syracuse playing at home on Saturday, January 23 against Virginia Tech and then traveling to play 48 hours later at Virginia before another home game five days later against North Carolina State. But there have been a few mid-major conferences that have changed its traditional scheduling and gone to compressed weekends in an attempt to limit travel as much as possible and therefore lessen exposure — the Mountain West has teams playing on weekends only with one day between games and the America East has teams playing on consecutive days over weekends.
While both the men’s and women’s college basketball landscapes have been full of pauses and canceled games this season, no major men’s programs have decided to end their seasons early — but Virginia’s women’s team did so last week and Vanderbilt became the fifth women’s major program to stop its season. The Commodores, a traditionally strong team in the powerhouse Southeastern Conference, were 4-4 at the time of stopping and only had seven players available for its most recent game on Sunday.
“As a staff we have and will always prioritize the health and safety our student-athletes,” Vanderbilt Coach Stephanie White said in a statement. “We are coaching a group of young women who have been resilient in dealing with opt-outs, injuries, COVID-19 protocols as well as the physical, mental and emotional toll that comes with COVID-19. We respect our student-athletes’ decision and support them as we continue to move forward.”
Vanderbilt and Virginia joined Duke, SMU and San Jose State in shutting down while the season was ongoing. The Ivy League made the decision to not play winter sports in advance of the season opening.
Tuesday, January 19
TENNIS: Coronavirus Cases Damaging Australian Open’s Quarantine Plans
The 2020 Grand Slam season for tennis was known for as much about what happened off the court. The Australian Open was held as wildfires raged throughout the country with air quality issues throughout the two-week event. Wimbledon was canceled for the first time since World War II and the French Open was held in the fall in Paris instead of the spring, with a host of players missing and a semi-bubble format that drew some criticism.
Of the Slams, the U.S. Open was the one that fared best, so to speak. While held without fans, the event in New York was held under COVID-19 protocols with consistent testing and players were given plenty of room throughout the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center to stretch out. Given that the venue had served as a COVID-19 staging site earlier in the summer, the event’s powerful significance was repeatedly referenced by players and news media. It was, as much as any event can be during this pandemic, a complete success.
The Australian Open this year knew that it would have to take on many of the U.S. Open’s protocols — and then some. Given the country’s extremely strict protocols in fighting coronavirus, which many would also point out has made Australia one of the few countries in the world successful in preventing widespread outbreaks, the Australian Open organizers got players to agree to a series of moves that would ensure the event could be held smoothly and without the risk of infection and contact tracing issues that could mar any event in which players and coaches from around the world are meeting.
But instead, weeks before the tournament is scheduled to start, there is widespread frustration from players at the protocols now that they are having to be put in place.
Players who began arriving last week from the qualifying tournament site in Doha, Qatar, plus other chartered flights in groups from around the world, agreed that once in the country, they would have a mandatory quarantine with only five hours per day spent outside of their hotel rooms. And players knew that if they were on a flight with somebody who tested positive upon arriving in Australia, they would be forced to stay inside their room 24 hours each day as a precaution.
That protocol is now being enforced after multiple flights arrived with passengers who have since tested positive, meaning that 72 players currently are in full isolation in their rooms. Two players are among the three latest cases from testing conducted on passengers who arrived on charter flights, that coming in addition to six positive tests connected to flights from Los Angeles, Abu Dhabi and Doha.
All passengers on those flights, including the 72 players, were classified by local health authorities as close contacts of people infected with the coronavirus and forced into hard lockdown for 14 days. The six infected people, including a member of the aircrew on one flight and two coaches on different flights, were transferred to a medical hotel, according to The Associated Press.
The situation has put the Open organizers into damage control in multiple forms. Even before players began arriving, there was disappointment throughout parts of Australia that players would even be allowed outside during quarantine for any amount of time especially with how regular Australians had lived their lives for months. In a four-month span in 2020, residents were only allowed outside for up to two hours per day, which is why Australia still has one of the lowest per capita rates of infection among large countries in the world.
