The coronavirus outbreak has forced difficult decisions for the sports-event industry. As events come back online and as destinations, venues and event organizers determine capacity limits for fans along with health and safety protocols for their events, here is a look at where things stand.
OLYMPICS: Beijing 2022 Stops Ticket Sales, Allows Limited Number of Spectators
Posted: Monday, January 17
Select and limited groups of Chinese spectators will be allowed to attend the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing, but organizers announced Monday they would no longer sell tickets to the event. The decision follows a move in September that already prevented foreign spectators from attending the Games.
In the announcement on the latest limitation, organizers said they would enact “an adapted program that will invite groups of spectators to be present on site during the Games.” Those spectators will be expected to abide by the COVID-19 countermeasures before, during and after each event to create the safest environment for athletes.
“Given the difficult and complicated work of controlling the epidemic, and to protect the health and safety of those involved with the Games, the original plan of offering tickets to the general public has been altered toward spectators from selected groups,” the statement said.
The Olympic Games open on February 4 with the Paralympic Games set to start March 4.
Organizers in Beijing have been working to limit the spread of COVID-19, adopting a “closed-loop” system that is aimed at limiting interactions between Olympics stakeholders and the general public. China has largely avoided major virus outbreaks with a regimen of lockdowns, mass testing for COVID-19 and travel restrictions, although it continues to fight surges in several cities, including the port of Tianjin, about an hour from Beijing. The capital itself confirmed over the weekend that a 26-year-old woman had contracted the omicron variant of the virus and has tested more than 13,000 people in search of cases of cross transmission.
The move to limit mainland spectators is similar to practices put in place for the recent Olympic and Paralympic Summer Games in Tokyo, where all spectators were prevented from attending those Games.
NFL: No, the Super Bowl is not moving to Dallas from Los Angeles
Posted: Friday, December 14
Social media was ablaze this month at the news that the NFL explored using the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium in Arlington as a backup site for the Super Bowl. The NFL confirmed that it finds backup sites for the Super Bowl every year, and it had no serious concerns about holding the game in Inglewood.
And the league reinforced this week that in no way, shape or form will one of the world’s biggest sporting events leave the Los Angeles area on February 13.
“All of our plans for Super Bowl week remain fully in place for a month from today,” Katie Keenan, the NFL’s senior director of event operations, told The Associated Press. “We’re working along with everyone here, with the LA County Health Department, to make sure all of our events are being held safely.”
Attention was also sparked by UCLA and USC having a few basketball games held without fans in attendance but at no point have SoFi Stadium games been held with any type of attendance restrictions. Under the current LA County public health order, fans ages 5 and over must provide proof of either vaccination or a negative test result taken within 48 hours of kickoff.
“I don’t think anybody has ever wavered on being able to play this game here and play it safely,” said Kevin Demoff, the Rams’ chief operating officer. “We’ve had an amazing, safe environment all year. We are fortunate this is an outdoor facility where the air gets in. We feel this building is very safe. People who come to our games have learned to be safe, and we are doing everything we can to be safe.”
The proof of vaccination or negative test protocol extends to Monday night’s home game for the Rams against the Arizona Cardinals. The other NFL playoff game with COVID fan protocols will be Saturday when the Buffalo Bills, who require proof of vaccination for fans to attend, host the New England Patriots.
The first Super Bowl was held at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum in January 1967; the game returned to that venue in 1973 and has been at the Rose Bowl five times as well, the last time in 1993. Next month will be the first time the game is at SoFi Stadium, which opened last year with fans not allowed at home games because of the pandemic.
The chance for fans to attend Rams and Chargers games in Los Angeles, as well as Raiders fans to be at Allegiant Stadium for the first time, allowed the NFL to register a 0.9 percent increase in announced attendance for games this season — a number that is strong compared decreases for the NBA and NHL from its last pre-pandemic seasons, but also a number that can be explained and debated in several directions.
The miniscule increase comes after three years of declining NFL attendance numbers and is almost entirely because of the new venues in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. It is instructive to note that paid and actual attendance are different things and it wasn’t hard to watch games on TV this season and see gaps in the stands at games where sellouts were announced.
