The coronavirus has changed life as we know it, and no aspect of life has been unaffected. Not even the escapism of sports can help combat COVID-19.
Experts say it takes 21 days to break a habit. If you are looking to kick your soda or coffee addiction to the curb, go 21 days without it and you will no longer have that strong craving. (Obviously, kicking any habit, good or bad, is a little more complex than 21 days.)
I did not believe that at first. If you look up enough “expert” opinions on things, you can get any answer you want, right? That was until this whole quarantine thing. After 21-plus days without going to Starbucks, I no longer miss it. I have found other—cheaper—outlets to get my coffee fix, like making my own coffee at home.
Sports have been gone for 27 days now, with no return in sight. Once the rush of NFL Draft news passes at the end of the month, there could be a true Zero Dark Thirty period in the sports world. The only thing left to cling to is a 10-part Michael Jordan documentary that ESPN has moved up to the middle of this month.
If you find yourself bored during this new normal of self-isolation and decide to go old-school and channel surf, you will not find much. With live sports being television’s biggest cash cow, all you can find right now is an overload of news that will likely send you to a dark place. Eventually, people will get tired of consuming the news and the news alone. Everyone needs an escape. Without sports, they will turn to Netflix, Hulu, Youtube, Twitch, Disney+, and a plethora of other streaming options.
The longer we go without sports, it stands to wonder whether each league will decline in popularity. If you have gone out of your way to click on and read this editorial, you are like me. You have a deep love for sports. For full transparency, my entire life is sports, so this dark period is very uncertain for me. I currently hold six jobs in some capacity, and all six incomes rely on there being sports to talk about—and people to care about said sports. No matter what these leagues do, or how long they are gone, I will be one of the first in line when they return. If you are reading this, I assume you will be standing next to me.
The worry for sports leagues has to be the casual fan. You know, the people who might tune in for the matchups you would not dare miss. Believe it or not, that is the biggest difference in the popularity of each sport. The NFL corners the market on casual fans. Their diehards keep the league buzz going year-round, but it’s the casual fans that help deliver the key TV ratings and allow the Super Bowl to be the international showcase it has become.
In all of this coronavirus chaos, the NFL also benefits from being a better TV product than an in-stadium one. Sure, we all love the atmosphere of Arrowhead Stadium—the tomahawk chops, the tailgating, the decibel levels. However, even with all the benefits of sitting in Arrowhead with over 76 thousand of your closest friends, you cannot beat a Sunday afternoon on the couch with NFL Sunday Ticket and a few screens up watching almost every game around the league.
Unlike most sports, if somehow leagues were allowed by the CDC to play games without fans, the NFL has the best chance to thrive. With their amazing TV contracts and ratings, the NFL will not struggle to bring fans back. It also helps that fans viewing habits of the sport are not being thrown off right now given the NFL’s offseason and the timing of the pandemic.
The NFL is king, and it is built to last. Even if the defending Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs can not open up on September 10th due to a delay, football can be played year-round. The only thing that hinders a game being played is lightning. While playing in empty stadiums would not be fun, and it would take away the electric portion of a crowd roaring, it is more sustainable for a year in the NFL than any other sport.
Even the NBA, which is unanimously considered the second most popular sport in America, does not have the TV deals to match the NFL. Even prior to the NBA being stripped away from us on that whirlwind of a day in Oklahoma City, the league’s television ratings were down by double digits. The second most popular sport in America was already seeing a ratings decrease during a season that featured more parity and quality than other recent seasons.
The MLB will also take a huge hit, not good for a sport already clinging on as the third most popular sport nationally. The league now actually has to compete if sports returns this summer. Typically, baseball makes its big splash on the TV market during the dead period of July, the start of August, and of course, into the postseason. If the CDC clears the once-projected July 1st timeline to restart the NBA, let’s assume all sports fall in line and pick up at about that time. Suddenly baseball would be fighting with basketball and hockey postseason as well as NFL training camps being right around the corner.
Casual fans were already jumping ship on the NBA and the MLB saw a slight attendance decrease in 2019, and now those same impermanent fans have been forced to find other outlets for their escape.
Sports as we know it will not just up and vanish, even if people like Kirk Herbstreit are on the right track in thinking we will not play sports for “12-18 months” until there is a COVID-19 vaccine. Leagues would take a huge revenue hit and some college programs would truly shut down if that was the case. However, sports would still eventually start back up with enough of us diehard fans to keep them afloat.
The question posed here is not whether or not will sports continue; all sports can survive this delay, one way or another. The question is how much of a hit does this delay deliver to sports? How much farther will the ratings drop as people replace their sports-watching habits with something else?
I think we will see an initial rush back to that beautiful land of escaping our problems, as we kick back and watch the games when each league eventually returns. For the NFL, the craving will be there stronger than ever because we are already missing out on our sports fix from other outlets. However, it is clear around the sports landscape, outside of football, interest was already waning. Will this be a blow to each of the other leagues that force the economics to dramatically change?
Through so much of our nation’s history, sports have been there for us. Strangers become friends. Cities are brought together. Stories of courage inside the arena spur us on outside of it. Now we have to make it through this trying time without sports for the first time. Even during a world war, sports were there. We have never seen a sports blackout as we face today.
So please stay inside. Practice social distancing. Wash your hands. Thank a medical worker fighting on the front lines, and follow all of the CDC instructions and guidelines. As soon as we get this all under control, Patrick Mahomes will be slinging touchdown passes for the defending Super Bowl Champions. Do what is right now, so we can all meet up at Arrowhead this fall.