Organizers now have to deal with complaints from players who are forced into hard quarantine with no outside time. Many of them have taken to social media, some complaining about food options and others humorously showing themselves using beds stacked against walls as a backboard to get some practice shots in. Bernard Tomic’s girlfriend, Vanessa Sierra, has been criticized after complaining that the food served at their quarantine hotel room was cold, adding on her YouTube channel that “I don’t wash my own hair. I’ve never washed my own hair. It’s just not something that I do. I normally have hairdressers that do it twice a week for me. This is the situation that we’re dealing with. I can’t wait to get out of quarantine just so I can get my hair done.”
The people who have complained about the quarantine have predictably received backlash among ordinary citizens, leaving Australian Open Tournament Director Craig Tiley walking a fine line.
“These are high-performing athletes and it is hard to keep a high-performing athlete in a room,” Tiley said. “This is the contribution that they have to make in order to get the privilege of when they do come out to compete for ($62 million) in prize money.”
Tiley then also had to deal with reports that Novak Djokovic, the No. 1 player on the ATP Tour, issued a series of demands including reducing the isolation period for players who continued to test negative and moving as many players as possible to private homes with a tennis court to facilitate training.
“These weren’t demands, they were suggestions,” Tiley said. “But he, too, is understanding what two weeks of lockdown means … every player coming down knew that if they were going to be close contacts or test positive that these were going to be the conditions.”
To no one’s surprise, health officials rejected Djokovic’s demands, or suggestions, or however you want to frame them. And first serve for the Australian Open remains on track for February 8.
Friday, January 15
NFL: A Landmark Moment This Season With Fans in Attendance at Every Game This Weekend
The NFL will have fans at each of its games this weekend for the first time all season, even with the asterisk that only one of the home teams will be allowing more than 7,000 fans to attend.
The Green Bay Packers, who kick off the Divisional Round weekend on Saturday afternoon against the Los Angeles Rams, will have season-ticket holders as well as invited frontline health care workers and first responders in the stands for the first time this season. A total of approximately 6,000 fans will be at Lambeau Field with tickets in socially distanced groups of two, four and six tickets.
The team has had a small number of team employees and their families at the last four regular season home games as a test to see how the stadium’s health and safety protocols could work for a postseason game. Along with the socially distanced pods of tickets, fans must stay in their seats unless they are getting concessions or using the bathroom. Face coverings are required while the entire fan experience is cashless and contactless with hand sanitizer stations set up throughout the concourses. Tailgating will be prohibited.
“Our players have enjoyed the energy provided by the limited fans we’ve had over the past four games,” Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy said. “We’re looking forward to welcoming our season ticket holders to add to that atmosphere in the playoffs. We’ve seen our COVID-19 protocols in action and are confident we can safely add additional fans.”
The Saturday nightcap is Baltimore at Buffalo with 6,700 fans on hand at Bills Stadium. It will be the second consecutive game that the Bills Mafia, as its fanbase is known, will be able to see their team in person after having been shut out during the entire regular season.
Buffalo’s 27-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC wild card round in front of a “capacity” crowd of 6,700 was allowed by the local and state health authorities under the condition that each person entering the stadium test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of kickoff. The team and state announced that before the game, 7,157 people took a rapid test and 137 tested positive, a positive rate of 1.9 percent — far lower than the seven-day average of 7.2 percent in Erie County through last week.
Sunday’s games will be hosted by teams that have fans for most if not all of the season. The Kansas City Chiefs will host Cleveland with up to 16,000 fans allowed, having had 100,000 fans attend games in the regular season; Chiefs President Mark Donovan told the team’s website that the team has spent $1 million in safety-related protocols this season. The final game of the day, Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers against Drew Brees’ New Orleans Saints, will have up to 3,000 fans in the Superdome.
One thing to watch this weekend will be whether having fans at every game will make a difference for home-field advantage. In the first four games of the playoffs, the home team won only once — New Orleans beating Chicago. Two of the three home teams that lost, Seattle and Washington, did not have fans for its games while the Tennessee Titans lost to Baltimore in front of 14,029 fans. That continues the trend from the regular season in which home teams were 127-128-1, the first time that home teams did not win a majority of the games in an NFL season; the home win percentage was as high as .602 in 2018.