Even so, Sports Business Journal reported that 19 teams saw declines this year compared to 2019. The question is which of those numbers are because of potential fan reluctance to be at mass gatherings, even with vaccinations readily available — and which of those decreases, such as in Washington (19.4 down), Detroit (16 down) and the New York Jets (8.7 down) is because of consistently losing franchises.
The leadup to this weekend’s expanded slate of playoff games has been mostly without COVID-related drama, although ESPN reported on Thursday there may be some of that brewing in Dallas where Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper has been fined by attending a Dallas Mavericks game without wearing a mask.
Cooper is unvaccinated and missed two games in the regular season after testing positive. Cooper would not fall in the daily testing protocol through Super Bowl LVI, per the league’s health and safety protocols, since he had COVID while in-season.
“You don’t want to get sick. This is the tournament. We train so hard in the offseason, OTAs, camp, to get to this point. We accomplished that goal thus far,” Cooper said after Dallas’ win over Philadelphia last weekend. “We’re going to do everything we can do to not get sick. If that means isolation, then that’s what that means. Hopefully we can isolate enough to not catch it.”
All Times Eastern
Las Vegas at Cincinnati, 2:30 p.m.
New England at Buffalo, 6:15 p.m. (fans must show proof of vaccination to attend)
Philadelphia at Tampa Bay, 11 a.m.
San Francisco at Dallas, 2:30 p.m.
Pittsburgh at Kansas City, 6:15 p.m.
Arizona at L.A. Rams, 6:15 p.m. (fans must show proof of vaccination or negative test to attend)
TENNIS: Djokovic’s Excuses Piling Up in Australia
Updated: Friday, January 14
The Australian government revoked the visa for Novak Djokovic overnight for the second time in two weeks, setting up a weekend courtroom showdown that will determine if the world’s top-ranked player will be able to compete at the Australian Open while being unvaccinated.
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said he canceled the visa on “health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so.” His statement added that Prime Minister Scott Morrison‘s government “is firmly committed to protecting Australia’s borders, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Hawke’s decision comes three days before play begins at the year’s first Grand Slam with Djokovic still in the draw that was made on Thursday. Djokovic’s lawyer, Nick Wood, told Australian judge Anthony Kelly that he wanted an appeal to be heard on Sunday in the hopes that Djokovic would have his visa reinstated in time for Monday’s first round.
Kelly ruled in favor of Djokovic earlier this week on procedural grounds after his visa was first canceled when he landed at a Melbourne airport.
Djokovic admitted on Wednesday that after his positive COVID test last month, he went unmasked to a youth tennis awards show and a newspaper interview and photo shoot. He also traveled throughout Serbia, despite the country’s mandate to isolate upon testing positive, and also traveled to Spain, a trip that is reportedly under investigation by that country’s government.
Serbia has strongly backed Djokovic throughout the entire visa saga but softened its stance on Wednesday after he admitted to breaking the country’s rules. Serbia requires individuals to isolate for 14 days after a positive test.
“If you’re positive you have to be in isolation,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić told the BBC, adding if Djokovic went out knowing he had a positive result, it would be a “clear breach” of the rules. Lawyers in Serbia told national media that if found guilty, Djokovic would be subject to a fine or prison sentence although community service was more likely.
All of this was “an error of judgement,” Djokovic said on social media. He also blamed “human error” by his agent for putting on his visa application that Djokovic had been isolating, which social media clearly shows was untrue.
In an affidavit to the court to stay in Australia and not be deported ahead of the tournament, Djokovic said he was “tested and diagnosed” as positive for COVID on December 16. But social media clearly shows Djokovic being at a youth tennis camp on December 17 and then at an interview and photo shoot for the French newspaper L’Equipe on December 18.
Djokovic in his Wednesday statement said he did not know that he was positive until after he attended the youth event. He did not explain why he went to an interview and photo shoot.
