At What Point Do Sports Become Worth It?

When it was announced that President Trump would have a conference call this past Saturday with several sports commissioners, the odds of the return of the NBA, the start of the MLB season and the resumption of normal NFL offseason activities increased dramatically.  Though it probably would have posed a threat greater than the one the country is facing now due to the novel coronavirus, the President could have been expected to carry the same lax attitude toward the outbreak that he has all long.  That meant sports were coming back sooner than we thought – at the cost of more cases and deaths, but it’s not like the President has cared about those anyways.

But that’s not what the President did, which greatly relieved the country of even more hardship than it’s currently experiencing and was perhaps his best display of handling the crisis thus far.

Unfortunately for sports fans, Trump actually doing the right for once was a big blow.  His declaration on that conference call that the goal was for fans to be allowed back into stadiums and arenas was August or September dealt baseball and basketball a bad deck of cards, while giving the NFL and college football a royal flush.

When LeBron James said “I ain’t playing” when asked about the possibility of playing NBA games without fans on March 7, he answered that question not just for himself, but for the Lakers and the rest of the players in the NBA.  LeBron’s words aren’t the gospel just because he’s the best player in the league, but this is an issue that will likely be very one-sided.  The NBA Finals would be weird in an empty arena.  The Finals aren’t just about the series – it’s an event, a spectacle.  You know the pressure is on when the ball tips because there’s that energy and buzz in the crowd.  It’s loud.  It’s part of the experience.

So what’s it going to be like when Game 1 of the NBA Finals tips off in mid-August at the Honey Training Center – the Clippers HQ – in Playa Vista, California or the Froedtert & The Medical College Of Wisconsin Sports Science Center – the Bucks HQ – in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with just team personnel and a folding table with Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy at it watching?  Not fun, and perhaps not even worth it.

The amount of guys that walk onto that court and think “Man, this is pathetic” or “What are we doing here?” will be large.  The same goes for the Orlando Magic, who  before they get stomped on by the Bucks in the first round of the playoffs will think “Is this really worth it when we have no chance of making the Finals anyway?”

LeBron’s words send the league office a message from the players: the season is over unless we can have fans at games.  Even those with a chance to add a title to their legacy will accept and pull for that.  It just won’t be fun.  Basketball needs to be fun.

The regular season is probably over.  You can spring into the playoffs without easing guys back into things – most players have courts at their house, and everyone is staying in game shape at home.  Jumping into the playoffs has complications though – the Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings and Spurs won’t be too happy about that, as all of them sit between three-and-a-half to four games out of the eighth seed out West, whereas the Wizards sit five-and-a-half out in the East.

All of those Western Conference teams probably deserve a shot to get in, whereas no one in the East really does.  The NBA can’t address one without the other – the West can’t just have a play-in tournament because it’s better.

But the playoff situation has its own complications.  Take the Magic again like we did above for example.  Would a Sacramento or a Charlotte even bother if the environment for the play-in tournament is really going to be someone’s practice court with no fans?

Fans – at some point – are going to have to be part of the equation here.  We could easily see teams and players bow out – even out of a playoff series – if they aren’t there.  LeBron’s words carry weight with the league, and even though he backtracked on that statement, his line “I ain’t playing” was truly LeBron’s feeling.  His rebuttal about that statement being a joke blew his cover – “I didn’t know that was seriously being considered.”  Okay, so that means that your gut reaction changed?  Get out of here.

The NBA’s dilemma is this: fans probably won’t be able to be at games until the Conference Finals or the Finals, assuming that 1) Trump’s estimate of August or September is correct and 2) the league is dead-set on the season being over by the end of Labor Day weekend.  How do you convince 12-14 teams (excluding those who make the Conference Finals or Finals) to play for essentially nothing?  What does Orlando have to gain?  Dallas?  Denver?  More playoff experience?  The Mavericks training facility will surely put Luka Doncic in a fearsome playoff environment.

The league is asking itself this: how do we make these games worth it to the players if there will be no fans?  How can we make this cool, or replicate what the playoffs will truly be like?

