• Villanova Sports Law Blog

The Countdown to Sports In Empty Stadiums

By: Ryan Murphy


Day 40. Hard to believe it’s only been 40 days since President Trump declared a national emergency on March 13th.[1] It seems like we’ve been on lockdown forever as more than 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment and thousands protest across the country for their freedom to return to work.[2][3]

Despite the angst coming over many Americans, though, the coronavirus is just starting to peak in the U.S.[4] Over 44,000 Americans have died as of April 21, with roughly 2,000 more dying daily.[5] By comparison, Italy (the second most effected country), has reported 24,114 deaths.[6]

What does this mean for American sports then? As much as we all love the WNBA and NFL Drafts and watching grown men play H-O-R-S-E, the world is missing real sports, and so are the leagues.

Current projections show that the coronavirus will ultimately wipe out 47% of 2020’s worldwide sporting events that were expected to have 5,000 fans or more.[7] But everyone agrees that they will come back. It’s just a matter of when and how.

The German Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 have set May 9 as their target return-to-play date and aim to complete the final nine weeks of the season by the end of June.[8] All 36 clubs in the league have already returned to training under strict health guidelines and all games would be played without fans, as large gatherings have been banned in Germany until the end of August.[9] With some small business being allowed to reopen, though, and schools set to start up again on May 4, the May 9 target certainly seems realistic.[10]

By contrast, the top soccer leagues in England, Spain, Italy, and France are uncertain if they will return to play at all.[11] While they all have proposed target start dates in June, there is fear that those dates might not materialize. Collectively, the four countries – the hardest hit in all of Europe – have accounted for over 81,000 coronavirus deaths.[12]

In England, the government and the EFL are working together to strategically plan a safe return to play.[13] However, with all league activity already suspended until at least April 30th and a return to training slated for no earlier than May 16, there is little room to fit in the 341 remaining fixtures across the top four tiers of the English football system.[14] Current proposals look to squeeze the remaining 113 EFL Championship matches into an eight-week period, meaning teams will need to play two games per week for two months.[15]

Aside from the obvious logistical and health concerns this creates, the financial component is perhaps most jarring. The global sports industry was projected to generate $135 billion in 2020 after generating $129 billion in 2019.[16] Now, projections stand at $73.7 billion for the year, hardly half of initial projections.[17]

Premier League clubs, alone, stand to lose nearly $1.1 billion from this hiatus.[18] The financial crisis has extended far enough that a $50 million EFL stimulus and $125 million Premier League stimulus have hardly kept teams afloat.[19] As such, investment banks around the world have pooled together to offer the EFL a $1 billion stimulus to help with short-term finances, which will then be paid back with interest in the future.[20]

And that’s only for this season. The financial ramifications will be felt for years to come, with radical changes already being proposed for next season.[21] One proposal has called for a split of EFL’s three lower leagues into North and South divisions for the 2020-21 season to lower travel and accommodation costs to make up some of the lost money from this year.[22]

And then there are the players. While most of the world will focus on top teams and leagues coming to agreements for massive pay cuts during the hiatus, there is no such freedom in the lower leagues, like EFL’s League One and Two. Down there, TV revenue is nonexistent. Teams cannot afford to pay their players’ salaries.[23] As Ian Henderson of League One’s Rochdale put it, “a lot of people are going to be in a position where there is too much month at the end of the money.”[24]

The picture is similarly bleak in the rest of Europe’s major soccer leagues. In Spain, if La Liga does not complete the season, it will cost the league $1.8 billion.[25] However, the league will only miss out on $381 million if the season is completed behind closed doors.[26] If fans were re-introduced to stadiums (an essentially impossible scenario at this point), it would cost $163 million.[27] These numbers exemplify the importance of completing the season, even in front of no fans. TV revenue drives the ship, and it’s no wonder why European leagues are adamant about completing the seasons.