The initial news that Djokovic was granted an exemption to Australia’s strict vaccination rules provoked an outcry. Australia reported 130,000 new cases, including nearly 35,000 in Victoria, almost entirely of the omicron variant. Victoria went through hundreds of days of lockdowns in the past two years and there is a vaccination rate among adults of more than 90 percent. Everyone at the Australian Open is required to be vaccinated for COVID-19 unless given a medical exemption.
The stakes are high because Djokovic will be a heavy favorite to win the year’s first Grand Slam, having done so nine times before. A title would break the record he currently holds with rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for the men’s Grand Slam singles titles in a career.
Nadal has pointed out that Djokovic’s drama would easily be resolved by getting vaccinated. Most players have stayed away from the topic of Djokovic leading to the Grand Slam other than veteran João Sousa, who said “I understand that it’s what he believes in, but it’s a little selfish towards his colleagues in the profession because many of us – not me – didn’t want to get vaccinated and we had to do it in order to play. It was the rules. It turns out to be a rule that Djokovic managed to get around.”
Stefanos Tsitsipas before Hawke’s decision said Djokovic was “playing by his own rules” and making vaccinated players “look like fools.”
While this is all going on, the Australian Open also announced that because of a rise in COVID cases, ticket sales at Rod Laver Arena will be paused at 50 percent of capacity if a session has not already sold to that level. All tickets purchased before Wednesday will still be honored with face masks mandatory except when eating or drinking.
OLYMPICS: No Decision Yet on Spectators at Olympic Games
Posted: Wednesday, January 12
Three weeks out from the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games, no decision has been made yet on whether domestic spectators will be allowed at the venues, the International Olympic Committee said on Wednesday. But IOC officials said the “closed loop” system of testing and keeping Olympic athletes and officials isolated from the Chinese population appears to be off to a strong start.
The question of spectators is one of the last unknowns for the Games that will begin February 4 in Beijing. All spectators were banned from the Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo and foreign spectators have already been ruled out for Beijing. But no final decision has been made yet on what might happen with domestic spectators, said Pierre Ducrey, the Olympic Games operations director, who deferred the question to the Beijing Organizing Committee during a briefing covering logistics on the ground in China.
Regardless of how the spectator issue gets resolved, there will be significant differences in protocols for athletes, coaches, Olympic officials and media that will be traveling to Beijing compared to their experience in Tokyo this past summer, where they also faced limits designed to counteract the threat of COVID-19. Olympic stakeholders in Beijing will be tested every day during their stay, with some clarity provided Wednesday on what happens should they test positive. In Tokyo, only athletes and certain officials were tested daily, while others were on a modified testing schedule dependent on how close they had contact with athletes. All participants coming to Beijing also must be vaccinated, something that was merely a recommendation for participants in Tokyo.
The so-called “closed loop” system being implemented by the IOC and the Beijing Organizing Committee is also being designed to isolate Olympic participants from the Chinese population, where recent outbreaks have caused several major cities to go into lockdown. Ducrey said the IOC is not concerned about any transmission from the general public into the Olympic zone, or the other way around, based on the strict limits that will be placed on how Olympic visitors will be allowed to move about the city.
“When it comes to outbreaks in China and the closed-loop approach, it is called a closed loop for that very reason,” he said. “There will be no contact between those outside the loop and inside the loop. It has been built to help protect the inside from the outside and the outside from the inside. There is no concern from this perspective that this could influence the Games.”
“There will be no contact between those outside the loop and inside the loop. It has been built to help protect the inside from the outside and the outside from the inside.”
—Pierre Ducrey, IOC
Nonetheless, the IOC has developed specific rules for anyone within the loop who does test positive on the daily PCR tests that will be administered in the Athlete’s Village or at approved hotels for other Olympic participants. People who test positive but are asymptomatic will be sent to a designated hotel to be monitored for symptoms. If after three days of isolation they test negative on two consecutive days, they will be allowed to return to the closed loop. Ducrey said a 3- or 4-star hotel will be designated for those purposes with those isolated being granted access to Wi-Fi and meals, as well as deliveries from other members of their team. “You could be out as quickly as you produce two negative tests,” he said.
