Sports leagues across the nation are putting their games on hold due to the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. CDC guidelines for limiting mass gatherings and public events of 10 people or more for eight weeks; forcing concerts and live sports to pause or reschedule.
This sudden dearth of entertainment has left many athletes and fans struggling with how to fill the void of abrupt season pauses and disruptions by the NBA, NHL, MLB, NCAA, and others.
The NBA’s season suspension was one of the first announcements to shock the sports world. Rudy Gobert was the first NBA player, a center for the Utah Jazz, who tested positive for the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. Since his diagnosis last week, Donovan Mitchell, Christian Wood, and four Brooklyn Nets players have also tested positive for the virus.
Mitchell gave an interview with Good Morning America from isolation and commented that the “scariest part about this virus” is that people who test positive for the virus may not show symptoms.
“I have no symptoms which is unique — when people ask me I would say if you were to tell me I could play in a seven-game series tomorrow, I would be ready to lace up,” Mitchell said in an interview with Robin Roberts on Good Morning America.
One day later, The National Hockey League (NHL) announced it would also pause its season due to coronavirus.
Luc Robitaille, President of the Los Angeles Kings, said in a press interview that the decision to pause the season was influenced to a degree by the NBA’s suspension of its games. Although no NHL player has currently tested positive for coronavirus, many players share facilities and locker rooms with the NBA.
“I think for now, because this is so fresh and new, for the next few days we want everyone to take care of their families and take care of themselves,” Robitaille said.
Robitaille referenced previous season disruptions like the 2004-05 Lockout, where the Stanley Cup was canceled due to a player lockout, but noted that the circumstances for the current pause are “completely different” but the league’s priority is “to look at what’s right for the fans first.”
“We were getting ready to possibly play in front of an empty building, so we were looking at how we were going to handle it when this first happened,” Robitaille said. “Now, we’re going to go back and just figure out exactly how we’re going to handle it.”
The last time a public health concern paused professional sports was almost 100 years ago. In 1919, the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) suspended the 1919 Stanley Cup finals in response to the Spanish flu pandemic. Just five and half hours before the PCHA’s Seattle Metropolitans and NHL’s Montreal Canadians were set to face off in Game 6, public health officials canceled the game and suspended the rest of the season.
Stan Fischler, hockey broadcaster since 1954, noted that the only real parallel between the 1919 Stanley Cup cancellation and the current season’s pause is that both were caused by pandemics.
“[In 1919] the NHL was still a new fragile league. It was able to survive because of keen interest in Canada and all the teams were Canadian,” Fischler said in an email interview. “Once the post-cancellation season began, fans returned to the arenas but the NHL still was small and played in small arenas until the Montreal Forum was built in the early 1920s.”
It wasn’t until a few years later when Pittsburgh (1925) and Boston (1924) joined the league, that the NHL became popular in the U.S. Today the NHL is well-established with 24 teams in the U.S. and 7 in Canada.
Although no living players experienced the 1919 Stanley Cup cancellation, current players have lived through numerous season disruptions. The 2004-5 lockout lasted 10 months and 6 days (1,230 unplayed games). It was the first time since 1919 that no Stanley Cup was awarded.
“This was a battle between NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and union boss Bob Goodenow. Bettman was looking out for the good and welfare of the NHL and he was very responsible in doing so and had the full backing of his bosses, the club owners,” Fischler said. “What the union learned was that neither the Commissioner nor the NHL owners would be bullied or intimidated from what the league considered a prudent position.”
Fischler added that Bettman, who is now in his 27th year as NHL Commissioner, has demonstrated his staying power. NHL players currently have higher salaries than ever before and a new union boss, Donald Fehr.
Daryl Evans, a former L.A. Kings Player, experienced the NHL’s 2004-5 Lockout while working as a color commentator for the team. Evans described the current season’s pause as “uncharted territory” and says the organization is taking it “day-by-day.”
“It’s definitely a tough time,” Evans said. “The game of hockey existed other than the NHL [during the lockdown]. Today we’re seeing rinks get shut down all our youth programs, stuff where we get involved with charities and the community all those things are also on a pause right now.”
In addition to providing entertainment and income to their cities, many sports teams also provide something greater — a sense of community and belonging. The fervor of sports fans rooting for their home team is unparalleled, some research suggests superfans even see teams as an extension of themselves.
“When you get removed from these things there you’ve got to look to those closest around you and you draw from that,” Evans said. “This is where the strength of family and community come together.”
The season pause affects not only the players but the fans, support staff, members of the media, and many others who are part of the live sports ecosystem. Eric Zweig, hockey historian, echoed Evans in describing the current situation as “unprecedented” since live sports have never before been disrupted to this degree.
“All bets are off,” Zweig said. “The problem is that this is all so open-ended.”
The longer the season pauses, the more economic hardships will fall on the league, the players, the support staff, and the fans. The NHL, NBA, and MLB have not officially commented on how much lost revenue the pandemic is causing but its effects will undoubtedly be felt by many.
Statistics website, FiveThirtyEight, estimates that the NBA could lose between $350 million and $450 million in regular season losses due to COVID-19. The NHL is in a similar position to lose millions since they have 15 percent of their schedule left.
If leagues are able to resume their seasons or “pick up where they left off,” they stand a chance at heading off some of their potential losses. CNN suggested five possible scenarios for the MLB to resume its season; including start dates on Memorial Weekend, June 15th, and August 1st.
But the possibility of leagues recouping all season losses is skating on thin ice.
“[E]verything involving a resumption of the NHL season relies on what the health experts say and when they flash the green light,” Fischler said. “Speculation is fun but ridiculous!”
When sports stop, some broadcasters get creative. Zweig recounts how Sportsnet, a Canadian broadcasting company, pivoted their coverage during the 2004 lockout to televised live poker tournaments. One surprising outcome from the switch in coverage is that goalie Roberto Luongo took up competitive poker. He ranked 250th among nearly 8,000 entries after five levels of play in 2012.
Others coped with the lockout differently. Sports Illustrated reports that Stephane Provost painted houses for $10 an hour and referee Bill McCreary installed kitchen cabinets to pay the bills. Currently, teams and players across the nation are taking action to provide financial assistance to hourly employees at stadiums and event venues.
The Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers, LA Kings and STAPLES Center took unprecedented action to create a temporary fund for the 2,800 hourly event staff employees who are impacted by the canceled events. Workers are asked to decline media requests at this time.
Live sports and concerts may be on hold for the time being but, thanks in large part to technology, there are many possibilities to connect; from e-sports and video conferencing to social media. Just like Sportsnet pivoted their converge during the NHL lockout, now may be the time for sports fans to temporarily shift their focus.
“Let’s face it, everybody says that they don’t have time,” Evans said. “One thing we do have right now is time. Let’s put it to good use.”
** This post has been updated to clarify that the Pacific Coast Hockey Association cancelled the 1919 Stanley Cup, not the NHL. In 1919, the NHL champion faced the PCHA champion for the Stanley Cup. With the 1919 series played in Seattle, it was PCHA president Frank Patrick and Seattle health officials who made the call.**
** A previous version of this article was unclear regarding the dates that Boston and Pittsburgh joined the NHL. Boston entered the NHL in 1924 as the first American team. Pittsburgh entered with New York in 1925.**