Another thing heading into the weekend; after last weekend’s Browns win over the Pittsburgh Steelers was even more remarkable considering the team’s COVID-19 situation, missing several key players as well as Coach Kevin Stefanski, a mid-week round of testing each remaining team returned no positive tests among players.
L.A. Rams at Green Bay: Up to 6,000 fans will be allowed
Baltimore at Buffalo: Up to 6,700 fans will be allowed
Cleveland at Kansas City: Up to 16,000 fans will be allowed
Tampa Bay at New Orleans: Up to 3,000 fans will be allowed
Thursday, January 14
BASKETBALL: NBA Strengthens COVID Protocols in Attempt to Stop Outbreaks
The NBA, which less than a month into its already abbreviated 2020–2021 season has seen players sidelined because of COVID-19 testing and contact tracing protocols, will continue to move forward with the season in the hopes that tightened protocols for the movement and social interactions of players and coaches pays off.
The league and National Basketball Players Association formally announced the measures on Tuesday, which essentially close off players and staff to any type of movement outside team-approved activities whether at home or on the road. Non-team guests will no longer be allowed to visit road hotels — family members included — and for the next two weeks, players and staff when at home must self-isolate unless they are going to a team-related activity or exercising outside.
In addition, pregame team meetings can only last 10 minutes and every other team meeting must happen either on the court or in a room big enough to allow for at least six feet of distance between every individual — and even then, everybody must wear masks at all times. Players can no longer arrive for home games more than three hours early and interaction between opponents will be monitored to keep from extended close contact.
What it all means? The NBA is trying to set up a restricted bubble environment in the real world that isn’t a bubble akin to what it organized last summer in Orlando, Florida.
The enhanced protocols were announced on Tuesday — one day before the league announced that in the most recent round of COVID-19 testing, 16 players had tested positive in an eight-day span. After entering last weekend with only one postponed game, there have been four consecutive days with at least one game affected. Wednesday had three postponements on the schedule: Utah at Washington, Orlando at Boston and Atlanta at Phoenix.
The contact tracing string began in Boston with a mix of positive tests and players ruled ineligible for contact tracing, which then affected Washington since it had played Boston in its most recent game, before going to the Suns since their most recent game was against the Wizards. Two games scheduled for Friday, Phoenix against Golden State and Washington vs. Detroit, have already been postponed. Along with the trio of Boston, Washington and Phoenix, other teams that have had issues include Miami, Philadelphia and Chicago.
At this pace, the week-long break between the first and second halves of this season will instead be filled with rescheduled contests. But with the Olympic Summer Games on the horizon, there is also a hard deadline for the league to finish the season no matter what — including the loss to revenue in the league, which one person told Reuters could be $3 billion this season league-wide.
So why, one would ask, is the league still pushing full speed ahead on a season and not pausing the season? The answer is simple.
$ome out there are wondering how the NBA (and it$ player$ union) can continue on with game$ a$ more and more player$ are $idelined — or at lea$t quarantined — due to the coronaviru$. If only there wa$ one factor that drove all of thi$.
— Kurt Helin (@basketballtalk) January 9, 2021
Wednesday, January 13
HOCKEY: Tahoe Series Aside, NHL’s Season Will Be Full of Losses
The NHL’s 2020 Canadian bubble in Toronto and Edmonton was marked with an expanded playoffs, a first-time Stanley Cup champion in the Tampa Bay Lightning and most impressively, the season being completed with tens of thousands of negative COVID-19 tests.
But as the league prepares to start its abbreviated 2021 season, last season’s runner-up, the Dallas Stars, is already showing how playing games in home markets will be more difficult — the Stars’ season will not start until at least January 19, a week later than other teams, because of a COVID-19 outbreak among the franchise.
What the NHL has set up for 2021 is a 56-game regular season with realigned divisions to cut down on travel and all-divisional play, with unique interest in the all-Canadian division. There is limited room for rescheduling games should more teams have outbreaks that require postponements; unlike last season, when the NHL had a semi-moveable deadline to get the season finished before an abbreviated 2021 campaign, the league’s TV partner, NBC, is committed to broadcasting the Olympic Summer Games in late July, making the timeline to complete this year less flexible.
