The commissioners of the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball addressed the impact of COVID-19 on their sports as well as TV ratings, rules changes and plans for next season during a virtual panel hosted by the Paley Center.
With rates of coronavirus infection now surging nationwide, the feat of each league managing to complete their respective seasons and crown champions in 2020 has given way to the next challenge: starting back up again. With billions of dollars on the line and a patchwork of local, state and international health and safety protocols in place, there are no easy solutions. The NBA and MLB expect a significant number of fans to attend games, while the NHL is exploring a “hub” system to minimize travel. For a host of reasons, no league is looking at a “bubble” setup to start the season.
Adam Silver of the NBA described the daunting “psychological impact” of players spending up to three-and-a-half months isolated in the league’s “bubble” setup in Orlando to finish the season. With such a scheme out of the question for an eight-month full season, he said, “My sense is we are going to have fans in many of our buildings. … We’ll probably start one way, where maybe we’re even a little more conservative than what some of the local jurisdictions allow.” Masks, distancing and other measures will be utilized.
“We’re going to watch how this virus evolves, along with vaccines and anti-virals,” he added. Testing protocols for fans in certain parts of the arena — including those near players and coaches — will be in effect, with fans needing to certify their virus-free status.
Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL since 1993, said the lack of fans hurt TV ratings for the league, a downturn that has pulled all sports down by double digits compared with previous levels. The NHL’s plunge, Bettman said, was “partly a function of the fact that fans in the stadiums and arenas give the game an energy, which actually comes through on television.” Silver, for his part, chalked up the 49% drop in NBA Finals ratings to competition from sports like the NFL as well as basketball contesting its championship at a time when viewers were unaccustomed to hoops.
Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said teams’ revenue has taken a hit from a lack of concession sales and other mainstays of the sport’s economy. “Our regular season revenue is the most dependent of any of the sports on having fans in the ballpark,” he said. “To get through the year without fans is a tremendous burden.” Looking to spring 2021, the commissioner said, “We will be more aggressive about having fans in ballparks.”
Baseball fans did not start attending games until the league allowed playoff and World Series games in Texas, which was allowed to sell 28% of its seats. Staying empty in 2021 is not “a tenable position for us,” Manfred said. “Will it be full stadiums? I kind of doubt that. But we do think it’s important” to demonstrate that games can safely be played with spectators present. At another point in the session, he described the experience of fan-free games as a “stark experience” and a “strange environment.”
Many health officials have expressed concerns about sporting events being allowed, and the return of college football has been marred by events like last Saturday night’s rushing of the field by thousands of Notre Dame fans. MLB had its own misstep after the World Series was clinched by the LA Dodgers, when Justin Turner left the final game due to a positive COVID-19 test result. He then drew widespread criticism by returning to the field to celebrate with teammates and the team has since reported numerous positive tests among other Dodgers. After formally investigating the 35-year-old Turner, MLB decided not to discipline him.
Mike Tirico of NBC Sports, who moderated the session during the Paley Center’s International Council Summit, did not ask Manfred about Turner.
Asked by Tirico about the conversations the three commissioners had with each other while navigating the unprecedented pandemic landscape, Manfred said it had a positive impact on baseball. He noted a scare early on when virus outbreaks on the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals put the restarted season in jeopardy.
MLB, “maybe to our detriment,” started the resumption of the season with the mindset of “how we’re going to play through the positive” test results that are inevitable in a non-bubble setting, Manfred mused. “I remember us reaching the conclusion that maybe it’s not about us playing through it. What you’ve really got to do is make sure it doesn’t spread.” Thereafter, he said, the approach shifted to a more flexible approach to scheduling games and making them up as doubleheaders as needed.
Bettman said the commissioners kept in regular touch in order to get “a sanity check” and to seek “some reassurance that we all had the same view of the world.”