The Pandemic & the Games: How Will 2020 Change Sports?
As part of an ongoing series that examines the rapid changes to our world and way of life, Artemis Ward is gathering thoughts and analysis from leaders and experts to shed light on what’s already happening and offer insight on what’s to come.
June 2, 2020
By Ryan Hatch
For the last three months, beginning in early March with the first major COVID-19 outbreaks, every sports league in the country — from professional ranks to Little League — froze play or practice. Fears of the virus spreading among players, fans, and stadium personnel canceled the NCAA college basketball tournaments, delayed MLB’s Opening Day, wiped out the Masters, and even turned the NFL draft, for the first time ever, into a virtual event. Indeed, for fans to watch any competitive sports of late has required tuning into a 10-part documentary about an obscure basketball team from the 1990s.
But the momentum may be swinging.
As soft openings begin around the country, sports appear to be returning soon, albeit in limited form. Professional hockey is set to resume in June; basketball too. Baseball might start the first week of July, followed by college football and the NFL. But things will be different. None of the games will likely have fans in attendance. High-fives may be a thing of the past. Baseball players may not even be allowed to — gasp — spit. Yes, sports consumption in the near future will be a considerable departure from what we once knew, and the experience is likely to leave a lasting impact. Will sports seasons be permanently condensed? How will television viewership change? Is college football doomed this year?
To help answer some of these questions, we spoke with Claire Atkins, a producer at ESPN whose credits include “College Football Live,” “College Basketball Live,” as well as in 2019 helping launch the Worldwide Leader’s ACC Network. Below is a condensed and edited version of the conversation with AW UX designer Ryan Hatch.
We miss sports like crazy. Why?
Sports are a feeling of community. It’s a feeling of having similar thoughts and feelings and emotions. As a good portion of the country watched The Last Dance, you saw that comfort. Everybody was experiencing something together and were able to talk about it. Having that makes people feel comfortable because it’s something we can all relate to. It may sound cliche, but it doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, Hispanic, rich, poor. Sports is the common denominator. It’s one of the first places that people go for comfort because it takes your mind away from what’s happening.
After several months off, will sports have to find new ways to sell itself?
Sports are how a lot of people define themselves. A casual sports fan that might have watched a baseball game every two months? Yes, you might lose that person, but everywhere else, the ratings are going to be off the charts. We’ve seen that. We saw that with the Tiger/Phil and Brady/Manning golf match — it was the highest-rated cable golf event ever. When people don’t have something, they want it more. It’s going to sell itself whatever format it comes in.
When sports return, they’re going to be stronger. They’re going to really have a moment.
The other part of that is people crave excitement and change, especially now. And this is forcing all these leagues to change their rules and do things that they’d never in a million years would have done.
Going back to The Last Dance, even when a project wasn’t completely done, [ESPN] pushed it up. And that never would have happened before, but we’re in unprecedented times and desperate times call for desperate measures.
When the NBA All-Star game decided to do something wild and change its format, it sounded so bizarre, but it ended up being awesome. Like, ‘Oh, this is actually better than what we were doing before’. So, now, if the NBA does this tournament this summer and they start (next season) after Christmas, I wouldn’t be surprised if that becomes the permanent format. (Dallas Mavericks) owner Mark Cuban recently said he would support changing the season’s start date to Christmas. The same goes for other sports.
How will TV broadcasts change?
Live sports in the fall will be the № 1 priority over any studio show, not only make up for the last several months but because of TV now being the end-all, be-all for sports. I think even as we’ve watched European soccer come back and they’ve piped in noise, the feeling is it’s just not that bad. It’s not taking away (from the game) as much as people thought.
Recently, I produced a show through a traditional control room, and my expectations for what a video should look like, how clear it should be, and what the shot should be have diminished. I’ve accepted that people, when they hear a little skip of audio or a video freezes for a second, don’t freak out when they see that on TV as much as I thought they did. I’m used to thinking “perfect” with no delays. And I think we’ve all kind of accepted that, now, it’s going to happen every now and then (as we adjust). I think when sports return, in whatever fashion, I think they’re going to be stronger and they’re going to really have a moment, and this is really going to help live sports television.
I know you love college football. How does this season play out?
It is a very dicey subject right now because of students (in the stands) and student-athletes (playing). Because the idea of a college football game happening without fans takes away the amateurism of college athletics; it completely goes out the window because you’re just relying on TV money at that point. That said, I think [the season] is going to happen. Now, there is a real situation that there could be some schools that say, ‘Okay, we’re not going to play’, and then maybe there are fewer games and only conferences play each other.
In terms of fans attending, I just don’t see a scenario where schools would be able to have games with only 20 or 25 percent of the stadium filled. It’s either 100 percent or nothing. But, as hard as it is for me to imagine games without fans, I don’t think college athletics could recover if football didn’t happen in 2020.
Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.