While the St. Louis Blues have said it will allow a small group of medical workers to attend its home games, only three teams officially will have fans at home games: Dallas, the Florida Panthers and the Arizona Coyotes. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins may be allowed to host fans soon; the Lightning planned to have fans at home games but announced over last weekend that fans will not be at Amalie Arena until at least February 5 after a surge in local cases.
The All-Star Weekend has been postponed as well as its traditional set of outdoor games but in a decision that drew widespread attention on social media leading to Monday’s official announcement, the league will play two outdoor games at the Edgewood Resort in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, with a view that should prove spectacular no matter what device fans use to watch.
The NHL, like many professional leagues, is finding that the pandemic is having a multi-season effect on the financial revenues. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Monday that revenue generated by fans attending and spending money at games is roughly 50 percent of the league’s overall revenue — hence the decision by the league, for this year at least, to allow teams to sell spots on player helmets to advertisers. The league also has sold the naming rights to each of its realigned divisions, another move the league emphasized was for this season only.
Bettman also said on Monday that the league is losing money by playing this season, which is not something the NBA has said. In fact, Bettman said “the magnitude of the loss starts with a ‘B.’ We’re out of the ‘M’ range and into the ‘B’ range,” essentially stating there will be billion-dollar losses sustained by the league and its teams.
“We’re coming back to play this season because we think it’s important for the game, because our fans and our players want us to, and it may give people — particularly in isolation, or where there are curfews — a sense of normalcy and something to do,” Bettman said. “We’re going to lose more money, at the club level and the league level, by playing than by not playing.”
Whether those statements mean the advertising and naming rights changes become permanent — more professional leagues seemingly would want to keep any advertising options open such as helmet ads at minimum, and fans reacted positively to this season’s revamped playoff format — will remain to be seen. But as the NBA has already faced multiple outbreaks on teams within a month of tipping off, the NHL will also have to resign itself to the fact that games may very well be canceled and players will test positive, as evidenced by the league’s first reporting of COVID-19 test results with 27 player positives during training camp and nine teams affected.
Tuesday, January 12
COLLEGE SPORTS: Somehow, Someway, the College Football Season is Over
Well, that was a long year—wait, you mean the college football season only lasted four-plus months?
It only felt like forever because of the daily stress for fans, no matter which team they were cheering for. What started Labor Day weekend finally culminated with Monday’s College Football Playoff championship game, Alabama beating Ohio State 52-24 in front of 14,926 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida — short of the 16,000 maximum capacity allowed for the game.
“Perseverance probably is the one word that describes this team the best in terms of what they’ve had to overcome all season long to go undefeated and win a championship,” said Alabama Coach Nick Saban, who missed his team’s regular-season finale against Auburn because he tested positive for COVID-19.
Nothing about this season was normal because how could it be? COVID-19 caused the postponement or cancellation of nearly 130 games. More than 20 schools opted out of bowl games and 16 games were canceled, a 39 percent cancellation rate that was twice the regular-season rate of 19.7 percent. BYU played 12 games this season, including a game against Coastal Carolina that was scheduled only days before kickoff; its biggest rival, Utah played five games, the first not coming until November 21 after its first two scheduled contests were canceled.
No game in FBS this season was played in front of a capacity crowd and outside of the SEC and Big 12, few teams allowed more than 15 percent of capacity to be in the stands. The Big Ten and Pac-12 sealed off games except for families of players — and only then for programs that had those plans approved by the local and state health departments, an issue that led to the Rose Bowl being moved from Pasadena, California, for only the second time ever.
Even one of Monday’s title game participants, Ohio State, got there after some debate. The Big Ten Conference initially decided that it would postpone the season until the spring, a move the Pac-12 quickly followed suit with. After the leagues reversed their decisions, Ohio State did not start until October 24 and only played five regular-season games — one under the league’s minimum to reach the conference title game — before the Big Ten changed the rule to allow the Buckeyes’ season to continue. Ohio State was without 13 players on Monday night and while the school didn’t give a reason, Buckeyes Coach Ryan Day, who also missed a game this year with COVID-19, acknowledged the Buckeyes were dealing with new cases.
