Sports Pulled Off a Miracle in 2020. Now What About 2021?

The NBA pulled it off. Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When sports shut down in March, with the NBA, NHL, and MLB all pausing their seasons, it was far from a certainty that they would return in 2020. When he put the NBA season on hold, commissioner Adam Silver said that it would be “at least 30 days” until the league reconvened. No one believed him, and they were right; it would end up being nearly four months until NBA players hit the floor again, and it required, essentially, the building of an entirely new society at Disney World. And even when all the leagues did get going, the general consensus was that trying to play sports in a pandemic, particularly one botched as badly as it was in this country, was a fool’s errand. Every positive test in Major League Baseball seemed like a direct rebuke of Rob Manfred, proving that hubris had come before sense, that greed, as always, had taken precedence over civic health.

And yet here we are, in late September, and those leagues have almost made it through. The Stanley Cup Finals and WNBA playoffs are in full swing (though the latter has experienced its first COVID-19 scare), the NBA Finals will begin next week, and Major League Baseball, the first sport to attempt the bank shot of a full, if abbreviated, un-bubbled season, begins its extended playoffs Tuesday. We can argue whether or not it was right and just for these sports to play in the midst of the worst public-health crisis in a century — and I think they simply did what your employer and our government should have done — but you cannot argue that they pulled it off. It is a remarkable achievement, however you measure it, and one we will all talk about as long as there are sports to talk about. The chaos of 2020 was always going to lead to a dog’s breakfast of a season, but it did end up being a season. They actually salvaged the darned thing. I’m still a little amazed by it.

The problem, though, is that implicit in the “do whatever it takes to figure out how to cobble together whatever revenue you can, finish up the season, crown a champion and lick your wounds to fight another day” strategy is that 2020 was a one-off,  black swan, extinction-level event — one that was merely meant to be survived, not replicated. When leagues put together their plans to salvage 2020, the presumption was that that the worst of the virus would be behind us by next year, that we’d be back to some semblance of “normal.” As you might have noticed, it’s not likely to turn out that way.

Which is going to lead to all sorts of problems for sports. (And, uh, the rest of us too.) It is one thing to weather an unprecedented plague for one year. It is quite another if that plague affects the 2021 season, or heaven forbid the 2022 one. It took an incredible feat of planning, engineering, and logistics to figure out this year. But what happens afterward will be even harder.

The problems are made more substantial by the very nature of sports seasons. The NBA and NHL only had to wrap up their regular-season schedules, and MLB, WNBA, and MLS cut theirs short. But if these leagues are going to get anywhere close to the revenue levels they enjoyed before, they need to play a full slate of games. Before it began its playoffs (which by definition cut the number of teams and players in half), the NBA only had to wrap up a few games per team, a schedule that already omitted the worst performers, including the Knicks. But to start a new season, the league needs all 30 teams on the floor, playing full 82-game seasons, over the span of seven months. NBA Players Association president Michele Roberts told Sports Illustrated, while admitting that she never thought this season would be complete, that, “I don’t see how sports can be played outside of a bubble concept given the absence of a vaccine.” The problems here are obvious. Even with just a fraction of teams playing only for a couple of months, the mental strain was more than some players could take. (Clippers star Paul George spoke for many NBA players when he described being “depressed” and “checked out” in the bubble.) Now imagine that for all 30 teams, for an entire seven-month season. Is that logistically possible? Is there that much space in Disney World? Would any player willingly sign up for that … potentially through 2022?

And perhaps even more pressing: Would there be fans in the stands? Television contracts still make up the majority of revenue for professional sports teams — the NBA says game revenue is 40 percent of earnings. But in the middle of a recession, saying goodbye to ticket revenue for a whole season is something no franchise is going to stomach easily. (One owner told ESPN’s Brian Windhorst he expects to lose $50 million in the 2020–21 season, though owners are always complaining about their franchises’ profitability and still end up selling them for several times what they paid.) This is a particularly salient issue for indoor sports like basketball and hockey. The CDC’s website might change its mind on the issue at any time, but indoor spaces are considered much more likely avenues for spread than outdoor ones. Can the NBA and NHL justify having fans until there is a vaccine, whenever that is? Will their unions even allow them if they try?

This might be less of a big deal for outdoor sports like Major League Baseball and the NFL, the latter of which is currently allowing fans at some venues — a risky maneuver considering a fan who attended the game opening night at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City ended up testing positive. But Major League Baseball is expected to allow fans at the (pseudo-bubbled) World Series this year, and the vast majority of college football venues are already welcoming spectators. (My season tickets for Georgia football, which kicks off this Saturday, just arrived this weekend. My family has not decided if we’re going yet, but if we don’t, their resale value, considering reduced capacity at Sanford Stadium, will be at least double what we paid for them.) If no games this season lead to any sorts of mass outbreak, it’s not difficult to imagine more fans filling stadiums in 2021, maybe even at capacity — even without a vaccine. Epidemiologists probably wouldn’t recommend this. But anyone watching on Saturday saw college students crawling all over each other in the stands, so it’s possible that proverbial cat is out of the proverbial bag.

But fans or no, MLB faces all sorts of peril next year anyway. Its collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of the season, and a potentially nuclear labor war that was brewing long before the pandemic may erupt. The distrust between the players and owners, so evident earlier this summer, is not likely to evaporate amid the pandemic, and that’s not even accounting for the fact that many teams, even the Yankees, are already laying off employees. And it’s tough to see how Minor League Baseball, which was canceled this season, will be able to come back in 2021 either. MLB gets television money that offsets the lack of full capacity in stadiums; Minor League teams rely on that ticket revenue. Without Minor League Baseball, not only does the game recede in small communities, teams lose their farm systems and key areas of player development. That’ll affect baseball long after the pandemic is over.

And this is all assuming, of course, the NFL — the ultimate sports cash cow — pulls off its season, which is going great so far (minus a spate of non-COVID injuries) but is far from a sure thing either. If that league can’t fulfill its financial obligations to networks, this could be a full-blown sports depression. That’s the nightmare scenario, and is why every league, everyone who works in sports, really, needs the NFL to thrive.

No matter what, the hope that this would just be a one-year hump for leagues to get over is fading fast. The sports leagues are like the rest of us now, no longer able to pretend this is a temporary condition — that just simply hunkering down and hoping to make it through is enough. 2020 has been impossible. But a fact that sports, and the whole planet, should remember: 2021 can always be worse.

Sports Pulled Off a Miracle in 2020. Now What About 2021?