Here’s one ridiculous idea…

There isn’t one player in the NBA who hasn’t seen the movie Hoosiers.  It’s one of the most iconic sports movies of all time, and is one of the best stories ever told.  Move the season to Indianapolis, create the “bubble” there where players are isolated, have the proper human resources and clearance and tip-off your playoffs in the infamous Hoosier Gym about 50 miles east of the city.  There would need to be some updates – the court isn’t the right size and it seems plausible that it’d need some updated technology, but at least starting things off there would make it worthwhile for everyone involved.  Then, by the time the Finals roll around, you’re hopefully in sold-outs arenas and are somewhat back to normal.

If the Hoosier Gym isn’t feasible, the NBA could pick a couple cool, smaller college basketball venues around the country.  Cameron Indoor Stadium comes to mind first, so does Hinkle Fieldhouse – also ironically in Indianapolis.  Hinkle is perhaps a little big – you don’t want massive arenas since there won’t be fans.  But those places are cool, and that’s what we have to make this: cool.

If the NBA seems screwed, then baseball is really screwed.  The challenges of the outbreak beginning before the season even started are massive.  It leads to a large revenue cut for a sport that secretly really needs it because so many games will be lost.  It affects some teams more than others, since baseball teams act as corporations and don’t have the same revenue sharing policies as leagues like the NFL and NBA – they have to find money to pay their players, which is why you have rich teams and poor teams.  It has shorten the draft, since money will be tight.  It cancelled the rest of spring training outright, and it has really put players in a rough spot, since paycheck collection for the year had just gotten started.  Now, players could be facing months with no paycheck coming in (MLB is so far paying players through the next two months, but that’s it).

A grand solution broke yesterday morning though: starting the season off by creating a “bubble” here in Arizona, with teams playing at spring training parks and Chase Field in front of no fans surrounded by proper personnel and resources.  Players would be quarantined in hotels in between games – away from families and anyone on the outside of the baseball sphere – and would only travel to games.

But that “bubble” and “baseball-sphere” is massive, and requires a lot of non-baseball people to be quarantined as well.  You’re talking about bus drivers, cooks and chefs, stadium maintenance people, media personnel.  That’s a lot of people to quarantine, or a lot of people to trust.

Plus, some parameters of the Arizona plan just seem silly.  Players, instead of sitting in the dugout, would sit in the empty stands to ensure they’re six feet apart from each other.  What is this, a high school baseball tournament where the team that plays next waits for the first game to finish?  In addition, does that just go out the window when a runner is standing on first base?  Or at the plate, where a batter is near a catcher and perhaps even an umpire? (If MLB wants to do electric strike zones, this would be the perfect time)

It would be a great way to pump money into the Arizona economy – lots of jobs as hotel workers, cooks and drivers would be created.  But that also means plucking people from their somewhat normal lives.  Those people would have to be quarantined just like the players and other essential baseball staff.

It would also help MLB and its teams salvage some lost revenue.  While fans wouldn’t be in attendance, the more games played means more TV revenue from local and national partners.  Ratings would shoot up, and baseball would be making major cash since it’d be the only sport on in May most likely.

Still, the Arizona plan seems far-fetched, and it’s first problems aren’t the logistic of the baseball, it’s the baseball itself.

When MLB and the MLBPA agreed to a deal on March 27 that provided some clarity on the potential return to baseball this season, there was one major bullet point that didn’t get talked about enough.  It read, per

As part of the agreement, obtained by ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the players and MLB primarily agreed that the 2020 season will not start until each of the following conditions are met:

  • There are no bans on mass gatherings that would limit the ability to play in front of fans. However, the commissioner could still consider the “use of appropriate substitute neutral sites where economically feasible”;

Certainly sounds a lot like the NBA, right?

Players don’t want to play without fans.  It’s weird.  It’s different.  It’s not how sports should be.

However, the second sentence of that bullet point is an interesting one.  It seems as if the Players Association made a bet that commissioner Rob Manfred wouldn’t be able to figure out a solution that 1) featured no fans and 2) was approved by the players.  The Arizona plan seems to have done that, as ESPN’s reporting mentioned that “Major League Baseball and its players are increasingly focused on a plan that could allow them to start the season as early as May.”

