TINSMAN: Cancel everything (you can’t afford not to)

Brian Tinsman
March 15, 2020 - 6:32 pm
TINSMAN: Cancel everything (you can’t afford not to)

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

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The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, finally did what no Twitter mob could manage, and that’s to cancel life as we know it. Unlike most lukewarm takes bemoaning the temporary loss of sports, let’s assume that the difficult-but-correct choice was made.

Here are a few big reasons why suspending all sporting activity was not just the smart option, but the only option.

1. Health and safety considerations: Players across all sports have legitimate reasons to fear contagion, considering that they travel the world, sleep when they can, and make a living by sweating and bleeding on each other. 

Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz wasn’t a household name until he became the tip of the spear, testing positive for the virus (and spreading it to teammate Donovan Mitchell). The Jazz had two games against the L.A. Lakers scheduled for next week. Move over Tom Hanks--imagine if LeBron James becomes the face of celebrity contagion?

2. Economic reasons: America’s top sports leagues pull in money from fixed contracts like broadcast rights and marketing deals, as well as variable sources like tickets, concessions, merchandise, and parking. Variable sources are affected by everything from the weather to the opponent, the team’s record to the team’s branding.

Player salaries are the largest fixed costs and get paid regardless of how much money the team makes. 

Whether fans are barred from the games or choose not to attend, the teams lose variable income. It doesn’t make financial sense for games to be played in empty stadiums.

The NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL could all survive without that variable income because of TV contracts. However, upstart leagues like the XFL, minor leagues, women’s leagues, and non-broadcast sports cannot sustain the loss of ticket revenue. If you cheer for those leagues, now might be a good time to order a T-shirt, as some of them won’t survive the layoff.

Consider also that we live in a litigious world where lawsuits are the norm. If an outbreak like this was traced back to a sporting event, that league, team, stadium, and individuals will get sued. Already, a Florida law firm is suing the Chinese government for its handling of the initial outbreak.

Even leagues worth tens of billions of dollars cannot weather the avalanche of lawsuits and bad press that would come from a stadium outbreak.

3. Quality of play: Some have argued that America deserves to watch sports on TV during our time of self-quarantine, and those people aren’t wrong. Sports enhance our sense of normalcy, community and common bonds--qualities that we need now more than ever.

But would it feel the same to watch Alex Ovechkin chip away at Wayne Gretzky with no adoring Caps fans? Would it be satisfying to watch Juan Soto’s home run balls clang off of empty seats in the outfield, or watch Max Scherzer snarl as he strikes out the side in front of an empty Nats Park? How about watching March Madness without a single Cinderella reaction?

The difference between practice and games is the environment and the anticipation created by the fans. Fans have nothing to celebrate without the players, but games can’t happen without the fans to interpret the moment.

Look no further than Baltimore, where the Orioles played the Chicago White Sox in front of an empty stadium in 2015 during the racial tension and civil unrest. In the aftermath, players on both teams were clear: the show can’t go on without the fans.

Washington Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton, who played for the White Sox at the time, summed it up perfectly: "The reason we are here is because of the fans and when they're not present, baseball is a little different and it's kind of tough to play.

"When you think about everything that was going on outside the stadium, your heart just went out to the city and how they were dealing with everything. You're in the outfield thinking, 'Should we really be playing baseball right now? Is that really the greater thing we should be doing?' And I definitely think a lot of guys questioned that."

Like it or not, Eaton’s words are as true today as they were then. Sports provide threads that bind our social fabric together, but there are greater things for everyone to do right now.

As much as we would like to be quarantined and entertained, sports are worth waiting for until the threat from the coronavirus is reduced.

Brian Tinsman has covered D.C. sports since 2011, both from the team marketing and skeptical fan perspectives. Tweet your criticisms @Brian_Tinsman.

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