The inconsistency of how the Big Ten organized the season was criticized by many but remember, the college football season is not organized by the NCAA. So while people were constantly wondering who was in charge, the answer was: nobody. Not because somebody didn’t want to be in charge, but because the FBS setup leaves no one in charge. To be fair, it made for some terrific off-field storylines — Clemson’s Dabo Swinney “disrespecting” Ohio State in his coaches poll before losing to the Buckeyes in the CFP semifinals, multiple SEC coaches taking not-so-subtle jabs about the Buckeyes’ strength of schedule, Florida Coach Dan Mullen pushing his school to open the entire stadium to fans and then contracting COVID within days and numerous coaches consistently urging players to follow health protocols but showcasing some of the worst mask adherence in the country — but most of the spotlight this season was focused not on the field.
The question of where college football goes after this season and if anything will change post-pandemic is easy: No, not really. Alabama and Ohio State will still sign more five-star recruits than nearly every other team. Teams such as Auburn and Florida will build training facilities for their programs that cost in the millions while some other Power 5 programs struggle to raise money. The Crimson Tide will have a training staff the size of what some mid-major programs have for their entire coaching staff. Should Power 5 conferences look to eliminate some of the non-conference games they traditionally would play, that will leave more schools on the outside looking in and raise further questions about the competitive balance in a sport where making the CFP has become seemingly a members-only enterprise.
There will still be football in the spring; Football Championship Subdivision programs plan to kick off in late February with an FCS title game scheduled for mid-May in Frisco, Texas. And now that the CFP title game is over, Hard Rock Stadium will revert from football to its new purpose for the coming weeks: The state of Florida began offering vaccines last week to health care workers and those 65 and over at the home of the Miami Dolphins. Vaccination and testing operations closed early Monday so the site could prepare for the game.
GOLF: Genesis Invitational Set Without Fans
The 2021 Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles will be played without spectators in attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The tournament is scheduled to be held February 15–21. The tournament is taking its family village virtual in 2021 with digital activities, challenges, education resources and more for kids ages 5–12.
“The health and well-being of the community, our players and everyone at The Genesis Invitational remains our top priority,” Tournament Director Mike Antolini said. “Throughout our extensive planning, it became clear that due to the pandemic the best way to ensure the safety for all involved is to hold the tournament without spectators. We are certainly going to miss the roars of the crowds, but we look forward to welcoming everyone back to Riviera next year.”
AUTO RACING: Formula 1 Adjusts Schedule
Formula 1 has announced that races in Australia and China have been postponed, with the 2021 season beginning in Bahrain on March 28. Australia will now host its race on November 21 and the Chinese Grand Prix will be held at a later date. F1 said there is potential to reschedule the race for later in the season “if possible.”
The 23-race calendar also stops in Austin, Texas, on October 24 and finishes in Abu Dhabi on December 12. F1 said it expects fans to return for the 2021 season after the majority of last year’s races were held behind closed doors.
“The global pandemic has not yet allowed life to return to normal, but we showed in 2020 that we can race safely as the first international sport to return and we have the experience and plans in place to deliver on our season,” F1 President and Chief Executive Officer Stefano Domenicali said. ““It is great news that we have already been able to agree a rescheduled date for the Australian Grand Prix in November and are continuing to work with our Chinese colleagues to find a solution to race there in 2021 if something changes.”
Monday, January 11
NBA: League Already Facing Questions About Season’s Viability
Neither players, coaches or league officials at the NBA made any qualms about how difficult doing the 2020–2021 season would be especially when compared to the safety of the summer bubble environment in Orlando, Florida.
But within a month of the season tipping off, the league is already facing multiple questions about whether its desire to have a full season should be outweighed by the health issues involved.
The NBA had to cancel a game on Sunday night between the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics because of health and safety protocols that left the Heat with less than the minimum eight players available. Even if the Heat had been fully healthy, the game was under a cloud because the Celtics would have only had eight players healthy themselves after star Jayson Tatum tested positive, forcing several others to be ruled out.
