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(Don’t) Take Me Out to the Ballgame?

April is prime time for sports fans. Major League Baseball gets underway as the calendar turns. College basketball culminates with the Final Four. The PGA tees off with The Masters. Two major sports leagues – the NHL and the NBA launch their playoffs and NASCAR is already rolling, with super speedway Talladega featured this time every year.

But 2020 is different. ‘Oh my‘ is it different. There was no opening day. No One Shining Moment. No green jacket. The NHL and NBA postseasons are in flux. NASCAR is relegated to online racing. And the holy grail of American sports – football – could have a very different look, come late August.

This week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s preeminent infectious disease expert and newest TV personality, weighed in on the fate of spectator sports with Peter Hamby, in the first installment of a three-part Snapchat interview. Fauci suggested that at some point, the games must go on, but without fans in the seats.

“Put [the players] in big hotels, wherever you want them to play. Keep them very well surveilled,” Fauci advised. “Have them tested every week and make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their family and just let them play the season out.”

Fauci went on to suggest that there would be enough fan support to watch games on TV, including from him – a big fan of the World Series Champion Washington Nationals.

He may be right. But let’s look at the numbers involved with having players tested every week. MLB teams carry 26 players, about 10 coaches and maybe 6 trainers, plus additional support staff, ball boys, and so on. Conservatively, let’s assume there are 50 people deemed “essential” to put one team on the field for a game. With 30 teams, that equates to 1,500 tests per week. Throw in the minor league teams – there are 156 official farm teams in the US – and the numbers explode to nearly 10,000 tests per week.

Before you argue that minor league clubs could be shelved, consider the long-term damage that would do to the game. They are a constant feeder pool of talented, healthy players to their parent clubs whose rosters see considerable turnover each season. And the American minor league teams are barely half of the whole farm system used by the MLB. Teams in Canada, Mexico and the Dominican Republic (renowned factory of shortstops) make up at least another 105 teams, resulting in another 5,250 weekly tests under Fauci’s recommendation.

If professional baseball follows Fauci’s guidance, it would consume 15,000 tests per week. Add in the NBA, NHL, PGA and NASCAR (and their feeder leagues) and we could easily be looking at 50,000 weekly tests. When and if college football games begin in late summer, those numbers grow exponentially with almost 900 teams at all collegiate levels and the D1 schools topping out at 100 or more players, coaches and staff. Then comes the NFL… If you think the complaints of test scarcity are loud now, wait until a million tests are being done each week to keep sports on TV.

Testing of athletes will become reality, to be sure. To some degree, it’s already happening. Recurring weekly tests though, may be too aggressive. It remains to be seen how the pro sports unions will respond to such a proposal. On one hand, they want to protect the players. They also want the players to get paid, and they will likely be wary of weekly testing of every athlete, given the inevitable suspicion that the tests may be used to detect more than just COVID-19.

What about the prospect of fan-less games? That may work for a while, but sports fans – in particular those who regularly buy tickets – are as rabid as any segment of the population. And they are in every major city and most of the country. Fans watching on TV may not realize how much they depend on the ones who are actually in the seats to amplify a game’s excitement. The crowd noise, the signs, the energy the players draw from the fans – each component is interwoven with the game itself to form a tapestry that is the product each viewer consumes. It could be only a matter of time before games played in empty stadiums lose their luster and fans turn elsewhere for entertainment – like they have done for the last month.

More likely, baseball, the great American pastime, will resurrect the American sports culture like it did after 9/11. Maybe it starts slowly, with fan-less games in limited locations starting in May or June. Ideas of sequestering all the teams to the spring training parks in Arizona and Florida have been floated in recent days. At some point, teams return to their home fields and limited fans are allowed in – maybe one fan in every fourth seat to allow for proper social distancing. By then, we are in mid-July and surely well beyond the peak of the virus curve.

Following the baseball model, maybe there’s an abbreviated NFL preseason. The college football season could be shortened by two games and start after Labor Day, allowing 50% of capacity in each stadium. Gradually, each sport, at each level, returns to something similar to “normal” – perhaps with some permanent new precautions in place.

The American appetite for a return to the good ole pre-virus days will build and build to the point that the demand requires the supply. We are seeing that now as protests pop up around the country in response to governmental clamp downs. The sports world – athletes and fans alike – have been patient, and will continue to be patient. Until they’re not patient any longer. We need our sports. They divert us and entertain us. They even sustain us at times. The date is rapidly approaching when we need the sustenance and diversion to return. Just like teams need fans, every fan needs a team, Dr. Fauci included.

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