Anyone who is symptomatic will be sent to a hospital or other medical facility where they will need to stay until their symptoms improve and they also receive negative tests for two consecutive days. If someone continues to test positive for two weeks, there will be a medical panel that will review their situation before determining the next steps or decide whether those individuals can eventually return to the closed-loop system.
Those deemed close contacts during the course of the Games will not have to quarantine themselves but will be subject to two daily PCR tests for seven days in an effort to monitor their status.
Meanwhile, the IOC is reporting that the process upon arrival at the airport in Beijing has been smooth for participants, an improvement over what was in some cases up to 10 hours of testing and waiting for participants in Tokyo. The Beijing Organizing Committee has said that those arriving can expect to be processed in under six hours, although Ducrey said some people are moving their way through in about an hour. Those arriving are subject to a PCR test upon arrival and sent straight to their designated hotel or the Athletes’ Village. They cannot leave those accommodations until their negative results are returned. “The arrival and departure process is working extremely well,” Ducrey said.
TENNIS: Djokovic’s Visa Drama in Australia Continues
Posted: Tuesday, January 11
Novak Djokovic, known for some of the most drama-filled matches in modern Australian Open history, brought that drama off the court this week ahead of the first Grand Slam of 2022.
Djokovic won a court battle to stay in Australia — it seems — to play in the Australian Open despite being unvaccinated against COVID-19. Federal Circuit Court Judge Anthony Kelly reinstated Djokovic’s visa, canceled upon his arrival into Australia last week after officials decided he did not meet the criteria to enter the country despite a medical exemption from the state of Victoria because the country requires all non-citizens be fully vaccinated.
Kelly ordered Djokovic to be released from a Melbourne quarantine hotel where he had been staying since being detained. Later in the day, Djokovic tweeted a photo of him and his coaches at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne saying, “I’m pleased and grateful that the Judge overturned my visa cancellation.”
The story is not done, though. Court documents from Djokovic’s appeal to stay in the country admitted that Djokovic, a longtime vaccine skeptic, is not vaccinated. Government lawyer Christopher Tran told the judge that the minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs, Alex Hawke, “will consider whether to exercise a personal power of cancellation.” If Hawke uses that power, the nine-time Australian Open winner would still face deportation.
Rafael Nadal, who last week pointed out the drama would all be avoided if Djokovic got vaccinated, called the controversy “a circus” and “there’s no question that justice has spoken and has said that he has the right to take part in the Australian Open.”
Circus is certainly one way of putting the past week. To wit:
- Kelly said during the hearing that Djokovic provided airport officials with a medical exemption given to him by Tennis Australia and two medical panels.
- Djokovic said the medical exemption was because he had tested positive for COVID in December; there is a temporary exemption to Australia’s vaccination rules for people who have had COVID within six months.
- Djokovic’s positive date is dated December 16 — six days after the deadline to apply for a medical exemption to play in the Australian Open.
- The test has a QR code with it; depending on who has checked the code out, it says ‘positive’ or in some cases that Djokovic tested negative.
- Djokovic is seen on social media the day after the alleged positive test at a youth tennis event without a mask on. Two days after he allegedly tested positive, Djokovic did an interview and photo shoot for the French newspaper L’Equipe without a mask on.
- Journalist Ben Rothenberg reported on Monday night that Djokovic told Australian border patrol that he had not traveled in 14 days priors to his arrival when social media shows that he had, in fact, visited Spain.
The Australian Open is not only one of Djokovic’s most successful events, a win this year would break the tie with Roger Federer and Nadal for the most Grand Slam singles titles in men’s history. But Djokovic’s mother, Dijana, called Monday’s court hearing “the biggest victory” of his career during a family press conference — an event that was immediately ended after a reporter pointed out Djokovic was seen in public after a positive test without a mask on.
Regardless of what happens in Australia, Djokovic’s refusal to be vaccinated will follow him throughout the world. The United States requires visitors be fully vaccinated to enter the country by plane unless they are U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents or traveling on a U.S. immigrant visa. Not only would that leave in doubt Djokovic’s entry into the late-summer U.S. Open, but it would affect major events in Indian Wells, California, and Miami, both scheduled in March.