Coming the day after the Philadelphia 76ers played a game with only eight players — and maybe not for the last time depending on protocols that the team will face that situation — the league is trying to calm nerves. In the past week, the 76ers, Mavericks, Bulls, Celtics and the Heat have seen multiple players go on the injury report because of either a positive test or contact tracing that caused them not to be available.
“We anticipated that there would be game postponements this season and planned this season accordingly,” NBA Spokesman Mike Bass told The New York Times. “There are no plans to pause the season. We will continue to be guided by our medical experts and our health and safety protocols.”
Whether those protocols will be modified as soon as today will be put to the test since the league has had to cancel two more games, Monday’s contest between the New Orleans Pelicans and Dallas Mavericks and Tuesday’s game between the Celtics and Chicago Bulls. In a statement, the league said “the NBA and NBPA will be meeting today about modifying the league’s Health and Safety Protocols.”
“I don’t think we should (play),” Philadelphia Coach Doc Rivers said before his team’s short-handed game on Saturday, a loss to the Denver Nuggets. “It’s not for me to express that. I do worry about our player health on the floor.”
The 76ers had eight healthy players in that game but only used seven because one of them, Mike Scott, was just returning from injury. Rivers made the point that not only does the league have to worry about players either contracting COVID-19 or coming into contact with somebody who has the virus, playing games with depleted rosters after a shortened offseason raises the risk of serious injury for those who do play.
The NBA was praised last season for its response to the coronavirus, being the first professional league to suspend operations after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive. The road from suspending operations because one player tested positive to now, where the league has made teams play despite being shorthanded because of COVID-19 complications, is in many ways a financially motivated one.
The league had lost substantial amounts of revenue last season even after resuming play in the summer and having a successful bubble environment and this season would lose even more hundreds of millions of dollars. The NBA also has a deadline to meet; whereas last summer the league had time on its side to complete the playoffs before a shortened offseason, this season must finish by late July so that players can be available to play in the rescheduled Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo.
“I think we are prepared for isolated cases,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said before the season. “In fact, based on what we’ve seen in the preseason, based on watching other leagues operating outside the bubble, unfortunately it seems somewhat inevitable. But we’re prepared for all contingencies.”
Twenty days after the season has tipped off, some of those contingencies may have to be dealt with. The idea of having the league go back into a bubble environment has been universally negative among players who missed their families last summer. And with teams less than a dozen games into the season, the idea that each of them will be able to fulfill itst 72-game seasons is rapidly fading.
“The numbers are spiking,” Miami Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said Saturday night. “That is the reality. We are committed to proceeding with our industry and we’re doing it with all the best science and adherence to the protocols. But ultimately, we are not in control.”
Friday, January 8
NFL: Outbreak Will Not Force Browns Out of Playoffs
As congratulations rolled in from everywhere — including this site — on the completion of the regular season, this week has been a reminder that while getting through nearly 300 regular-season games was an impressive feat, the NFL’s biggest feat may be completing the playoffs on time as the COVID-19 pandemic shows no signs of abating throughout the country.
Sunday’s playoff game at the Pittsburgh Steelers will be the first postseason appearance for the Cleveland Browns since 2002 and a chance to win the franchise’s first playoff game since 1994. But Coach Kevin Stefanski and four of his assistants will be missing the game because of COVID-19 protocols, as well as seven starters, including star defensive back Denzel Ward.
Cleveland’s facility has been closed because of league protocols all week and the team held a virtual walk-through on Wednesday because the team is not allowed to gather in-person. NFL rules say that anyone who has tested positive for the coronavirus must sit out at least 10 days. The NFL cleared the team to practice Friday.
“Just gotta put a plan together, go find a way to win,” said Stefanski, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday. Special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer has been named acting head coach and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt would call plays.
The news about the Browns comes as COVID-19 cases among the NFL’s players reached a high in the last week of the season with 34 player positives. The league finished with 688 total positive tests between players, coaches and staffs during the regular season; more than three-quarters of that number have come since Halloween. And while the league was able to adjust schedules during the regular season with special games on Tuesday and Wednesday at points, the ability to adjust to near-impossible when facing the compressed postseason schedule.
