Calls to put the Olympics on hold grow louder as coronavirus spreads: Sports Media Brief
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The International Olympic Committee remains steadfast in its insistence that the 2020 Tokyo Games will go on as planned, but some Japanese officials are now openly calling for the event to be delayed or canceled outright in the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic.
Japan Olympic Committee board member Kaori Yamaguchi, who earned a bronze medal in judo at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, on Wednesday said that because COVID-19 has made it next to impossible for athletes to train properly, the Summer Games must be postponed. “The Olympics should not be held in a situation people in the world can’t enjoy,” Yamaguchi told a local newspaper. “As far as I can tell from news reports coming out of the U.S. and Europe, I don’t think the situation allows for athletes to continue training as usual.”
Yamaguchi said she will raise her objection at a JOC meeting scheduled for next Friday. Her statement was made the day after an IOC member characterized the decision to forge ahead with the Olympics as “insensitive and irresponsible.”
While the new realities of life under the scourge of the disease have made it all but impossible to project what the state of the world will be like by late July, the IOC has been defiant in its response to questions about the viability of the Games. In an interview published Thursday by the New York Times, IOC President Thomas Bach trotted out his now-familiar “the show must go on” bromides.
“I will not speculate [on a possible postponement], but we owe it to all the athletes, and we owe it to all the half of the world that watches the Olympics to say we are not putting the cancellation of the Games on the agenda,” Bach said. “We are committed to the success of these Games.”
Bach went on to say that the IOC has plenty of time to assess the evolving COVID-19 situation, and that its decisions ultimately would not be determined financial considerations. In the meantime, Bach refused to furnish a deadline for a final decision on the event’s status. “Nobody today can tell you what the developments are tomorrow, what they are in one month, not to mention in more than four months,” Bach said. “Therefore it would not be responsible in any way to set a date or make a decision right now, which would be based on the speculation about the future developments.”
According to data collected by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, more than a quarter-million people have been diagnosed with the coronavirus worldwide. The U.S. is now the sixth most-infected nation, with 16,605 confirmed cases, up sharply from 6,496 cases on March 17 and 753 diagnoses on March 10. To date, 11,153 people around the world have died after contracting the virus.
On Wednesday, Bach and other IOC officials spoke with a group of some 220 Olympic athletes on a call that one participant later described as “baffling.”
On the home front, Olympics sponsors are understandably more than a little antsy about their summer investments. As Sports Business Daily’s Ben Fischer reports, newly minted U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee sponsor Eli Lilly & Co. “is asking potential Team USA athlete endorsers to give back some of their fees if the Tokyo Games are canceled or postponed beyond its contract term.”
Scores and standings
It’s impossible to understate the impact the cessation of all college and professional sports will have on the TV business, which has been kneecapped by the loss of live competition. As of this afternoon, here’s where things stand with the major U.S. leagues:
Tom Brady’s decision to ditch New England after a 20-year stretch of superlatives gave ESPN a much-needed dose of content fodder during a period in which scores and highlights have been awfully hard to come by. (As you may well imagine, Sully from Billerica was wicked fahkin’ pissed, kid.)
In a sense, nothing quite epitomizes the NFL’s swaggering hegemony quite like its decision to open the free-agency floodgates in the midst of a global health crisis. Largely untouched by the ravages of the coronavirus, the league managed to monopolize the sports world attention throughout the week. But what might otherwise have been merely a welcome distraction in a time of free-floating Munchian angst turned into a gripping and somewhat surreal session of Quarterback Roulette. Tom Brady is now a Buccaneer. Philip Rivers is a Colt. Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles is a Bear. Teddy Bridgewater is a Panther. Bonkers.
The frenzy of free agency in some way helped make up for the fact that the NFL’s week started with a blare of the mournful you-lose horn from “The Price Is Right.” On Monday, the league announced that while it would forge ahead with its April 23-25 draft, it would follow the CDC’s advice and cancel the live event that was to have taken place in Las Vegas.
It’s been a week of savage reversals in Sin City, which officially becomes an NFL territory once the Raiders finish moving into their new digs just across the Strip from Mandalay Bay. After absorbing the loss of the draft, which a year ago generated $125.2 million in economic impact for host city Dallas, Vegas just two days later had to come to terms with a state-mandated month-long freeze on gambling. By Wednesday night, casinos across the desert oasis had gone dark for the first time since Pres. John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.
The general gaming shutdown came just days after the town’s sportsbooks began closing shop. With nothing to wager on, the boards that in a less dire moment would have been jumping with NBA, NHL and college basketball action were more or less empty as Wynn Las Vegas pulled the plug last Friday.
