The doors are swinging open again, and, inevitably, we’ll walk through them to our seats. Arenas and stadiums are cathedrals of the sports religion, after all, and like addicts drawn to crack, giddy fans can’t help themselves from re-absorbing the sights, sounds and smells before science says they’re ready.
So 500,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 and 100,000 more may perish by June 1. So only a small percentage of people have been inoculated to date, making Vaccine Envy a new thing. So variants of the virus could prolong the pandemic until 2022. So experts still aren’t sure if a vaccinated person can infect someone else. So Dr. Anthony Fauci says the U.S. isn’t remotely close to herd immunity, telling NBC: “We want to get that baseline really, really, really low before we start thinking that we’re out of the woods.” So COVID is very much with us like hell on Earth.
It’s time to invite the paying customers inside because, you know, sports says so. And the fans say so, at least enough who care more about supporting teams than protecting fellow human beings.
The objective is money — the same old greed grab — yet what is the rush, people? Infectious disease experts say it’s foolish to let basketball crowds of up to 25 percent capacity for NCAA tournament games, which include dome settings in Indianapolis and San Antonio, when bodies are converging indoors from around the country. It’s understandable why the NCAA, which lost $375 million from last year’s cancellation, needs March Madness to recoup broadcast revenues. But is it necessary to take health risks inside venues? “We continue to use the knowledge we’ve gained over the season on how to conduct games in a safe environment,” said NCAA president Mark Emmert, who, as usual, is so blinded by dollars that he hasn’t addressed the possibility of superspreads.
Where I live, Los Angeles, the city postponed thousands of Dodger Stadium vaccination appointments because supply is limited, amid disturbing reports that Black and Latino communities are underserved in the inoculation process. Yet a logistical nightmare isn’t stopping the Dodgers from suggesting fans will be allowed inside the fabled ballpark in just a few weeks. “I hope, by Opening Day, we are finally going to have some fans in the park,” team president Stan Kasten said in a video, as if oblivious to the vaccine issues in the parking lot. “I don’t think it will be a full stadium just yet. But I do believe sometime during this season, the way things are looking, we will have a full stadium again.”
Guess they have to pay Trevor Bauer, right? I mean, who cares about the pandemic when the 2021 payroll is $255 million and Guggenheim Baseball is more than $45 million over the luxury tax threshold? Get those fannies in the seats, baby, even if they have to maneuver around the health workers and the line for Dodger Dogs isn’t safe.
The NBA? LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and other league stars aren’t the only ones opposed to an All-Star Game in Atlanta. So is the city’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, who said, “I have shared my concerns related to public health and safety with the NBA and the Atlanta Hawks. We are in agreement that this is a made-for-TV event only, and people should not travel to Atlanta to party.” Yet that hasn’t stopped commissioner Adam Silver, who is whiffing badly on the 2020-21 season after drawing raves as a Disney World Bubble visionary, from proceeding with a one-day squeeze — game, skills competition and Slam Dunk contest — which surely will lure the usual party crowd despite the mayor’s edict. Why do this?
Money. The league’s $5 billion business in China continues to take massive financial hits, thanks to Silver’s continued support of Daryl Morey, he of the pro-Hong Kong tweet that rocked the geopolitical sphere. When Morey left his post as Houston Rockets general manager, China’s communist government might have been ready to lift an NBA broadcast ban on state-run CCTV. But when Morey was hired in the same role by the Philadelphia 76ers, the ban continued. Is it really worth keeping Morey employed as a top executive when the league stands to lose potential billions? Can anyone still say we’re living in the former America, land of the free and home of the brave? Coupled with a disjointed season that has suffered outbreak-forced stops and starts, the league and partner TNT simply need the cash flow from an event watched globally by tens of millions.
“All-Star is a part of our league, no different than the games we play,” Silver said. “It begins and ends with the fans. This is an event our fans love to see. They love to see the players come together. But nothing comes without controversy during a pandemic.”
That includes the remarks of Minnesota star Karl Anthony-Towns, who has lost his mother and six other family members to COVID-19. Said Towns, who contracted the virus last month: “I personally don’t believe there should be an All-Star Game, but what the hell do I know? Obviously, I haven’t dealt with COVID, right? I’m probably a guy who has some insight into that.”
The reason leagues can get away with hosting events and fans — including a Super Bowl crowd of 25,000 and growing numbers at NFL and college games — is the lack of general resistance among the masses. Many Americans are trying to survive and push their families through a life crisis, unconcerned about who wants to attend a sports event. As long as enough people show an interest in buying tickets regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated, teams will keep the turnstiles greased. The Phoenix Suns announced they would allow 1,500 fans to attend home games; within days, that number increased to 3,000-plus. This week, New York opens Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center to about 4,000 fans per game.
Spring training? Arizona and Florida have been among the virus-ravaged states, but a limited number of fans will be allowed for Major League Baseball exhibitions starting next week. The Diamondbacks sold out 2,200 tickets for each of 14 home games, prompting manager Torey Lovullo to say, “That fires me up. We’ve been looking forward to this day as much as them. We missed our fans, not just Diamondbacks fans but I think baseball fans throughout the entire United States. We’ve lost a little bit of a connection.”
Even Fauci, the noted baseball fan, softened when asked by ESPN about paying customers in the regular season. “A pretty good chance,” he said, “We could have people in the stands, maybe not right next to each other. There are going to be public health restrictions like mask-wearing, things like that.”
Again, why? Haven’t we discovered the last 12 months, with the one-year anniversary of Rudy Gobert Night arriving March 11, that the resumption of sports is facilitated by television? That the seasons still carry on as diehard fans and gamblers watch from home? In a sense, the industry has avoided a significant consumer issue that way. By not paying in-house prices, the fans haven’t felt ripped off watching periodic ragged competition in the NBA, NHL, MLB and college football and basketball. Only the NFL sustained a high quality of play, though only because quarterbacks are protected by safety rules that enable entertaining, tech-influenced offenses.
Imagine purchasing a ticket in Lake Tahoe for the NHL’s sun-aborted outdoor game. For big bucks, you’d have seen the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights play one period, then told to return eight hours later because the ice was melting. I like quirky stuff as much as anyone, but to resume play at 12:02 a.m. ET — gosh, it was past Gary Bettman’s bedtime.
“We knew that unabated sunshine was a problem,” said the commissioner, who had to flip the telecast from NBC to NBCSN, which is shutting down later this year. “After consulting with our ice-makers and both teams, we didn’t think it was safe or appropriate to continue this game at this time.”
In using the plural “we” to describe the returning fan procession, I include myself, as one who covers sports for a living. But that will happen only after I am vaccinated, which should be the golden rule for all fandom. If nothing else, leagues and franchises should be eternally grateful that humans want to set foot in their buildings amid a deadly pandemic. I would suggest free admission and parking, unlimited food and drink, socially distanced meet-and-greets with players and foot massages.
But who am I kidding? They want your money, period.
And, somehow, you are eagerly giving it to them.