Browns Center JC Tretter, who before the season was voted the NFL Players Association President, acknowledged while the regular season was completed on time, “there’s no victory lap. There are still 40-plus days until the Super Bowl and we’re trying to get there safely and on time.”
The playoffs will also be held under the same strict protocols that the league and players association have agreed to all season. While there was plenty of online debate about whether going to a bubble format in the postseason would be used, the league decided weeks ago that teams would not set up even a modified bubble format or be allowed to require players and staff member to stay at a hotel during the playoffs other than the night before a game.
Whether the Browns’ absences will affect the game is up for some debate, although teams with widespread outbreaks have struggled during the season. The Baltimore Ravens were undermanned in Week 12, losing to the Steelers, while missing several players during a locker room outbreak that stemmed from a strength coach not wearing a mask in the team facility. There was also the infamous 31-3 loss to the Saints for the Denver Broncos with all four of their quarterbacks on the COVID-19 list. The Browns also sustained a near-devastating loss in Week 16 to the New York Jets while missing almost every one of its regular wide receivers; the loss forced Cleveland to win its regular season finale against the same Steelers they face this weekend in the playoffs.
As for fans at the games, four of the six scheduled for this weekend will have people in the stands. The biggest crowd will be in Tennessee, where up to 14,520 fans will be allowed to attend as the Titans host the Ravens on Sunday afternoon. The rowdiest crowd will almost certainly be in Buffalo, where the Bills host the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday afternoon with up to 6,700 members of Bills Mafia — shut out of the stadium for the entire regular season — allowed.
The allowance of fans in Buffalo comes after a unique plan was developed and then approved by the state of New York that will require everyone in attendance to undergo COVID-19 testing and register a negative test in the days leading to the game. Those who were able to secure the rare tickets paid an extra $63 to have the cost of testing included; contact tracing will also be conducted after the game to make sure that there is no community spread of the coronavirus.
The first playoff weekend will close with the Browns — fingers crossed there are no late developments — at Pittsburgh, where local and state health authorities have decreed that only family members and close friends of players will be allowed. The team did have up to 5,500 fans at home games in October and November before the state shut down attendance as positive cases rose throughout Pennsylvania.
“I hate it for the fans,” Steelers Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “I think about what Heinz Field would be like Sunday night. Anyone who has been there knows how special it would be. I hate it for them. I hate it for the Steelers, for the energy and excitement that it brings. But once again, that is what we are doing. That is what we are living in.”
Yes, Ben. It is.
But wait, there’s more! While the Saints are hosting 3,000 fans for its home game on Sunday against the Chicago Bears, in an argument on trying to boost the team’s home-field advantage, New Orleans Coach Sean Payton made what some would assume is a truly astounding comment.
“I brought up the idea of testing 50,000 people and quarantining them in a hotel, and having the most safest Superdome known to man, scientifically,” Payton said. “Bus them, they’ve tested every day, and you’ve got a COVID-free facility — I think that’s possible.”
Possible, yes. Will it happen? No.
Indianapolis at Buffalo: Up to 6,700 fans allowed.
L.A. Rams at Seattle: No fans will be allowed.
Tampa Bay at Washington: No fans will be allowed.
Baltimore at Tennessee: Up to 14,520 fans allowed.
Chicago at New Orleans: Up to 3,000 fans allowed.
Cleveland at Pittsburgh: Friends and family members of the players will be allowed.
ATHLETICS: Indoor Nationals Canceled
The United States Track & Field Indoor Championships, scheduled for February 20–21 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, have been canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Indoor Combined Events are also canceled.
“USATF’s COVID-19 Working Group of medical and scientific experts worked diligently to develop a rigorous set of COVID-19 protocols for conducting the Championships,” the national governing body said in a statement. “However, it has become apparent that statewide restrictions in New Mexico and other logistical challenges for the event are too severe to overcome.”
World Athletics announced that the 2020 World Indoor Championships scheduled for March 19-21, 2021, would be moved to March 2023.