Coronavirus begins to take a toll on top-flight U.S. sports
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Legends of the fall
A high-ranking NBA executive on Friday said the key to improving the league’s sagging ratings may lie in putting a buffer between itself and the media monolith that is the NFL.
Speaking at the 2020 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin unveiled a scheme which would push the start of the NBA season from mid-October to mid-December, putting pro hoops at a good distance from the all-consuming NFL schedule. As ESPN’s Tim Bontemps reports, the shift would reposition the NBA Finals from early June to August, during which Major League Baseball would serve as basketball’s only significant competition.Koonin, who knows a thing about programming TV (and TV programming), put in 14 years at the outfit formerly known as Turner Entertainment Networks, capping his time there as president of the division. In other words, he’s not just talking out of his hat; as he put it, “there’s very little relevance for the NBA” during the months it has to duke it out with the NFL.
“If King Kong is at your door, you might go out the back door, rather than go out the front and engage in a hand-to-hand fight with King Kong,” Koonin said during the MIT panel. “Many times, at the start of the NBA season, we are competing with arguably the best ‘Thursday Night Football’ game with the NBA on TNT, our marquee broadcast, and we get crushed.”
Koonin may very well be on to something here. As Evan Wasch, the NBA’s senior vice president of strategy and analytics, told Bontemps, the league is willing to consider the recommendations of the former TV boss.
As it happens, the NBA this fall effectively punted on a direct confrontation with “Thursday Night Football,” scheduling games featuring lesser draws—among these were the woeful New York Knicks, Phoenix Suns and Koonin’s Hawks—during those big Thursday football windows. And while there’s no use in burning off a Lakers or Clippers game when Fox is averaging 14.6 million viewers, the NBA still had a hard time of it during its other fall TV windows. Through the first month of regular-season action, NBA games on TNT and ESPN were down 18 percent versus the year-ago period.
Koonin brought some of his former duties to bear when he laid out his proposal, noting that the only reason the NBA Finals are in June is “because there used to be more ad dollars in the second [fiscal] quarter.” That’s no longer the case. “We have built the architecture of our season based on the ad market, not based on the consumer,” Koonin said.
While NBA owners and fans may argue that Koonin’s suggestion is far too radical, it’s nothing compared to the sort of ideas he brewed up back in the ’90s, when he served as Coca-Cola’s VP of sports and entertainment marketing. Toward the end of his tenure at Coke, Koonin famously plotted to usher in the third millennium by projecting the brand’s iconic logo onto the surface of the moon via an arsenal of powerful laser beams. Long story short, the Federal Aviation Administration put the kibosh on the idea, suggesting that if Koonin really wanted to see a laser show all that badly, he could simply head over to the Hayden Planetarium, where there was little risk of him knocking a bunch of airplanes from the sky.
To this day, Koonin insists the moon-laser thing would have worked if the FAA hadn’t spoiled all the fun.
Down with the sickness
As the International Olympic Committee continues to forge ahead with its plans to hold the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the U.S. sports world this weekend experienced its greatest coronavirus-related disruption to date.
On Sunday, organizers of the BNP Paribas Open, the elite tennis event more commonly referred to as Indian Wells, announced that they’d put the kibosh on the tournament, which takes place in the Coachella Valley, a low desert teeming with at-risk seniors. As Colin Atagi of the Palm Springs Desert Sun reports, the decision to cancel the two-week showcase came just hours before the scheduled opening match, leaving hundreds of players and fans in a sort of logistical limbo.
Riverside County (Calif.) officials declared a public health emergency on Sunday, shortly after it was revealed that a patient had been diagnosed with COVID-19 in nearby Rancho Mirage. In a statement released by Indian Wells organizers, a local health official said the tournament posed a risk to the health of attendees and area residents alike. “It is not in the public interest of fans, players and neighboring areas for this tournament to proceed,” the official said. “We all have to join together to protect the community from the coronavirus outbreak.”
While casual tennis fans may not be intimately familiar with Indian Wells, the tournament trails only the U.S. Open as the most high-profile tennis event held on American soil. In recent years, the men’s singles tourney has been graced by two championship matches between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, as well as an earlier showdown between Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Over the last few years, the women’s singles finals have featured the likes of Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Maria Sharapova.
(The day after Indian Wells was scrapped, organizers of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which each year draws upwards of 100,000 people, had begun informing performers and their management that the event’s starting date would be pushed back from April 10 to Oct. 9.)