The French Open begins in May and sports minister Roxana Maracineanu said last week that she expected Djokovic would be allowed to enter the country … then said any athlete would be required to show proof of vaccination to have access to sports training facilities.
SPORTS: Omicron Continues to Affect Pro Sports, College Basketball
Posted: Monday, January 10
No matter that the calendar has turned from 2021 to 2022, things often feel like the sports world is caught in a time loop:
- In addition to several Ivy League schools, the Pac-12’s Stanford, USC and UCLA are going without fans at indoor events for at least the next week’s games.
- Wake Forest, Michigan State, Maryland, Rutgers and Michigan will require either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test for fans to be at indoor events while Ohio State has closed concessions at games.
- The NCAA updated its guidance for winter sports, saying a “fully vaccinated” Tier 1 individual (which pertains notably to coaches) must have gotten both a COVID vaccine but also a booster shot.
- The NHL continues to postpone games, mostly in Canada but a few that involve U.S.-based teams. And with players not heading to the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, the pre-scheduled break after the All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas will not only be full with rescheduled games, there remains a chance the league still adds a week to the regular season to ensure everybody plays its full schedule.
- The NBA has rescheduled all 11 games postponed in December for virus-related reasons with seven teams that have at least one stint of playing four games in five nights: Chicago, Toronto, Brooklyn, Cleveland, Miami, New Orleans and Denver. The original schedule had no such stretches.
The NHL went on an extended pause during the Christmas holiday but still the league has been postponing games — including two games scheduled for Monday night after the Edmonton Oilers had eight players and the New Jersey Devils had seven players apiece going into the league’s health and safety protocols.
The league has postponed close to 100 games and while a majority of those have been because of COVID-related issues. While the league has not made its intentions for the now-cancelled break, there is the assumption that the league will play as many games as possible during that stretch of time — and it may still not be enough to get the regular season done on time.
Then there are the dozens of games postponed because of attendance restrictions at various places in Canada. None of the teams are currently allowed to have sellout crowds. The Winnipeg Jets, currently restricted to 250 people, asked fans how they would feel about moving home games to Saskatchewan, where there is no restriction on attendance. To no one’s surprise, the response was negative.
And playing games with no fans in attendance is a non-starter for the NHL in Canada — there is money to be made up from the first shutdown, of course.
“Certainly for the fans of those teams who want to attend those games and who have bought tickets, it’d be a shame for them to miss those games,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told The Athletic in November. “Obviously, it’s important from a revenue perspective, an HRR (hockey related revenue) perspective, to play before fans and to generate gate revenue.”
The NBA is not immune by any stretch. There have also been more than a dozen of the league’s coaches missing time, with daily testing extended through the end of the week. The league’s total of players in protocols at any point this season is over 300; as part of the rescheduled games, Brooklyn played Sunday against San Antonio at home — then flew across the country ahead of Monday’s rescheduled game at Portland. The Nets then come back East and visit Chicago on Wednesday.
“The main reason to release these now is because we wanted to make sure that teams had at least one week’s notice on any postponements, from a travel perspective, basketball planning, business, ticket sales, all those things,” said Evan Wasch, an NBA vice president who helps oversee the league’s scheduling. “It made sense to do it now.”
Financial sense, of course.
The question with all these games is whether the seats for them will be full. NBA attendance from the 2019–2020 season compared to this season has gone down 5.7 percent and NHL attendance is down even further, 7.9 percent. And with omicron’s numbers still increasing, it is worth examining a pre-Christmas survey done by Morning Consult in which 44% of fans said they would be comfortable at an indoor event, down nine percent from July.
Part of it is the push and pull between franchises that need fans to be in the stands and spend money at games after losing hundreds of millions in revenue from the pandemic, contrasted to fans who because of the pandemic may not have as much disposable income to spend on tickets or the gameday experience. While the NBA has a policy that fans within 15 feet of the court must wear masks except when actively eating or drinking, at nearly every game this season that policy has been ignored by a majority of attendees.
Whether that continues or should arenas start enforcing the rules more strictly will be something to watch. It is unlikely that any U.S. arena will start to restrict capacity like places have done in Canada; whether fans fill those seats over the next weeks is still an open-ended question.
