In December, a football game between the University of Michigan and its biggest rival, Ohio State, was cancelled after a coronavirus outbreak on Michigan’s team. If you can’t conceive how big that decision was, imagine Real Madrid and Barcelona calling off El Clásico, or pulling the plug on a gold-medal women’s hockey game between the U.S. and Canada.
Or consider that cancelling the game cost Fox, the game’s broadcaster, a reported $18.5 million US in ad revenue.
Now contrast that with the NFL’s insistence on continuing with a game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers even though COVID-19 outbreaks among the Ravens had already triggered a string of postponements. The six-day delay led to a rare NFL game on network TV on a Wednesday afternoon, but salvaging the matchup made financial sense. Cancelling could have cost NBC an estimated $71 million in ad sales.
If you’re a big fan of the Summer Olympics, concerned they won’t take place this July, rest easy. The International Olympic Committee is scheduled to collect a reported $1 billion in broadcast rights fees tied to this summer’s event (the CBC holds the Canadian broadcast rights), and tied to that sum is a long list of broadcasters eager to recoup that money through ad sales or streaming app subscriptions.
I’ll join that second group, following the Olympic Games with feelings as mixed as the messaging pro sports are sending about their commitment to COVID-19 safety.
Consider the NBA, which set the gold standard last summer, setting up a secure campus on a Disney resort, and conducting a post-season free of outbreaks. For the current season, every team except the Raptors returned to its home market and resumed a normal, if shortened, schedule of home and road games.
Predictably, infections have followed. The Washington Wizards paused activities for more than nine days after an outbreak within the team. Earlier this month Minnesota Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns, whose mother is among six relatives to die from COVID-19, tested positive. He hasn’t played since Jan. 13.
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Yet the league still wants to host its all-star weekend in Atlanta in March, even though it means more travel when most experts are telling us to limit our movement. We can’t expect the NBA to seal all its players inside a COVID-free bubble from its tip-off in December until the playoffs end in July, and we knew proceeding with a season entailed risk. But we can also recognize that, even by pro sports standards, all-star games aren’t essential and that the league’s best players would benefit more from a weekend off work than from a detour that could expose them to the virus.
And look at Arizona, where COVID-19 case counts are swelling, and where officials in cities with MLB team complexes want the league to delay spring training until the number of new infections recedes. Except MLB and its players’ union can’t make that decision until they haggle over it. Part of the problem, according to published reports, is that delaying spring training pushes back opening day, which could cause the World Series to bleed into mid-November, which might displease the league’s broadcast partners.
A non-baseball fan could simply conclude that, when balanced against a public health emergency, a delayed baseball season barely qualifies as an inconvenience. But MLB is the same outfit that pulled Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner from the field late in the final game of the World Series over a positive COVID-19 test, then did nothing after he returned to the diamond to celebrate with his teammates, maskless and maybe contagious.
Or we could return to the University of Michigan, where first-year track standout Ziyah Holman erased her team’s 25-metre deficit in the final leg of a 4×400-metre relay, passing two runners to seal a Michigan victory. For the track aficionados, Holman ran her split in 51.79 seconds, the fastest segment of any runner on any team competing. And for everyone else, the feat went viral, giving track and field a rare moment in the mainstream sports spotlight.
Virus is relentless and versatile
A week later, the school announced a two-week moratorium on sports after a COVID-19 outbreak within its athletic program. The case count included a variant of the virus, which has been spreading in the community beyond the campus.
The dilemma in Ann Arbor tells us the novel coronavirus possesses traits coaches treasure in athletes.
It’s relentless, spreading in all but the most controlled environments, ripping through communities where COVID-fatigued people are relaxing their defences.
It’s versatile, with enough new variants to keep drug companies adjusting vaccines.
And it’s opportunistic, mutating into new varieties because unchecked spread gave it a chance to.
The more people infected, the more likely that we will see new variants.– Dr. Michel Nussenzweig
“The more people infected, the more likely that we will see new variants,” Dr. Michel Nussenzweig, an immunologist at Rockefeller University in New York, told the New York Times. “If we give the virus a chance to do its worst, it will.”
Wrestling the pandemic into submission in time for a relatively safe Summer Games is less about billions of us producing Holman-type heroics, than about governments providing something else coaches love.
An effective game plan we can adjust on the fly.
Ontario’s government instituted a province-wide state of emergency, and is urging residents to stay at home. But a stay-at-home strategy likely works better alongside paid sick leave, so essential workers don’t have to choose between spreading a virus and courting financial disaster.
Anheuser-Busch is on board even if some elected officials aren’t. The brewer opted out of Super Bowl advertising, instead spending that money on a campaign to promote COVID-19 vaccines.
“We are eager to get people back together, reopen restaurants and bars,” said Budweiser’s VP of marketing, Monica Rustgi, in a statement explaining the move. “To bring consumers back into neighbourhood bars and restaurants that were hit exceptionally hard by the pandemic, we’re stepping in to support critical awareness of the COVID-19 vaccine.”
But if an Olympic bubble isn’t feasible, the road to a normal sports landscape, and guilt-free Olympic watching, likely goes through widespread vaccine uptake.
Or we can wait until next year.