As the lights were going dark inside the Wynn, NFL players voted to players voted to approve a new collective bargaining agreement by a 60-ballot margin. The new CBA not only assures the league of labor peace through at least 2030, but opens the door for the networks to begin formal negotiations to re-up their NFL broadcast packages. Unfortunately, as The Athletic’s Daniel Kaplan reports, the COVID-19 outbreak not only has put a chill on the rights conversation, but the resulting financial crunch has weakened the networks’ buying power.
“The plan to pivot immediately from CBA renewal to media negotiations is not occurring,” Kaplan writes. “What environment emerges at the unknown end of the coronavirus crisis is, of course, unclear, but the windfall the NFL assumed with its must-see content is no longer a certainty.”
A week after the league suspended play, NBA commissioner Adam Silver is now unsure if the 2019-20 season will resume. In an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, Silver on Wednesday said that while the league is hoping to salvage a portion of this season, there was no way for him to say with any certainty how things would shake out in light of the restrictions that have been put into palace to disrupt the spread of the coronavirus.
There are three scenarios in which pro hoops may return. In the best-case scenario, the disease recedes as quickly as it appeared, leaving the NBA free to once again play in front of packed arenas. Even the merest glance at the Johns Hopkins dashboard would suggest that this is the most unlikely forecast. In another scenario, Silver discussed the possibility of starting up again in empty arenas, while a third option found Silver spitballing a bit.
“I would say all suggestions are welcome, … but are there conditions in which a group of players could compete and maybe it’s for a giant fundraiser or just for the collective good of the people?” Silver asked, citing the impact the absence of sports is having on the national psyche. In that particular reality, players would be tested to ensure that they were free of the virus and then isolated before competing against each other.
“Again, people are stuck at home, and I think they need a diversion. They need to be entertained,” Silver said, before noting that getting the players back on the court would go a long way toward helping to revitalize the economy and our serotonin levels.
After having put Opening Day on hold for an undetermined period of time, the very earliest the league might expect to pick up the pieces while observing CDC guidelines is May 9—although that’s perhaps a far too optimistic projection. (One hospital administrator recently told us the current models suggest that the pandemic won’t even begin to peak in the U.S. until mid-May; given the necessary cool-down and adjustment periods expected to be put into place after the tide finally begins to recede, so-called “normal” life probably won’t be back on the menu until late June.)
As NBC Sports Chicago’s Vinnie Duber reports, it now seems possible that fans “could be looking at the shortest baseball season since the World Series became a legitimate, non-exhibition thing back in 1903.” The most abridged season of the modern baseball era was the strike-shortened 1981 campaign, which was slashed from the standard allotment of 162 games per team to 107 games.
In keeping with the input provided by the aforementioned healthcare official, should the MLB get rolling as late as June 18, as many as 73 games per club would be wiped off the slate, although extending the regular season into October could salvage another 25 games. Of course, in that scenario, the MLB risks staging a World Series in the midst of decidedly un-summery meteorological conditions, especially if one of the participating franchises is based in the northeast. (Unless baseball heeds the counsel of Duber, who suggests that the Fall Classic be played at a neutral site.)
Under Duber’s proposal, the 2020 All-Star Game would be scrapped. That possibility makes an already gloomy spring even gloomier for the Los Angeles Dodgers, as its home stadium was set to host the exhibition for the first time in 40 years.
In the absence of a timeline, MLB has only said that it hopes to play as many games in 2020 as is humanly possible. In the meantime, the league office remains busy, undertaking a plan to offer recommendations about how teams might best provide financial compensation for stadium concession, cleaning and gate staff. Another effort finds MLB and the players’ union teaming up to present a $1 million donation to Feeding America and Meals on Wheels.
The NHL earlier this week issued a memo in which it suggested it may open training camps “roughly 45 days into the 60-day period covered by the CDCs directive … on large events and mass gatherings” of more than 50 people. The league has not set a deadline for the resumption of this season, but officials are hopeful that players may be back on the ice in time for a full playoff run. The tradition of awarding the Stanley Cup to hockey’s champions has been spoiled only twice in 126 years. Most recently, a lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season kept the trophy in storage, while the Spanish flu outbreak interrupted the 1919 title series between the Montreal Canadiens and Seattle Metropolitans. (Six Canadiens were hospitalized during the truncated series, and one player, defenseman Joe Hall, died four days after the quest for the Cup was abandoned.)
With the season in limbo, NBC Sports Washington is helping hockey-starved fans feed their jones with a scheme to virtually complete the Wizards’ and Capitals’ regular seasons. Beginning Saturday, the regional sports network will air one-hour video game simulations of the games, kicking things off with Wizards-Bucks showdown. The channel will offer a Caps-Blues simulation on Tuesday night.
