This is the Coronavirus Case Studies series. Every post in this series will talk about how the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 will affect different businesses for years to come. We’re all still processing this massive, life-changing event. This week, we talk about how coronavirus will affect sports. 

At the time I’m writing this, we’re about halfway through September. We’ve all started to adapt to what life during this pandemic is like. Kind of.

With more time on our hands than seemingly ever before, many of us have turned to watching television, movies, or playing games to pass time stuck inside. However, one thing just hasn’t felt the same…where are the live sports?

Like so many of you, sports make up a huge part of my life. Not only do I love playing sports, but I love watching them as well. My favorites are MMA and golf (long story).

Sports fans around the world have had a tough year, as most live sports are just now resuming! While we’re happy to see sports return to our TVs, there are obviously some major changes as to how events are held, as well as the overall climate of each sport. Let’s dive in and take a look as to how COVID-19 has already started to affect various sports. 

The Sports Industry is Massive

As a society, we love sports. Live or prerecorded, sports are ingrained into our culture. The industry is massive in scale, and getting things up and running again has been a priority for every major sports league.

The money proves it, too. According to World Economic Forum, “the global value of the sports industry was estimated to be $471 billion in 2018 – an increase of 45% since 2011. Before coronavirus stopped live sporting events, the only trajectory seemed to be upwards. Now, every part of the sporting value chain has been affected, from athletes, teams and leagues, to the media that broadcast and cover games.”

When trying to get things up and running, you have to consider the safety of the athletes, coaches, fans, and the countless other people it takes to host live sporting events. Some sports are trying to do this by implementing mass testing. This has raised all sorts of ethical questions. On the other extreme, UFC has moved fights to an island in Abu Dhabi to completely shield athletes from the virus.

Of course, the sports industry doesn’t just make money on tickets to live events. They have other revenue streams, too, but they all hinge upon sporting events happening in the first place. For example, sports venues serve as prime real estate for marketing and advertising. With sports being put on pause until recently, advertisers are having to find new ways to reach their audience and sports teams have to find new ways to make money.

According to the World Economic Forum, “the [sports] industry is trying to capitalize on the spike in media consumption by finding new ways to engage consumers. In the absence of live games, this means deepening the pool of content available to fans. For example, sports broadcasters such as ESPN and Fox Sports are showing classic games, archived content, documentaries, esports and niche competitions in a bid to keep consumers watching. Individual leagues are doing the same. The NFL is making every game since 2009 available for streaming on its direct-to-consumer channel Game Pass, a strategy which led to a 500-fold increase in daily sign-ups for the service.”

Live Sports Need to Continue…But How?

The Houston Astros take batting practice before their game against the Oakland Athletics at RingCentral Coliseum on September 09, 2020 in Oakland, California. Cardboard cutout fans are in the stands and the skies are smoky orange from wildfires. Source is Getty Images, photo by Ezra Shaw. Originally found on Chron.

Sports cannot live on nostalgia alone forever. Classic games, archived content, and documentaries can only go so far. Other live events like eSports aren’t exactly mainstream yet. So for this industry to make money, live sports have to continue. The question then becomes “how can this be done safely and ethically?”

To give you a clearer picture, I’ll talk about how different sports are taking three very different approaches to get live sports up and running. 

I mentioned this in passing earlier, but the UFC was the first sport to successfully resume live events. I personally am a huge MMA fan, and I can tell you that the recent fights have been very different. Right off the bat, there are no fans in the arena. Everyone other than the fighters are in masks and everyone who is in the complex must undergo continuous COVID-19 testing to ensure that nobody is infected and spreading the virus.

On top of all of these changes, if a fighter does come down with COVID-19, they are unable to fight and earn money. Countless fights have been called off this year due to a fighter testing positive for COVID. This adds another element to an already unpredictable sport.

Meanwhile, the NBA has had a different approach to resume live basketball. The NBA created “the 2020 NBA Bubble” near Orlando, Florida. Within the bubble, players will be protected from COVID-19 for the final eight games of the 2019-2020 season and throughout the 2020 NBA playoffs. Of the 30 NBA teams, 22 were invited to participate.

Within the bubble, games are being held behind closed doors at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The teams are staying at Disney World hotels. According to Wikipedia, “the bubble is a $170 million investment by the NBA to protect its 2019–20 season, which was initially suspended by the pandemic on March 11, 2020.”

Finally, the NFL has its own unique approach to resuming football. With a contact sport such as football, finding a way around contact is almost impossible. “Daily COVID-19 testing has been in place since the start of NFL training camps for [players and staff]. The daily COVID-19 testing for those two groups will continue into the regular season, except on game days, according to ESPN. Other team employees are tested weekly.”

In addition to rigorous testing, many teams are not allowing fans into the stadiums. The ones that do function at a much lower capacity. To combat the sheer weirdness of playing for an empty stadium, the NFL as well as many other sports have started playing fake crowd noise into the stadium to give the players a real live feel. 

Final Thoughts

Sports bind so many of us together. Getting them back up and running has never seemed so important, if fraught with complex problems about health and safety. Some of the smartest minds in the world are working on finding safe and effective ways to get sports up and running again.