If nothing else, the shuttering of Indian Wells suggests that health officials are doing what they can to slow the spread of the virus, which has been diagnosed in 753 U.S. patients. As of midnight Tuesday, the stateside death toll among those who’ve contracted the disease is 26. Globally, 113,754 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, of which 4,016 have ended in death. How the pandemic will effect the spring sports lineup remains to be seen, as leagues and governing bodies continue to try and get their heads around the latest coronavirus news.
Thus far, there’s no danger that the NCAA Men’s Div. I Basketball Tournament will be canceled; on Sunday, the chief of college hoops’ governing body told CBS Sports that his team is “definitively” going to follow through with its original plans to hold March Madness in all 14 of its slated venues. And while there has been some talk about the possibility of playing the games in front of empty grandstands, NCAA officials have indicated that it’ll be business usual when the tourney tips off in Dayton on March 17.
According to the New York Times, NCAA Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline on Sunday said it was “hard to imagine” a scenario in which the tournament would be canceled. Which isn’t to say that the threat of disruption isn’t still looming over the event, as uncertainty seems to be a hallmark of this newly discovered contagion. “We’re preparing for a storm, but we don’t know what that storm is going to look like in a week or two weeks or three weeks,” Hainline said.
Behind closed doors
The NBA, on the other hand, may be planning for a more austere future, as the league has informed all 30 teams that it wants to discuss contingency plans and precautionary measures later this week. The league isn’t ruling out the idea of playing upcoming games behind closed doors, but some superstars aren’t feeling the whole Plague Doctor vibe. LeBron James on Friday expressed his utter disinterest in playing before a bunch of empty seats, saying that such a turn of events would be “impossible.” In a press scrum after the Lakers’ 113-103 win over the visiting Bucks, LeBron told reporters, “I ain’t playing if you don’t have the fans in the crowd. That’s who I play for. I play for my teammates, I play for the fans. That’s what it’s all about. So, if I show up to the arena and there ain’t no fans in there? I ain’t playing.”
As LeBron pulled a Bartleby, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told the Associated Press that pro hockey wasn’t ready to take the fans out of the equation. “I don’t want to create any speculation or hysteria,” Bettman said. “There are obviously a variety of consequences that we may have to focus on and we’ll do that in the appropriate time, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, OK?” Less than 48 hours after Bettman made those remarks, California’s Santa Clara County announced it had established a temporary ban on gatherings attracting 1,000 people or more. The ban will have a near-immediate impact on the NHL’s San Jose Sharks, which are scheduled to host Montreal on March 19 and Boston two days later.
Lastly, as Major League Baseball gets ready for Opening Day, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich report that Commissioner Rob Manfred does not expect he’ll move to delay the start of the 2020 season or pass down an order for teams to play their games in empty ballparks. According to The Athletic report, “The commissioner’s office has been in touch with the CDC as well as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.”
Games without frontiers
As for the Tokyo Games, the IOC has been silent on the matter since last Tuesday, when spokesman Mark Adams tried to downplay concerns that the Olympics would be postponed or otherwise interrupted by the virus. “For us, the Games are going ahead on the 24th of July, and we confidently expect to deliver them on that date,” Adams said during a press briefing in Lausanne, Switzerland. “We made a decision, and the decision is the Games go ahead. That was made some time ago [and] we see no reason to change that decision.
“You can have all the speculation that you want, and I would love to give you a good story, but the fact is, on all of the proper evidence that we have from the competent authorities, there is no reason for us not to plan to have the Games starting on the 24th of July.” (While we’d be loath to suggest that Adams’ spiel was a bit repetitive, if you were to have taken a healthy swig of hooch whenever the spokesman uttered some variant of the phrase “the 24th of July,” you’d have turned into a cartoon anvil by the time the 30-minute briefing came to an end.)
In Greece, where the official Tokyo 2020 Olympics torch-lighting ceremony is set to take place on Thursday, organizers have said that tourists and other curiosity-seekers would not be permitted to sit in on the festivities. “The lighting ceremony of the Olympic flame will be done without the presence of spectators and only 100 invited and accredited guests,” the Greek Olympic Committee said in a statement.
The Brady Bunch
If you’re a Patriots fan, you probably spent a good chunk of the previous weekend going over the Carrier Dome footage, like Jim Garrison looping that fatal sequence of frames from the Zapruder film. During a break in an otherwise unremarkable UNC-Syracuse game, Tom Brady and Julian Edelman took New England die-hards on a psychological Gravitron ride, as the wide receiver’s less-than-cryptic message to the ESPN audience (“he’s coming back, he’s coming back”) was followed by what seemed to be a denial from the guy with all the rings.
