April 5, 2020
Throughout societal history, few distractions generate more media attention and money than sports. Backed by billions in television, pay-TV and subscription stream video revenue, Major League Baseball, the NBA, NFL, NHL, PGA, MLS, ATP, WWE, NASCAR, etc., rely almost entirely on media distribution to support a rarified ecosystem of lavish compensation, billionaire owners and self-serving adulation. Who needs customers in the stands?
That’s the message President Trump, who met with commissioners from several pro leagues on April 4, appeared to send to an increasingly quarantined public.
But at a time when the President is warning about “very bad weeks ahead” as parts of the country grapple with burgeoning coronavirus infections and deaths, an expedited return to “normalcy” in professional sports seems at odds with the situation on the frontlines of a pandemic.
“They want to get back,” Trump said. “They’ve got to get back. They can’t do this. Their sports weren’t designed for it. The whole concept of our nation wasn’t designed for it. We’re going to have to get back. We want to get back soon, very soon.”
How soon remains the $64,000 question.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is hoping for a June Opening Day. The NBA is reportedly considering a postseason scenario running playoff games in virus-free empty stadiums for broadcast only. Of course 15 players have tested positive for the disease, as well as New York Knicks owner Jim Dolan.
“The fans want to be back too, you know,” Trump said. “They want to see basketball and baseball and football and hockey. They want to see their sports. They want to go out onto the golf courses and breathe nice, clean, beautiful fresh air.”
On Disney-owned ESPN, a pay-TV pillar now reduced to irrelevancy, reaction was mixed after Clemson, SC football coach Dabo Swinney suggested the 2020 college football season would proceed as normal.
While the NCAA lost almost $1 billion in televised ad-revenue from the canceled “March Madness” basketball tournament, the majority of its annual revenue comes from Div. 1 football.
“My preference is let’s get to work and go play,” Swinney said in an April 3 interview. “That’s the best-case scenario, and I think that’s what’s going to happen. I don’t have any doubt. I have zero doubt that we’re going to be playing and the stands are going to be packed.”
Wishful thinking at a time when Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and White House advisor, is calling for a nationwide shelter-in-place quarantine to halt the spread of COVID-19.
Regardless, Trump is trying to put a positive spin on the return of televised sports in uncertain times.
“I can’t tell you a date, but I think it’s going to be sooner rather than later,” he said.