NFL: League on Downswing of Omicron Surge
Posted: Friday, December 7
The NFL looks at first glance to be on the downswing when it comes to players testing positive and going onto the league’s COVID-19 list. Still, there are teams that have been affected this week.
One day after clinching a playoff berth, the Philadelphia Eagles put 12 players on the COVID list. But the Eagles have been an outlier overall, given that there were nearly 600 positives among players and league personnel from December 12–25.
This all sounds encouraging but there still are risks that teams must address. The Sunday night game between the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers is a playoffs-or-bust finale, making both teams ensure usage of masks and large meeting rooms — even virtual position-group gatherings remain vigilant so that players do not miss the key contest.
The league and players’ union in the past two weeks have agreed to ease return-to-play guidelines to encourage vaccine booster shots. The agreement came after there were three games this season, all in Week 15, that needed rescheduling, including two games moved to a Tuesday.
“We wanted to go where the science was going, and I will say that that five-day period sort of mirrors the data we have been seeing in our own NFL testing data throughout the year,” Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, told the NFL Network. “So, it really wasn’t about player availability or roster numbers. It was, ‘What is the science telling us?’”
Those changes allowed unvaccinated quarterback Carson Wentz of Indianapolis to avoid becoming the latest starting quarterback to miss a game. The Colts lost to the Raiders anyway and need a Week 18 victory over two-win Jacksonville to make the playoffs. Kirk Cousins, also unvaccinated, and Minnesota weren’t so lucky. He was out against Green Bay on Sunday, and the Vikings lost 37-10 to be eliminated from playoff contention.
New Orleans lost to Miami two weeks ago after a COVID-19 outbreak decimated the roster before the NFL’s changes. Still, the Saints can advance if they beat Atlanta and San Francisco loses to the Los Angeles Rams.
“I think the players and staff here handled a lot of challenging things not always perfectly, but we have managed to keep our head above water, keep grinding and keep fighting,” said Saints coach Sean Payton. “You’re just looking at the number one goal, outside of winning the division, is making it to the postseason. We have the opportunity to do that this weekend. You just want to find a way to get into the tournament.”
Concerns over omicron and local regulations as they develop have led the NFL to reportedly make backup plans for the Super Bowl, scheduled for February 13 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. Reports indicated that there were preliminary discussions about AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, serving as an emergency site.
“We plan on playing Super Bowl LVI as scheduled at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles on Sunday, February 13,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told The Associated Press. “As part of our standard contingency planning process that we conduct for all regular and postseason games, we have contacted several clubs to inquire about stadium availability in the event we cannot play the Super Bowl as scheduled due to weather-related issues or unforeseen circumstances. Our planning process for the Super Bowl in Los Angeles is ahead of schedule and we look forward to hosting the Super Bowl there to culminate another fantastic NFL season for our fans and clubs.”
For its part, “we are working closely with the NFL to welcome the Super Bowl to L.A. County,” the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health on Thursday told Yahoo Sports. “And while we cannot provide certainty for the future, we do not anticipate capacity limits at sporting events.”
Now, the NFL just has to get to that game safely.
All Times Eastern
Kansas City at Denver, 4:30 p.m.
Dallas at Philadelphia, 8:15 p.m.
Pittsburgh at Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Cincinnati at Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Green Bay at Detroit, 1 p.m.
Tennessee at Houston, 1 p.m.
Indianapolis at Jacksonville, 1 p.m.
Chicago at Minnesota, 1 p.m. (fans must wear masks except when eating or drinking)
Washington at N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m.
Seattle at Arizona, 4:25 p.m.
New Orleans at Atlanta, 4:25 p.m.
N.Y. Jets at Buffalo, 4:25 p.m. (fans must show proof of full vaccination to attend)
San Francisco at L.A. Rams, 4:25 p.m. (fans must show proof of full vaccination to attend)
New England at Miami, 4:25 p.m.
Carolina at Tampa Bay, 4:25 p.m.
L.A. Chargers at Las Vegas, 8:20 p.m. (fans must show proof of full vaccination to attend)