Article by James Mead (Quinnipiac University School of Law – 1L)
“My greatest memories as a kid were playing sports with my dad and watching sports with my dad.”
I. Where We Were in Sports
This quote by World Series Champion Mark Teixeira resonates with millions of Americans. Sports have always been a staple in most households, a tight bond amongst communities in good and bad times, but they vanished when we needed them most. The COVID-19 pandemic has immensely changed the world, creating uncertainty and panic. One particular way in which this pandemic changed everyday life is through the cancelation of sports. Like all long-standing institutions, sports came back, but with some changes that may impact the way we view them for the foreseeable future.
II. How Sports Came Back?
At the moment, it is difficult to determine when the sports fan’s experience will return to normalcy. Two of the four major United States sports leagues, the NHL and the NBA, continued their respective seasons using a “bubble.” In this process of creating a “bubble,” both leagues invited teams with playoff chances to finish out their seasons with only virtual fans. How this worked (NBA and NHL plans were very similar) is players were not required to enter the bubble and could opt-out of the season.1 Every player was tested and required to quarantine at the predetermined “bubble” location; then, players were allowed into the “bubble after passing this initial test.”2 In this area, players were under strict guidelines limiting places they could travel and entirely restricted from leaving the “bubble” without good reason.3 This method proved extremely successful because both the NBA and the NHL recorded zero positive tests while finishing their seasons.4
Meanwhile, the MLB and NFL approached the coronavirus with less stringent restrictions than the NHL and NBA. Specifically, the MLB had a mixed plan where the regular season had zero fans; players were not placed into a “bubble” until the playoffs, where they had a less strict “bubble” system only having a few positive tests. 5 Finally, the league with the least stringent coronavirus restrictions was the NFL. The NFL has no plans for a “bubble” but, instead, has relied on the local/state guidelines in the various cities/states in which the various teams operate. For example, NFL teams have looked to their local/state guidelines in making decisions concerning fan attendance. This method may have given the most freedom to players with still attempting to keep players safe. The guidelines include contact tracing of players, masks whenever possible, and limited indoor meetings.6 These guidelines have produced some positive tests, but the NFL has continued their season by having a flexible schedule and requiring any players with close-contact with COVID or a positive test to be moved to a reserved list and forced to quarantine.7
III. In-Person Attendance
One of the most significant changes in the sports world is empty stadiums because of restrictions on large gatherings. These restrictions are different depending on the state in which the team is located. Still, stadiums holding tens of thousands of enthusiastic fans remain empty or limited to that state’s guidelines.8 This change makes a massive difference for the fan attending one of these limited capacity events because it has a different feel. There is a loss of the communal feeling with strangers rooting for the same team and the noise they create after a highlight play. This change affects the fan’s experience and makes a significant impact on the finances of the organization. One of the main questions that everyone is asking is how long is this going to last?
As the NFL has clearly stated, they will allow fans based on the governor’s decision on large group restrictions; the NFL has stated exact guidelines are located on team websites.9 Based on the second wave of coronavirus that the U.S. is currently facing, there are expectations that more regulations will come limiting the already restricted attendance. The MLB’s commissioner Rob Manfred stated, “If local public health authorities allow for fans, I think you’re going to see fans in the ballpark next year.”10 Similar to the NFL’s guidelines on fans, the MLB will allow the state guidelines to determine fans’ rules. The biggest challenge will seemingly be for the NBA and the NHL because all the stadiums are indoors, which is highly recommended to be avoided by the CDC.11 No state is currently allowing large gatherings indoors, which will create many issues concerning in-person attendance when the NBA and NHL begin their seasons this winter. It is not sure how in-person attendance will be handled after this year. If guidelines do not change, we could see a continuation of fans via zoom as seen in the NBA bubble. This loss of fans affects how the game is played and the revenues these sports make; the NBA lost over $500 million in ticket sales alone during the bubble.12
IV. Economic Issues
The complete shutdown of sports was not a small thing – professional sports are ranked the 11th largest industry in the U.S., worth an estimated 750 billion dollars.13 This past year with the shutdown and limitation of fans in stadiums, all major sports franchises lost large sums of money.14 The losses from each of the major sports leagues (e.g., MLB projected to lose $ 4 Billion) will severely affect the salary cap. 15 Since a portion of league revenues are used to determine the salary cap, the losses will change player contracts for the foreseeable future.16
For example, the NBA released the salary cap for the next three years and will grow but at a fraction of a percentage of normal.176 To soothe the losses from the season, the NBA will have decreased growth over the next three seasons, which means the cap will grow at a lower rate.18 This causes a shift in the contract trends, and players who want larger deals are less likely to be paid what they want.19 The 2020-21 season salary cap and the luxury tax remained the same as the season before at $109.1 million and $132.6 million.20 For the 2021-22 season $112 million and $136.6 million; 2022-23 $115.7 million and $140 million; and 2023-24 $119.2 million and $144.9 million.21 The change means that players could lose up to 20% of their salaries per season for the upcoming seasons.22 It is common for under 10% of players’ salaries to be placed in escrow accounts to offset salary cap issues, but this will jump to up to 20% for the next three seasons because of the projected losses.23 This trend will continue and could even worsen if restrictions keep creating huge losses for these leagues and the players they employ. It is unclear what other sports leagues will have with their salary caps, but this information shows similar trends in other leagues. With every sports league receiving massive losses, there will likely be lower than usual salary caps, severely changing how contracts will be negotiated for the foreseeable future.24 The losses will change how sports will run in the future and create frustration among the players. Frustrations could stem from the deviation from the trend of larger contracts throughout the sports world that we have seen over the past few years. With other leagues beginning soon, and some in-season, we will see the strain these losses will have on owners and players.
