Will coronavirus lead to sporting events being played without fans in the stands?


With the countries most affected by coronavirus, i.e., China, South Korea, Japan, and now Italy shutting down entire regions of their countries to try to control the community spread of the virus, resulting in major economic disruption of their economy, I wondered about the more mundane: how is this affecting sporting events where mass numbers of people come together to watch their favorite athletes or team?

If the coronavirus exponentially increases in the U.S., as it now appears to be doing, how will this affect sporting events in the U.S.?

It appears there is an answer. CNN has a list of sporting events around the world already affected by the coronavirus pandemic. How the coronavirus is impacting sport. There have been a number of postponements and cancellations, and some events have been held without fans.

The LA Times recently reported on How sports leagues, federations and teams are addressing coronavirus outbreak:

While most North American sports leagues, including Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NFL and the NHL are monitoring the situation, leagues in other parts of the world are taking action by canceling events and playing in empty stadiums.

Los Angeles County officials have discussed the possibility of banning spectators from attending sporting events in Southern California in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The NBA advises teams to prep contingency plans for games without fans due to coronavirus:

The National Basketball Association sent a memo to teams on Friday night, urging officials to prepare game contingency plans should the coronavirus continue to spread.

The NBA said teams should identify “actions required if it were to become necessary to play a game with only essential staff present” without fans or media, according to a copy of the memo obtained by CNBC.

The memo said teams should also “prepare for the possibility of implementing temperature checks on players, team staff, referees, and anyone else who is essential to conducting such a game in the team’s arena.”

The NCAA announced its Division III men’s basketball tournament at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore will be played without spectators. Spectators will be banned at NCAA Division III basketball tournament games at Johns Hopkins due to coronavirus. The Division I tournaments are not yet affected:

The NCAA announced in a statement earlier this week that it is committed to conducting its championships and events in a safe and responsible manner, but that a daily evaluation of the situation was taking place as CO-VID19 spreads and evolves throughout the states. Those evaluating the situation include a panel of experts in the medical, public health and epidemiology fields qualified to make judgements on the virus’s spread and impact on the general public.

Those decisions from the NCAA and its newly-formed panel are being made hand-in-hand with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC has stated that the potential public health threat of the coronavirus is high, though the immediate risk is generally low for the public now.

Across basketball, this is just the latest tremor in the sport as teams try and manuever a delicate public health situation. Just this week, Chicago State forfeited its games against Seattle University and Utah Valley over COVID-19 concerns on the west coast. There have been no major edicts from the NCAA about how to handle COVID-19 concerns, however.

USA Today reports, What if coronavirus concerns force sports leagues to close doors to fans? (excerpts):

Now, as the novel coronavirus continues to spread, the idea of holding sporting events without spectators in the United States has gone from far-flung hypothetical to legitimate possibility.

In the U.S., where the spread of the virus has been more limited, college and professional sports leagues have largely been unaffected. Yet if the situation worsens, leagues would likely prefer to hold games without fans rather than cancel them, in part because of the significant financial implications involved.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided guidance on how to manage mass gatherings. But on Thursday, one local health agency in California — the Santa Clara County Public Health Department — requested that organizers cancel large public events, including sporting events. One of the pro sports teams in the county, the NHL’s San Jose Sharks, acknowledged that recommendation but played its Thursday night game as scheduled.

“We will be evaluating further upcoming events in the coming days,” Sharks Sports & Entertainment said in a statement.

* * *

As of Thursday, the only significant American sports cancellations related to the coronavirus involved Chicago State University, a Division I school that canceled some of its men’s and women’s basketball games — including a road trip to the Seattle area, where the majority of American cases of coronavirus have been diagnosed.

Major sports organizations — including the NCAA, MLB, NBA and NHL — have taken more measured steps, asking athletes to avoid high-fives and forming panels to monitor coronavirus-related risks.

One advocacy group, however, has called for “a serious discussion” about not allowing fans to attend March Madness games this month.

The tournament, which begins March 17, will feature 67 games at 14 locations across the country. It is also the NCAA’s most important moneymaker. The 2018 iteration of the event generated $844.3 million in television and marketing rights alone, making the notion of canceling it altogether nearly unfathomable.

