From concerns to comeback

Once more, the pronouncements arrived in a torrent last week, although this time they were about rebirth rather than cancellation.

The National Basketball Association (NBA) announced it was planning to start up again late next month. The National Hockey League announced that a play-off tournament would take place through the summer. Major League Baseball was continuing negotiations with its players for a shortened season, while the National Football League (NFL) was moving towards opening training facilities.

The English Premier League, Italian Serie A and Spanish La Liga announced they would resume play later this month.

After months filled with pessimism, hesitation, quiet planning and uncertainty about whether major sports would happen again this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, nearly every sport is preparing to return.

Player representatives, league officials, lawyers and consultants who work closely with them say the sudden shift resulted from a mix of dramatic changes few could foresee a month or two ago.

There has been an increase in the availability of testing, which has allowed some of the leagues, like many other businesses, to secure all the kits they believe they need.

There were also far more mundane developments.

"Science has advanced," Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, wrote recently in an e-mail. "We know more than what we did before, and just speaking personally, my expectation is science will continue to progress forward with therapies, testing and vaccines. I'm actually more optimistic about a vaccine coming early than what others expect."

Not everyone is as bullish as Cuban about the prospects for a vaccine, with most experts saying one won't be widely available until at least early next year.

And while testing has increased across the United States and in the hardest-hit areas, it remains below a level that some epidemiologists say is needed to help mitigate future outbreaks. But with reopening plans under way in all 50 American states and with elected officials and the public eager for business activity to resume, league officials had a growing sense that there would be minimal opposition if they moved ahead with plans.

Cleveland's Larry Nance Jr trying to keep the ball away from Lauri Markkanen of the Chicago Bulls at the United Centre on March 10, a day before the NBA suspended its season. The Cavaliers forward, 27, is "scared" of making an NBA comeback during the coronavirus pandemic due to his weakened immune system because he has Crohn's disease.  PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Also, people who work closely with the leagues and team owners said the financial consequences of not returning, potentially billions of dollars in losses across the different competitions, made trying to come back vital.

While certain players have expressed concerns about their safety... most are like any other furloughed worker who wants to return to work and get paid...

"The economics of missing an entire season are just really, really bad," said Irwin Raij, co-chairman of the sports law practice at O'Melveny & Myers, who is in constant contact with numerous team officials and owners.

Finally, while certain players have expressed concerns about their safety, especially those with compromised immune systems, most are like any other furloughed worker who wants to return to work and get paid, even if that means doing so without the usual comforts of the job.

"We are all going to have to be a little less judgmental," said women's tennis player Alison Riske. The world No. 19 recently participated in a four-player event on a private court in the backyard of an estate in Florida, without her usual support team.

J.C. Tretter, the Cleveland Browns centre and president of the NFL Players Association, admitted the desire to get back was strong among his peers, so long as it could happen safely.

"We have to roll with the punches," he said. "We all love playing football. We also love our teammates and our families."

But regardless of the dire financial consequences the leagues were facing, none would have been able to pursue plans to reopen without the promise of fast, widespread testing. For two months, officials could not talk seriously about acquiring the necessary tests without giving the impression that their needs were more important than the public's.

During the last two weeks, as testing became more widely available, that concern has diminished.

One top sports industry executive said the NBA had already secured enough tests to screen all of the players as often as they want.

An NBA official, who asked not to be identified because the league's comeback process is still evolving, confirmed that the testing hurdle had been cleared.

With the US largely reopening in recent days, the governors of California and New York, the largest states to impose extensive stay-at-home orders, have said they would consider sports events without fans, giving hope to league officials.

Playing without spectators will hardly be a panacea. Gate revenues, concessions and other money that fans spend at games account for roughly 25 per cent of the NFL's US$15 billion (S$21.2 billion) in revenue.

Baseball collects about one-third of its US$11 billion from the gate.

But getting the games on television will generate at least some cash flow - and plenty of attention before fans decide to invest their passion and their disposable income elsewhere.

"You can offset some losses, but this is about going beyond 2020," Raij said. "They need to keep the fans engaged."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2020, with the headline 'From concerns to comeback'. Print Edition | Subscribe