Whatever Brady says after the dismissive head shake and molar-grinding grin—the “he’s not” and “this guy” factions are about as bitterly divided as the Internet’s blue dress vs. white dress camps in 2015—the truth of the matter is that nobody who isn’t Tom Brady knows where Tom Brady will end up in the fall. And that’s made this a real head-scratcher of an offseason for the NFL’s broadcast partners.
As we recently told The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch, “as much as it would be as disorienting to see TB12 sporting some other tribe’s colors”—it’s been more than a quarter-century and the mind still balks at the sight of Joe Montana in his Chiefs uni—“the networks are going to have to factor such a possibility into their scheduling strategy for 2020.”
In any other year, CBS’s top ask for the season that lies ahead would probably be the Pats-Chiefs game, followed in short order by Ravens-Pats. Kansas City’s 23-16 win over Brady & Co. last December was the third most-watched regular-season NFL broadcast of 2019, averaging 28.1 million viewers. Without Brady under center, however, it’s unlikely that both matchups would be deemed worthy of occupying one of CBS’s eight precious national TV windows on Sunday afternoon.
Naturally, CBS isn’t the only NFL media partner who’ll be gambling on the makeup of New England’s depth chart. Reps from the Fox, NBC and ESPN also will be checking in with NFL scheduling guru Howard Katz within the next several days, or at about the same time Brady begins having formal sit-downs with the likes of the Raiders, 49ers and Chargers. His decision is likely to be announced as Katz’s team is finalizing the TV slate, leaving no room for last-minute substitutions. So what’s the smart play here?
It’s better to assume that Brady will suit up for some other team than to go all-in on a Pats-heavy TV roster. As CBS has the fewest national windows of any network—its Thanksgiving Day broadcast gives it a total of nine coast-to-coast slots, trailing Fox (20), NBC (19) and ESPN (17)—it can’t afford to squander a single opportunity. Which is why the network is likely to load up on NFC outings.
In 2019, six of CBS’s national NFL broadcasts featured at least one NFC squad, and its four interdivisional matchups were among its highest-rated offerings. Look for CBS to try and lock in either Cowboys-Steelers or one of the two meetings between Dallas and their NFC East rivals from Philadelphia. (It goes without saying that pretty much any Cowboys game is going to put up numbers, which is why Jerry Jones’ charges last season were featured in a league-high 12 national broadcasts.) And while Fox, in all probability, has that Packers-Saints game near the very top of its wish list, it’s another all-NFC clash worthy of CBS’s attention.
If at least one of the aforementioned Pats games is probably worth reserving as a top-five ask, another top priority for CBS should be to lock in Chiefs-Ravens. That AFC air war will give fans their second look at Patrick Mahomes vs. Lamar Jackson; the first meeting between the league’s two most recent MVPs offered a glimpse at what might well prove to be a rivalry along the lines of Brady vs. Manning.
However things shake out with Brady and the Pats, the safe play is to cut down on New England’s national windows (they appeared in 10 last season), knowing that if Touchdown Tahwmmy does stick around, the team can always be flexed in at a later date. And it’s not as if there aren’t other options. In addition to stocking up on the Cowboys, the networks are likely to snap up as many Chiefs, Packers, Saints, Ravens and 49ers games as they can handle.
On the other side of the ledger, it’s hard to imagine that the networks will once again fall prey to the irrational exuberance that saw them order up a half-dozen Browns contests in 2019 (oops); nor will the Tennessee Titans be relegated to a measly Thursday Night NFL Network skirmish. Meanwhile, it would be criminal to keep the Buffalo Bills out of the national spotlight after the year they had, and even if the Raiders don’t land Brady, the allure of their new Vegas digs and the sheer novelty of watching pro football played in Sin City will make Gruden’s squad a sound addition to any network lineup.
Of course, if Brady does make his way out to the desert, that upcoming showdown against his erstwhile cronies will rank among the year’s most-watched TV events. Wherever he lands, the audience will be sure to follow.
With all of Italy on lockdown, from Alto Adige to Calabria—Serie A matches are suspended until April 3. (In order to help enforce the stringent national quarantine, Italian celebrities and influencers have been bombarding their fellow countrymen with the hashtag #IoRestoACasa, which translates to “I Stay at Home.”)