Holding the NCAA tournament behind closed doors, of course, would have broad financial implications as well — just like it would at all levels of sports, from NBA games to small professional tennis tournaments.

“There’s so many layers to this,” said David Carter, an associate professor of sports business at Southern California. “It’s just all these cascading effects.”

Carter and other experts in sports business and law said it’s difficult to grapple with the potential economic ramifications of American sports behind closed doors without knowing more specifics — namely which leagues or events would be impacted and for what period of time.

The absence of fans at the Masters, for example, would have a more significant impact on the local economy in Augusta, Georgia, than a few crowd-free NHL games in a middling market. And while media and sponsorship deals would generally be unaffected, a minor league baseball team in North Carolina might be more dependent upon ticket revenue than the New York Yankees — even if game-related costs also would decrease.

“You (wouldn’t) need ushers and ticket takers and concession stand operators and parking attendants,” Carter explained. “That’s a small, small, small number — but that’s also going to go into the appreciation of just exactly how costly this would be.”

* * *

It’s unclear whether sports leagues would move games behind closed doors only after a request by public health officials or preemptively on their own accord.

Though measles outbreaks on separate occasions in 1985 and 1989 led to a handful of college basketball and hockey games being played in nearly empty venues, crowd-free sporting events in the U.S. have largely been the byproduct of weather or security concerns rather than matters of public health.

With Spring Training games currently being played and opening day of baseball season just around the corner, MLB has no plans to cancel games, sets up task force, report says:

Some baseball fans might be curious if the coronavirus will affect the baseball season and — at least for now — the answer is no.

As for Major League Baseball, there are currently no plans to cancel or postpone either spring training or regular season games, per a memo obtained by ESPN. Commissioner Rob Manfred and the league have established an “internal task force” to deal with possible “complications” caused by the virus in the coming months, per the report. MLB also sent a memo to front offices, telling teams to follow these protocols.

This is also the year for the Summer Olympic Games — in Tokyo, Japan. Tokyo 2020 Organizers Mull Holding Closed-Door Games Without Fans, Says Report:

Organizers of the fast-approaching Olympic Games in Tokyo have discussed taking the unprecedented step of holding them behind closed doors with no fans, The New York Times reports. Tokyo 2020 is scheduled to begin on July 22—but the worldwide coronavirus outbreak has raised serious questions about whether it should go ahead. Earlier this week, the Japanese government hinted it could legally delay the Games until later in the year, on the assumption that the outbreak will eventually abate. But, according to the Times, the closed-door proposal was discussed on a conference call last week between World Health Organization officials and medical officers for the international sports federations that run Olympic competitions. Holding the Olympics without spectators, and having to refund ticket sales, could reportedly cost Tokyo organizers some $850 million.

This only gets us to the fall, when NCAA college football and NFL football games that attract millions of fans every weekend get underway. What are their contingency plans? They at least have some time to plan.

As an aside, we are in an election year: what about all those campaign rallies that candidates hold?

We know that Donald Trump does not care and he will never give up the adulation of his MAGA personality cult followers. “Coronavirus is just a Democrat hoax!”  Trump refusing to halt MAGA rallies as coronavirus surges.

But what about all the other responsible candidates running for office around the country? Has any campaign given serious consideration of the CDC recommendations to prevent the community spread of the coronavirus? Maybe now is the time to be thinking about this question.


  1. Indian Wells Tennis Is First Large U.S. Sporting Event Canceled Over Coronavirus Fears, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/desert-wells-canceled-coronavirus_n_5e663c39c5b68d6164579838

    The BNP Paribas Open, the near-major tennis tournament set to begin this week in the California desert, won’t be played as scheduled after a case of coronavirus was confirmed in the Coachella Valley.

    The Indian Wells event is the largest U.S. sporting event to be called off over concerns about the spread of the disease. The South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, was canceled Friday.

  2. One of the interesting possible consequences of games without live fans is long term. Fans who watch on TV may decide that experience is preferable to live attendance and not return to actually going to the event. I think that leads to what I’ve heard described as “studio sports” and leads to all sorts of interesting questions. One that comes to mind is the question of player motivation. Will they want to play if no one is present and watching?

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