As we battle through this global pandemic, we all seek something that will provide some sense of normalcy — what we were used to before the world changed forever a few months ago.
The return of professional sports will provide a portion of that normalcy for many people, but what sports will look like is going to be far from normal. And for many minor leagues, there may not ever be a return at all.
In the past couple months, NASCAR, the Professional Golfers Association and the National Women’s Soccer League have returned to action without fans in the stands or on the course.
While all three of these sports have had television or online coverage of each of their events, seeing totally empty grandstands and no human beings lining the fairways or circling the greens takes some getting used to.
When will fans be allowed back to live events? Only time will tell if and when the coronavirus subsides in the United States.
Although 41 of 50 American states reported increasing numbers of COVID-19 positive cases on July 6, sports continue to press on in varying degrees.
Major League Soccer is conducting its month-long Back to MLS Tournament starting this week but there have been complications even before the first kick. The fanless tournament is being held at the Walt Disney Resort in Florida, but one team — FC Dallas — pulled out of the tourney due to more than 10 positive COVID-19 cases within the team. Some matches have been postponed and/or rescheduled and questions have arisen whether the tourney can actually be completed as planned.
The tournament did begin with one match on July 8, but the following morning, Nashville SC became the second team to withdraw due to an outbreak amongst their squad.
In the next few weeks, the following pro leagues are scheduled to return to play:
• Major League Baseball — Games begin Thursday, July 23.
• Women’s National Basketball Association — Games begin Friday, July 24.
• National Basketball Association — Games resume Thursday, July 30.
• National Hockey League — Games resume Saturday, Aug. 1.
Additionally, several spring “big ticket” events were tentaviely moved to later in the year:
• Indianapolis 500 — Sunday, Aug. 23.
• Kentucky Derby — Saturday, Sept. 5.
• Preakness Stakes — Saturday, Oct. 3.
• The Masters — Thursday, Nov. 12 - Sunday, Nov. 15.
Another aspect of 2020 sports that is not so normal? Players opting out of participating instead of risking infection from the virus. This has occurred in every league planning a return.
Notables deciding to sit out for health reasons include the NBA’s Kelly Oubre (Suns), Bradley Beal and Victor Oladipo; the WNBA’s Liz Cambage and Jonquel Jones; and MLB players Mike Leake (Diamondbacks), Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, David Price and Joe Ross.
While all the top-tier leagues try to get rolling, many minor-league sports — devoid of television revenue — are not so lucky.
Baseball’s minor leagues canceled their seasons late last month because of the coronavirus pandemic and the head of their governing body said more than half of the 160 teams were in danger of failing without government assistance or private equity injections.
The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the minor league governing body founded in September 1901, made the long-expected announcement in late June. The minors had never missed a season prior to 2020.
“We are a fans-in-the-stands business. We don’t have national TV revenues,” National Association president Pat O’Conner said during a digital news conference. “There was a conversation at one point: Well, can we play without fans? And that was one of the shortest conversations in the last six months. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Mr. O’Conner estimated 85-90% of revenue was related to ticket money, concessions, parking and ballpark advertising. The minors drew 41.5 million fans last year for 176 teams in 15 leagues, averaging 4,044 fans per game.
The MLB teams planning for a 60-game regular season will derive most of their revenue from broadcast money.
PHOENIX RISING FC
Phoenix Rising FC of the United Soccer League will return to the pitch this weekend by hosting LA Galaxy II. The match will mark the first pro sporting event held in the Valley since the COVID-19 outbreak began.
While it is a positive that the lower-tier American soccer league is getting back to play, Phoenix Rising was hit with another kind of positive on July 7 — positive cases of coronavirus.
Three players tested positive on July 7 and each will be held out of the team’s season / home opener on Saturday, July 11, according to Rising FC Head Coach Rick Schantz.
The team did not name the specific players who tested positive, but Mr. Schantz said one of the three was a “starting player.”
Two of the three are asymptomatic while the other displayed “mild symptoms.”
Phoenix Rising FC set multiple USL Championship league records during the 2019 regular season before bowing out of the playoffs in the conference semifinals.
The Valley’s most successful pro sports team in terms of championships won is the Arizona Rattlers. The indoor football franchise, in existence for nearly three decades, has brought home six titles while sometimes flying under the radar in the Valley’s saturated sports scene.
The Indoor Football League finished two games to start the 2020 campaign before the league announced on April 13 that the IFL season was over. Looking to avenge a controversial defeat in last year’s championship game, the Rattlers never even took the field.
“The Arizona Rattlers agree with the league’s decision announcing the cancellation of the 2020 season,” Rattlers majority owner and CEO Ron Shurts said in a statement. “The safety of our fans, players, coaches, front office and all employees is of the utmost importance, and due to concerns about COVID-19, it is necessary to cancel the season to ensure that. Although we are disappointed we cannot compete for another United Bowl Championship this year, we are eager to get back on the field in front of Rattler Nation in 2021.”
Unlike some IFL teams, solid financial planning and decisions over the years have put the Rattlers in prime position to withstand a year off. And while most are confident the IFL won’t lose any members with a year-long hiatus, Quad City Steamwheelers owner Doug Bland is not so sure.
“The sports industry has taken a major hit, but for us in the minor league sports world, it’s probably even harder on us because we don’t have television revenue and stuff like that to work with,” Mr. Bland told qconline.com. “We’re 100% reliant on our ticket buyers and our sponsors. Without that, we can’t exist.”
Mr. Bland said some shuffling could occur among teams that aren’t as established as the Rattlers, who began operations in 1992.
“I don’t see the same lineup that we had this year coming back next year. It’s just a numbers game,” Mr. Bland told the site.
The 2020 IFL season was set to be played with 14 franchises.
NORTHERN ARIZONA SUNS
On July 7, the Northern Arizona Suns announced they are leaving Prescott Valley and the Findlay Toyota Center.
“Sadly, when the 2020-21 G-League season tips off, the team will be playing at a location, to be determined, in the Phoenix metro area, allowing us to share efficiencies and resources with the rest of the Suns organization,” said Suns Public Affairs Advisor Maria Baier, noting that the COVID-19 outbreak forced the move.
The NAZ Suns, an affiliate of the NBA’s developmental G-League, were the Toyota Center’s anchor tenant. They started playing their games in Prescott Valley in 2016.
During the NFL offseason, the XFL enjoyed a successful reboot in 2020 before the pandemic put an end to the season and ultimately, the entire league — yet another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic. As of early July, the NFL is planning its normal season for this fall.
The fans want sports to return. What remains to be seen is when fans will be allowed back through the gates and if they feel safe and confident to do so.
“It will be good to see stuff like Major League Baseball back on television, but it’s not quite the same as being at the ballpark,” said Gary Smith of Peoria. “Once all the protocols and such are worked out, I’ll be back at Chase Field and I know many other fans will be, too.”
“Fans have had something that is a big part of their lives taken away,” David Berri, an economics professor at Southern Utah University, told mlive.com. “When sports resume, I think you’re going to see a rather huge uptick in interest and revenue.”