It is a big day in sports. Or, at least, it would have been.
With this on our minds, two items of hope from two distinctively American institutions.
First, NASCAR has announced that it will return to racing this month.
NASCAR will return to action at Darlington Raceway on May 17, kicking off a packed two-week schedule announced Thursday.
The races themselves will look familiar, but the schedules and routines around those races will not, crafted with the intent of keeping competitors safe from the coronavirus.
The plan involves a completely revised schedule of races focused in the South, which limits the need to travel. They include a comprehensive program to mitigate possible outbreaks of the novel coronavirus, including a mask requirement for all crew, spacing of spotters, random symptom checks, and a full contact log for possible tracing if crew or drivers contract the virus. There will, of course, be no fans present.
This is a sensible development. NASCAR is well-positioned to resume competition quickly. The sport does occasionally involve close contact between competitors, but not the sort of contact that can spread coronavirus. Fans are important to the sport, but crowd noise is not an integral part of the television experience. And, crucially, NASCAR is not a league that must operate in 30 different cities simultaneously, but can choose which tracks it competes on to adjust to local conditions and legislation.
It is still a bit of a risk, as any activity that assembles large numbers of people could result in a wide spread of the virus, but NASCAR appears to be taking smart precautions to prevent an outbreak from occurring.
Their reward will be a sports-starved audience hungry for anything to watch on television at all. ESPN’s new documentary on the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls dynasty, “The Last Dance,” has pulled in huge ratings for ESPN. The NFL draft saw massive increases in viewership over last year’s event as well. If NASCAR puts lives races on television, people will watch in droves.
This could be a big boost for the company, which has seen significant declines in ratings and attendance in recent years. Various complaints about rule changes, car design, and on-track action (I enjoy a fair amount of racing, but personally I find NASCAR to be the least interesting of all motorsports) obscure the real issue, which is that national tastes are changing. This restart gives them a chance to demonstrate why they got so big in the first place, and it will draw many people willing to give them a second chance, myself included. They will benefit from the exposure, and the public will benefit by having something to watch.
If it works.
The other sports note comes from further in the future, and it’s the NFL making the news: the NFL will release its full, unaltered 17-week schedule next week.
Don’t start punching these dates into your smartphone yet, though. The NFL is not ignoring the pandemic, but they are laying out what a “normal” schedule would look like. It is, of course, quite possible that plans will change, and the NFL is preparing for it:
The league has evaluated contingency plans should the pandemic intensify, working in conjunction with the NFL Players Association and medical experts on a set of protocols.
One of those contingencies is delaying the season until mid-October, according to the Sports Business Journal. Empty stadiums and no bye weeks have long been discussed.
The schedule release next week should be viewed as an “ideal” road map rather than a rock-solid plan. Better to have a good idea of how things would look in an optimal scenario and change plans than to get to the end of summer, find that they need to make only small adjustments, and have nothing prepared.
Among the less important cruelties of the pandemic lockdown has been the temporary dissolution of organized sports, just as people have been stuck inside with little better to do than to watch them. We may still be in for a long ordeal, but perhaps with some creative thinking and flexibility many leagues can return to us our nation’s favorite diversion, watching (and complaining about) sports.