The costs would be less – but still colossal – to the Bundesliga in Germany ($800 million), Serie A in Italy ($650-800 million), and Ligue 1 in France ($72-145 million) if the seasons are cancelled.[28] Regardless of how things play out, though, one thing is almost certain: if these games happen, they will happen without fans.[29]

So, where does this put the U.S.? the NBA and NHL are in similar positions to the European soccer leagues in that the vast majority of their seasons have already been completed. The MLB and MLS, however, have hardly gotten underway, and will be placed in a much more difficult situation when it comes to completing their seasons. For the time being, the NFL is continuing as planned, with the hopes of starting its season in August, as usual.[30]

The only U.S. league that has made a firm commitment to returning to play is the PGA.[31] All tournaments had been halted since mid-March, but the PGA plans to go ahead with the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Texas on June 11-14.[32] However, that tournament will be played without fans.[33] Additionally, golf is a sport that can actually adhere to social distancing guidelines while being played. The same can’t be said for basketball, hockey, or basically anything else.

Despite the uncertainty, all of the American leagues remain committed to completing their seasons in some form or another. The NBA is currently considering a 25-day window before returning to games, featuring 11 days for individual workouts and 14 days for teams to start training.[34] However, the league will not begin to consider a return before May 1, so at the very best, we will see a return to games in June.[35] Commissioner Adam Silver said the return is ultimately “about the data, not the date.”[36]

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease expert and an advisor to President Trump, said that the only way sports will return to the U.S. this summer is by holding events without fans and having players stay in hotels.[37]

As leagues aim to get underway in Europe and as the economy slowly re-opens in America, the re-opening of leagues is on the horizon, it’s just a matter of how. The NHL, like the NBA, is waiting on the word of experts, but the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Florida Panthers Head Coach Joel Quenneville remain optimistic of a return.[38]

The MLS initially set a May 10 return date, but that has been pushed back until June 8, at least.[39] Seattle Sounder owner Adrian Hanauer says the league stands to lose an “astronomical” amount of the money – possibly billions – but that they remain committed to completing the season, which is only two of 34 match weeks in.[40]

Lastly, MLB faces the steepest challenge of all. Given the vast amount of games on the slate, it seems impossible that 162 games will be completed in time for playoffs in October. The league is currently looking at stationing teems in three separate locations – Arizona, Florida, and Texas – and playing games in a spring training style.[41]

As if that’s not difficult enough, the league is also facing a class action lawsuit from fans over lost tickets, which have thus far not been refunded by the league.[42] Commissioner Rob Manfred has said they are waiting to hear from public health officials, but as of now “[they] don’t have a plan, [they] have a lot of ideas.”[43]

Ultimately, Germany’s return to soccer will provide the blueprint for the rest of the world. If the Bundesliga does reach its goal of a May 9 start, Europe’s other leagues may be up and running sooner than people think, which may have trickle down effects to America. Regardless of when sports return, though, one thing is certain: no fans.

References

[1]: Taylor, D. B. (2020, February 13). A Timeline of the Coronavirus Pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/article/coronavirus-timeline.html

[2]: Long, H. (2020, April 16). U.S. now has 22 million unemployed, wiping out a decade of job gains. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/04/16/unemployment-claims-coronavirus/

[3]: Gabbatt, A. (2020, April 18). Thousands of Americans backed by rightwing donors gear up for protests. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/apr/18/coronavirus-americans-protest-stay-at-home

[4]: Coronavirus Cases: (2020, April 21). Retrieved from https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

[5]: Id.

[6]: Id.

[7]: Cohen, K. (2020, April 20). Agency: Coronavirus to cancel nearly half of scheduled sports events in 2020. Retrieved from https://www.espn.com/espn/story/_/id/29072667/agency-coronavirus-cancel-nearly-half-scheduled-sports-events-2020

[8]: Panja, T. (2020, April 8). Germany Prepares for Soccer's Return. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/sports/germany-soccer-coronavirus.html

[9]: Id.

[10]: Donahue, P., & Delfs, A. (2020, April 15). Merkel Moves Ahead With Gradual Return to Normality in Germany . Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-15/merkel-announces-steps-to-slowly-return-germany-to-normal

[11]: Europe's top soccer leagues and coronavirus: Where Premier League, La Liga, more stand with finishing 2019-20 season. (2020, April 16). Retrieved from https://www.espn.com/soccer/english-premier-league/story/4085771/europes-top-soccer-leagues-and-coronavirus-where-premier-leaguela-ligamore-stand-with-finishing-2019-20-season

[12]: Coronavirus Cases, supra.

