The year 2020 can be split into two distinct parts: pre-pandemic and post-pandemic. In sports, that demarcation couldn’t be clearer.
On Feb. 2, 62,417 fans packed into Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, to see the Kansas City Chiefs secure the Super Bowl LIV title. The next month, as the coronavirus pandemic’s spread accelerated, those large crowds disappeared as sports ground to a halt, sometimes in mid-game.
By the time professional and amateur sports found enough footing to return to action, COVID-19 had forced unprecedented change: Bubble leagues. Rules changes. Empty stands.
For athletes, fans and those who work in and around the dramatically altered world of sports, the turn of the calendar brings a degree of hope. But there’s still the question of when sports return to normal.
The masks, social-distancing and small or non-existent crowds at sporting events have become fixtures so quickly, it’s fair to ask what it will take to retire the pandemic-control measures.
“It’s going to take what we haven’t been very good as a country at doing yet,” said Dr. Dawn Comstock, a professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Colorado’s School of Public Health. “It’s going to take everybody doing their part. It’s going to take people continuing to wear masks, continuing to social distance, continuing to wash their hands, et cetera, until the vaccine is rolled out to enough people that we can safely gather again. And that also means people have to take the vaccine.
“Until we have enough people immune from COVID to safely gather again,” Comstock continued, “it’s not going to be safe to have the stadium full of people, and the tailgating parties, and all the wonderful things that we love about sports.”
In the meantime, sports will remain hobbled and oddly muted, with small — or no — live crowds and players generating their own energy likely long into the new year.
A cautious year ahead
There have been plenty of coronavirus interruptions to the football season — both in college and the NFL. There will still be a Super Bowl, even if it comes with a reduced number of fans. The College Football Playoffs will crown a championship, despite the disruptions.
College basketball has seen even more disruptions to schedules so far, potentially a result of playing an indoor sport during winter, with coronavirus cases increasing again. At one point, Baylor and Gonzaga — the two top-ranked teams in the country — both paused team activities because of cases.
The NBA has started, and the NHL will drop the first puck on Jan. 13. There will likely be issues for teams in those sports, too, opting to play in home arenas rather than continuing with the successful bubble concepts used last summer. The Houston Rockets, for instance, had their first game of the season postponed due to contact tracing.
But the games will likely go on.
“It appears that they’ve decided that it’s OK to have the disruptions,” Comstock said. “… Ohio State still got into the top four, and they only played six games.”
The bottom line
What happens in sports in 2021, and in the years to come for that matter, will come down to — no surprise here — money.
While some leagues and conferences made schedule adjustments — such as the Big Ten in football, playing only conference games — those changes cannot last long-term.
According to David Berri, a sports economics professor at Southern Utah University, more revenue is generated from high-profile non-conference games and home-and-away playoff matchups. And if there’s more revenue there, leagues will follow the money.
Plus, interruptions in the past haven’t meant the end of sports.
“I think it mostly goes back to normal,” Berri said. “If you look back at history, if you do World War II, you do the pandemic in 1918, these were all disruptions to sports. And it largely goes back to what it was after the event. If you were to look at Major League Baseball in 1947, it would look a lot like Major League Baseball in 1937 — and they had a huge disruption in the middle of it.”
With vaccines beginning to roll out, there appears to be a path forward. But Comstock said a return of full-capacity crowds might not be until the fall of 2021, when enough people can take the vaccine for it to have the intended effect.
So as 2020 concludes and 2021 approaches, there is reason for optimism when regarding sports. The return of the old normal might take time, but it should arrive.
“The light is at the end tunnel, finally,” Comstock said. “That’s the wrong analogy. Instead of the light at the end of the tunnel, I can see the stadium lights burning brightly again over a packed crowd. We just have to be patient and do the right thing for three to six months, and we’ll be there.”