By Annie Ross
Over the past two decades, the sports in the United States has ballooned into a chunk of the economy that generates well over $71 billion annually and employs tens of thousands of people, from superstar athletes to hot dog vendors.
But all of that has ground to an abrupt halt. The financial losses climb every day, as games go unplayed and are absent from television, and entire seasons could be canceled.
Leagues now are at the mercy of public health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci (above) and elected officials who are treading cautiously as they weigh the needs of a popular industry that depends on physical proximity against the risk of events that could enable the virus to spread.
“I don’t think we are going to see huge arenas full of people for a long time,” Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles said. “I do think you can have games without audiences. We watch much of our sports through television. I think you can create some bubbles. We are hungry for it. It’s a necessary step to build our confidence.”
While several leaders, including President Trump, have embraced the idea of games broadcast live from a quarantined environment, most concede that even that would pose large challenges. And the prospect of fans actually going to a game — an activity Americans spend $19 billion on per year, according to the professional services network PwC — is far off in the future, perhaps even 2021.
The outlook for leisure spending is already bleak as jobs are lost at a pace unseen since the Great Depression — 22 million people have filed unemployment claims in the past month. And a recent Seton Hall University poll showed that Americans, a majority of whom follow sports closely, are not eager to risk their health to attend games. Of the respondents, 72 percent said they would not go to arenas or stadiums if leagues resumed play before the development of a coronavirus vaccine — something scientists say is at least a year away.
Rick Painter, an Air Force veteran who lives in Viera, Fla., said he had spent $3,500 on two tickets for an April 5 game between the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics, with plans to buy a jersey of the Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo and to sit behind the team’s bench. Now, Ticketmaster has his money and is not giving refunds, because the games have been postponed but not technically canceled.
“So, you asked me if I’m desperate for sports to come back. Part of me is, ‘Hell no, they’re a bunch of whining babies,’” Mr. Painter, 58, said. “Part of me is, ‘Hell yeah, I miss sports.’ Part of me is, ‘What about my $3,500?’”
Televised baseball games with no one in the stands may be good for the American soul, but it will hurt Major League Baseball’s bottom line, even at a time when the sport’s finances have become increasingly tied to television coverage. In 2019, M.L.B. revenue grew to $10.7 billion, yet the game again struggled to draw fans to stadiums. In the absence of ticket sales, players would be under pressure to take pay cuts while risking their health and perhaps that of their families.
After the season was postponed, the league and the players’ association reached an agreement for teams to advance $170 million of the year’s $4 billion in total salaries through May 24. The players agreed to give up the remainder of their salaries if the season were lost, while still receiving full service-time credit that would help them earn more money in future seasons. Going forward with a plan to play in empty stadiums would require another negotiation.
MLB officials say Arizona, where half of the league holds its spring training, has enough hotel rooms and baseball diamonds to put on some version of The Show. They estimate that some 3,000 people probably would need to be tested regularly — players, club staff members, umpires and the broadcast contingent.
“What are you going to do with family members?” asked Mike Trout, the sport’s biggest star, whose salary breaks down to $222,222 per game.
“My wife is pregnant, what am I going to do when she goes into labor? Am I going to have to quarantine for two weeks after I come back? Because obviously I can’t miss that birth of our first child. So, there’s a lot of red flags, there’s a lot of questions,” Mr. Trout said in an interview on NBC Sports Network. “Obviously, we would have to agree on it as players. But I think the mentality is we want to get back as soon as we can, but obviously it’s got to be realistic.”
On Friday, the NBA said it had agreed with its players union to gradually reduce player salaries if the 2019-20 season is lost. And after a meeting with team owners, Commissioner Adam Silver said the league did not know when it could even talk about restarting.
“Our revenue, in essence, has dropped to zero,” Mr. Silver told reporters Friday night. He added: “There is a strong recognition that there are thousands of jobs impacted by the N.B.A. Not just the ones that fans see, meaning players and the basketball staff, but when you include the day-of-game arena workers, the NBA is responsible for roughly 55,000 jobs.”The Ultimate Fighting Championship has a facility in Las Vegas that it could use for mixed-martial-arts bouts. But state regulators in Nevada suspended all fights there, prompting the U.F.C. president, Dana White, to search for other options, including a private island.
By the luck of the calendar, the NFL has not suffered the same losses as the other major professional leagues. The league has a sizable reserve of cash and access to credit, and teams do not have to pay players’ salaries until the regular season begins. All NFL teams are profitable but they too would be in trouble if the shutdown extends into the fall and disrupts television contracts and ticket sales.