Still, the original stipulation says a lot.  The players don’t want to play without fans, and they probably don’t want to have to sit in empty stadium seats at least six feet apart from one another instead of in the dugout.  

It might be worth it for MLB to just wait until things can be semi-normal, meaning that team travel is okay, that playing in your actual home ballparks is okay and that being in the dugout is okay.  Sure, that would be without fans, but a shortened regular season and perhaps an expanded playoff would be entertaining as hell.  You’re talking about a sprint to the finish line, and in a sport that’s already insanely variant, we could see some of the most stunning standings in awhile.

Plus, MLB can likely bank on having fans not only for the playoffs, but for the last quarter or so of the regular season.  That’s worth starting things up for all the teams in the league, not just those making it into October.

Baseball without fans is not basketball without fans.  In arenas, sound is trapped and has nowhere to go.  Baseball games aren’t super loud in the first place.  Without organs, music and PA announcers, it’d be pretty quiet.  Subtracting fans makes for a different experience, but not as different as basketball would be.  Essentially, baseball becomes more worth it than basketball for that reason.

The Arizona plan is really all about one thing: money.  It’s a makeshift, save-grace move to keep the bottom from potentially falling out.  It would really just be MLB winging it.  The NBA doesn’t have to deal with this as heavily, because they’ve earned a decent chunk of the revenue they projected to.  Baseball’s earned close to zero.  Perhaps MLB can see how another league does with the winging it strategy first before moving forward.

It is super ironic that the NFL will likely benefit the most from Saturday’s conference call.  Trump and Roger Goodell feel like they could be brothers with the way they’ve both done their jobs over the past four-to-six years.  Trump ruling that his body double’s league could start on time is a hilarious coincidence.  

And like Trump wants the country to, the NFL will continue to push on as if nothing ever happened.  The decision to let free agency carry on was smart, but it’s not like it was one that wasn’t obvious.  That’s an event that is done virtually for the most part anyways.  Few people and personnel are needed to be grouped together to sign free agents.  The only toll really taken was potential visits, and those are usually reserved for high-end guys.

The decision to let the NFL Draft go on is perplexing.  While making it the big event it usually is has a low probability of occurring before the season’s kickoff, it’d be best to hold the draft at a time when it’s best for the teams… you know, the people actually doing the hard work of scouting and selecting players.

NFL teams are more fortunate than NBA teams, who not only have to deal with what looks like one of the worst incoming crops of talents in years, but likely won’t have a combine and won’t get anything other than tape and video interviews.  The NFL at least had the combine, which is a massive event not just for scouting but for interviews, meetings and medicals.  Still, Pro Days and visits have been outright canceled, severely limiting teams’ ability to really personalize their scouting reports, have their own team doctors look at a prospect and meet one-on-one.  That’s the type of stuff that usually makes or breaks picks.  Everyone has the same tape to look at and evaluate. It’s everything else that determines how a team truly feels about a player.

Adding to the disadvantage given to teams is the set-up enforced by the NFL itself.  While team facilities should remain closed, not having a small group of top executives and scouts be in the same room as one another makes for tougher communication during the most stressful time of the NFL calendar.  Dialogue in person is different than dialogue via video conference.  Because of this, pick selection and the debate that comes with that will be difficult.  There could be a record-low amount of trades over the course the draft.  Imagine communicating with another team when communicating with your own is hard enough.

This doesn’t mean that the NFL should allow those small groups to be together for the draft though.  It means that the NFL should postpone it until those small groups – and Pro Days and visits – are allowed.  OTA’s and rookie minicamps aren’t happening anyways.  The NFL’s goal is likely training camp, and that seems feasible given the information dispersed Saturday and information given by a more trustworthy source more recently.  Essentially, the draft just needs to be over with by mid-Jul.  That leaves the NFL plenty of time to work with.  Instead, the NFL is pushing through, following the voice at the helm of the country, who’s ideas about leadership and accountability strike a similar, shameful tone as the voice atop their own organization.