In another bid to keep hockey enthusiasts engaged during the downtime, the league’s YouTube channel today introduced “NHL Pause Binge,” a curated selection of classic games and clips that will be available through April 30. Designed to keep fans from going stir crazy, the initiative will feature 100 games, some of which date all the way back to the 1950s.
Sifting through the rubble
While the coronavirus has been indiscriminate in its onslaught on the U.S. sports economy, Disney’s ESPN, AT&T’s Turner Sports division and ViacomCBS’ broadcast flagship are likely to sustain the greatest amount of collateral damage in the near term, with the cancelation of the NCAA Men’s Div. I Basketball Tournament and the indefinite postponement of the NBA season erasing hundreds of millions of dollars on the ad sales front, while presenting possible disruptions to affiliate/distribution revenue and one very sticky contractual matter.
The mostm immediate losses will be sustained by March Madness partners Turner Sports and CBS, which together booked north of $900 million in advertiser commitments throughout the college hoops tourney. AT&T’s cable network group faces a double whammy in that it is also one of the NBA’s two principal media partners.
As TV buyers will recall from Jeff “Managing for Margins” Zucker’s rocky reign at NBC, there comes a point in which a supplier of gross ratings points no longer has sufficient inventory with which to make good on under-deliveries, which leads to cash refunds. In December 2007, NBC was so far up to its neck in ratings deficiencies that it began refunding advertisers around $500,000 each, a desperate measure that worked to the benefit of no one. NBC’s performance was exacerbated by the Writers Guild of America strike and the unexpected devaluation brought to bear by the recently-introduced C3 currency, but the bottom line is, a cash refund is of little use to a brand that suddenly finds itself unable to meet its ambitious marketing goals.
In terms of the rights deal with the NCAA, the most logical solution would be for the governing body to offer the networks a make-good of its own, tacking on another year to a multi-billion-dollar contract that extends through 2032. While all parties are insured to some extent against various acts of disruptive mayhem, AT&T and CBS are on the hook for this year’s $800 million rights fee; by adding a rainout tournament at the end of the run, the NCAA effectively would be sanctifying a relationship with the latter network that goes back to 1982.
For its part, while Disney will have a nightmare scenario on its hands should the NBA not return for a playoff run—according to MoffettNathanson analysis, sports’ Claude Rains act this year could cost ESPN and its broadcast sibling ABC $775 million in ad sales revenue, thanks in large part to the lost income associated with the end of the NBA regular season and two months of playoff/NBA Finals action—the company must also struggle to program a 24/7 sports network in a world in polo offers fans a sort of respite in a time of competition withdrawal. (No, wait: Polo’s gone too.)
While the NFL Free Agency market has given daily ESPN shows like “SportsCenter,” “Get Up” and “First Take” something to burn off the clock during the quarantine, Bristol has embarked on the same dark and knotty path that every other network has taken to since the pandemic started throttling the nation’s impulse to spend money together in public.
Buyers have been grumbling about networks not providing much in the way of wiggle room outside of the standard 25 percent threshold for quarterly cancelation options—apparently there were early concessions made for cruise lines, but those palliative measures were made before the outbreak slammed into the U.S. with full, industry-depleting force—but now that multiple cities have closed down all movie theaters and fast-food/casual-dining restaurants and many retail operations have shuttered on their own initiative, it arguably makes little sense to remain locked into a marketing plan that is no longer connected to a cash register on the other end.
And while the Nielsen data shows that there has been a bit of an uptick in TV usage as Americans restrict their outside activities—this week marked the first time since the 2019-20 broadcast season began back in September that the number of homes using TV grew versus the year-ago period, and even then the gains were mild (+3 percent)—all the talk of a quarantine-driven ratings bump won’t matter all that much if the only brands still buying TV in four weeks’ time are Amazon and Netflix and Seamless.
Which isn’t to say that the bottom has fallen out altogether. As much as Netflix and Hulu and ESPN+ are likely to reap the greatest benefit from multiple months of viral agoraphobia (the European Union is sufficiently concerned that a spike in Netflix streaming may wipe out the Internet altogether that it has suggested that everyone switch from viewing in standard-definition, rather than bandwidth-depleting HD), the uptick in traditional TV viewing could benefit a number of staples brands. According to Disney Advertising Sales President Rita Ferro, the consumer package goods and direct-to-consumer categories in recent weeks have “increased activity in order to meet the rapidly changing needs and consumption patterns from consumers.”
There’s laid back and then there’s Todd Gurley announcing that he was released by the Rams.
Damn I got fired on my day off😂 #QuaratineAndChill— Todd Gurley II (@TG3II) March 19, 2020