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COMMENTARY: Who will win in the faceoff between coronavirus and pro sports?

A grounds crew worker cuts the infield in front of empty seats at T-Mobile Park in Seattle, March 26, 2020, around the time when the first pitch would have been thrown in the Mariners' Opening Day baseball game against the visiting Texas Rangers.
A grounds crew worker cuts the infield in front of empty seats at T-Mobile Park in Seattle, March 26, 2020, around the time when the first pitch would have been thrown in the Mariners' Opening Day baseball game against the visiting Texas Rangers. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

From a “baseball biodome” to pay-per-view fight cards beamed from a secret “Fight Island,” the pandemic-stricken world of professional sports is seeking a way out of the global darkness.

Ever since COVID-19 started its race around the world, major sports leagues and events have experienced an unprecedented shutdown.

Iconic events like the Olympic Games, The Masters golf tournament and the Boston Marathon have been postponed. The world’s major sports leagues — from the National Basketball Association to the National Hockey League to Premier League soccer — have all gone into hibernation

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The result has been a devastating economic and business impact.

“The cancellations are the biggest hits,” said Norm O’Reilly, director of the International Institute for Sport Business at the University of Guelph.

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“You’re talking about numbers in the hundreds of millions — if not billions — of dollars as the postponements turn into cancellations,” O’Reilly told me.

“The big question is: When will live events return?”

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Enter Dana White, head of the UFC fighting league and one of the world’s great sports impresarios, with a bold and controversial plan.

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“As of April 18, the UFC is back up and running,” White told TMZ. “We’re going to be pumping out fights every week.”

How can he do that with the world on pandemic lockdown and many countries imposing international travel restrictions? By staging his televised fight cards in an empty arena, with no fans to catch or transmit the virus — that’s how.

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White says he would test all his fighters, referees, officials and TV production crews for the COVID-19 virus. He even has a plan to get around those pesky border bans.

“I have a private island that I have secured,” he said.

“I won’t be able to get all of the international fighters into the U.S., so I am going to start flying them into the private island and do the international fights from there.”

Can White’s secret “Fight Island” save his UFC franchise? And will other professional sports follow his lead?

“Potentially,” said Aileen McManamon, a Vancouver-based sports consultant.

“But is it the right thing to do? Think about these fighters. If they’re injured, does that private island have the appropriate facilities to take care of whatever injury they might suffer, especially if it’s life-threatening?”

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O’Reilly also flags a serious ethical issue, noting the UFC events would be using scarce COVID-19 testing resources.

“If something goes ethically over the line, it’s a risk to your brand,” he said. “But the UFC has lived on that edge. Maybe their brand could handle it better than other sports.”

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But sports-starved fans are looking for a fix.

“It would be interesting to see how people respond,” O’Reilly said. “Would fans be like, ‘Oh my God, I finally have something to watch.’ Or would other people say, ‘Wow, this guy doesn’t care about the world and this horrible virus.’ It could totally backlash on them.”

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Major League Baseball, meanwhile, is considering an even bolder play: playing televised games in empty Arizona stadiums normally used for spring training.

League sources told ESPN the plan included testing players and officials for COVID-19 and sequestering them in hotels to prevent virus spread.

Could a made-for-TV “baseball biodome” actually work?

McManamon is dubious.

“You would have to test all the players, you would have to do that regularly,” she said. “You’re putting your personnel at risk. Those folks would need to be tested too. You would have the decontamination of facilities.

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“All at a time of a pandemic when even people presenting symptoms can’t get tested.”

The threat to baseball’s image makes the venture a risky proposition, O’Reilly said.

On the other hand, the sport has been experiencing a drop in fan interest. Could this be the opportunity to reverse those fortunes?

“Baseball is a sport that’s been on the decline in terms of its number and viewers. They must be looking at the opportunity to get back in front of former fans and potentially get new fans.”

Personally, I give the UFC a better shot at pulling this off than Major League Baseball. But as the pandemic drags on, all sports are looking for a path back to prosperity

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at mike@cknw.com and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.