[13]: Kershaw, T. (2020, April 20). Government reveal talks with Premier League over football's return. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/premier-league/premier-league-coronavirus-season-restart-date-postponed-epl-a9474006.html

[14]: Fisher, B., & Conn, D. (2020, April 9). EFL hopes to restart season in June and play 113 Championship games in 56 days. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/football/2020/apr/09/efl-hopes-to-restart-season-in-june-and-play-113-games-in-56-days

[15]: Id.

[16]: Cohen, K. (2020, April 20). Agency: Coronavirus to cancel nearly half of scheduled sports events in 2020. Retrieved from https://www.espn.com/espn/story/_/id/29072667/agency-coronavirus-cancel-nearly-half-scheduled-sports-events-2020

[17]: Id.

[18]: Harris, I. H. A. N. (2020, April 7). How much income will your Premier League club lose during coronavirus crisis? Retrieved from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-8193655/Liverpool-furlough-debate-toxic-Premier-League-clubs-suffer-COVID-19.html

[19]: Olley, J. (2020, April 20). Coronavirus: Premier League, EFL offered £1 billion lifeline to survive in crisis - sources. Retrieved from https://www.espn.com/soccer/english-premier-league/story/4086973/coronavirus-premier-leagueefl-offered-1-billion-lifeline-to-survive-in-crisis

[20]: Id.

[21]: Williams, G. (2020, April 20). The extreme EFL proposal to split the Championship in two. Retrieved from https://www.walesonline.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/extreme-plan-split-cardiff-city-18117000

[22]: Id.

[23]: Ogden, M. (2020, April 21). Away from the Premier League, coronavirus makes for an uncertain future. Retrieved from https://www.espn.com/soccer/english-league-one/story/4087111/away-from-the-premier-league-coronavirus-makes-for-an-uncertain-future

[24]: Id.

[25]: “Europe’s top…”, supra.

[26]: Id.

[27]: Id.

[28]: Id.

[29]: Panja, supra.

[30]: Goldberg, R. (2020, March 16). 2020 NFL Draft to Proceed as Planned; Public Events Canceled amid Coronavirus. Retrieved from https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2880733-2020-nfl-draft-to-proceed-as-planned-public-events-cancelled-amid-coronavirus

[31]: Pennington, B. (2020, April 16). PGA Tour Announces Mid-June Return in Texas. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/16/sports/golf/coronavirus-pga-tour-return.html

[32]: Id.

[33]: Id.

[34]: Polacek, S. (2020, April 12). Windhorst: NBA 'Looking At' 25-Day Window to Return Amid Coronavirus Pandemic. Retrieved from https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2886310-windhorst-nba-looking-at-25-day-window-to-return-amid-coronavirus-pandemic

[35]: Schwartz, N. (2020, April 13). ESPN's Brian Windhorst on the NBA's plan to return to basketball. Retrieved from https://ftw.usatoday.com/2020/04/nba-return-to-basketball-plan

[36]: Kaplan, E., & Wyshynski, G. (2020, April 20). The NHL's coronavirus pause: Scenarios for fanless games, impact on 2020-21 and more. Retrieved from https://www.espn.com/nhl/story/_/id/29069915/the-nhl-coronavirus-pause-scenarios-fanless-games-impact-2020-21-more

[37]: Cohen, supra.

[38]: Kaplan, supra.

[39]: Carlisle, J. (2020, April 15). Seattle Sounders owner: MLS could lose billions due to coronavirus. Retrieved from https://www.espn.com/soccer/major-league-soccer/story/4085796/seattle-sounders-owner-mls-could-lose-billions-due-to-coronavirus

[40]: Id.

[41]: Anderson, R. J. (2020, April 21). MLB discussing three-state plan with one hub in Texas as possible solution to start 2020 season. Retrieved from https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/mlb-discussing-three-state-plan-with-one-hub-in-texas-as-possible-solution-to-start-2020-season/

[42]: Fans sue MLB, teams over ticket money, ask for class action. (2020, April 21). Retrieved from https://fox8.com/news/coronavirus/fans-sue-mlb-teams-over-ticket-money-ask-for-class-action/

[43]: Anderson, supra.