V. Where are we going
The world of sports has been through a tough time during this COVID-19 pandemic but has survived. As of right now, sports are alive, and even when hitting speed bumps, they have continued. The one question that will not be answered for some time is when marks will be back to normal? As this research tells you, even if coronavirus were cured tomorrow, there would be implications that will change sports for years to come. With the trends of COVID cases going up, the sports world will not have a sense of normalcy for the foreseeable future. 25 If you can sum up all the lessons sports have taught the world in one phrase, it would be by Kevin Garnett after he won his first NBA finals:
“Anything is possible.”
1 Colin Ward-Henninger & . “NBA Disney World Rules: Details of How the Bubble Will Work with League Set to Resume Play in Orlando,” https://www.cbssports.com/nba/news/nba-disney-world-rules-detailsof-how-the-bubble-will-work-with-league-set-to-resume-play-in-orlando/ (accessed 11/23/20).
5 “Mitigating a COVID-19 Outbreak Among Major League Baseball Players – United States, 2020,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://
www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6942a4.htm#:~:text=During%20the%202020%20season%2C%20Major,between%20two%20opposing%20teams%20occurred (accessed 11/23/20).
6 “Return to Play.” NFL Football Operations, operations.nfl.com/football-ops/nfl-covid-19-protocols/ (12/24/20).
8 Nfl. “Fan Stadium Guide – Overview – Body;.” NFL.com, NFL, 14 Aug. 2020, www.nfl.com/fangameday-playbook/. (accessed 12/9/20)
10 Katherine Acquavella Nov 12. “Rob Manfred Says MLB Will ‘Be More Aggressive’ about Hosting Fans during 2021 Season.” CBSSports.com, 12 Nov. 2020, www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/rob-manfred-says-mlb-will-be-moreaggressive-about-hosting-fans-during-2021-season/ (accessed 12/9/20).
11 “Personal and Social Activities.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/personal-socialactivities.html (accessed 12/9/20).
12 Robert Pearl, M.D. “Coronavirus Poses 5 Huge Threats To The Future Of Sports,” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 25 Aug.2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertpearl/2020/08/25/coronavirus-future-ofsports/?sh=14e8e994792a (accessed 11/23/20).
15 Maury Brown, “A Deep Dive Into MLB’s Financial Losses For The 2020 Season,” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 18 May 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/maurybrown/2020/05/18/a-deep-dive-into-mlbsfinancial-losses-for-the-2020-season/?sh=6e20d76d7f6c. (accessed 12/9/20).
16 Sam Quinn. “Coronavirus: How the COVID-19 Outbreak Will Impact the NBA’s Salary Cap Moving Forward.” CBSSports.com, 19 Mar. 2020, www.cbssports.com/nba/news/coronavirus-how-the-covid-19-outbreak-will-impact-the-nbas-salary-cap-moving-forward/ (accessed 12/10/20).
17 Conway, Tyler. “NBA’s Projected Salary Cap and Luxury Tax Reportedly Set for 2021-2024 Seasons,”
Bleacher Report, Bleacher Report, 15 Nov. 2020 https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2918117-nbasprojected-salary-cap-and-luxury-tax-reportedly-set-for-2021-2024-seasons (accessed 11/23/20).
24 Joel Corry
Jul 29. “Agent’s Take: Consequences of a Lower 2021 Salary Cap, Including the Three Teams Who’ll Be Hurt Most.” CBSSports.com, 30 July 2020, www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/agents-take-consequences-ofa-lower-2021-salary-cap-including-the-three-teams-wholl-be-hurt-most/ (accessed 12/10/20).
25. “CDC COVID Data Tracker,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/ (accessed 11/23/20).