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COMMENTARY: Even if big-league sports could resume soon, are fans ready to return?

Fresh surfaced ice at Scotiabank Arena, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is shown on March 12, 2020 as all NHL activities remain on pause amid efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Fresh surfaced ice at Scotiabank Arena, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is shown on March 12, 2020 as all NHL activities remain on pause amid efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Joshua Clipperton

When I was in Japan five weeks ago, the baseball season there was put on hold and a major sumo tournament has held in an empty hall because of the coronavirus.

At the time, I floated the idea that there might be no Stanley Cup playoffs in 2020.

A few days later the National Hockey League followed the National Basketball Association’s lead and suspended all operations. Play in those leagues and Major League Baseball remains suspended for the foreseeable future today.

Despite the great hopes of players and fans, it is obvious from the announcements of medical authorities and political leaders in Canada and the U.S. that it is highly unlikely that any of these sports will be played again before fall, if then.

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Distancing restrictions may be relaxed a bit before then, and it is hoped that some people may be able to get back to work, but putting 70,000 fans together in a baseball park or 18,000 in a hockey arena for three hours is another proposition entirely.

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The idea that North American sports may be sidelined for many months to come is a topic mostly avoided by sports talk radio jocks. What sounds as if it is of greatest importance to such commentators and their audience in Canada is conjecture about what playoff formulas might be used if hockey is played this July and August, or ways it might be possible to play for the Stanley Cup in a couple of cities without any spectators present.

Even if professional leagues are finally given a green light to resume play this autumn, how many fans will be comfortable having their kids sit cheek by jowl with strangers when there has been and will be much discussion about the likelihood of second and third waves of coronvirus infections?

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Beyond that, there is the question of how many fans will be able to shell out $100 or $200 for a good ticket. Millions of Canadians and Americans will still be on the dole this fall. Their top priorities will clearly be food and rent.

Furthermore, corporations, which pay wild prices to entertain clients in luxury sports boxes, will have great difficulty justifying such costs if they manage to survive until the fall. They will be preoccupied with getting fresh financing from beleaguered banks and ways to restart their businesses by recalling employees who are already desperate to start getting a paycheque again.

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The rights fees paid by television networks have been the nectar fueling professional sport for many years now. Those networks need not just eyeballs, but advertisers.

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As mentioned above, those advertisers will be in their own straightjackets, because for quite some time there will be few customers buying big-ticket items such as holidays, new cars or houses — items that until a few weeks ago were among the key pillars of the North American economy.

Though it may not yet be that obvious in North America, a radical restructuring of global sports is already underway. After much debate, the Tokyo Summer Olympics, which have cost organizers as much as $26 billion, have been pushed back until July 2021.

The Masters golf tournament is to be played in November instead of March. There will be no Formula 1 car racing or Wimbledon until who knows when.

British soccer’s Premier League demanded last week that its players take a 30 per cent, across-the-board pay cut. The NBA, which pays its players the most of any league in the world, followed that with a proposal that their players take a staggering 50 per cent ($4.5-billion) pay cut beginning next week.

Associations representing the Premier League and NBA players have until now rejected both proposals, with the basketball players’ union proposing a 25 per cent cut beginning in May.

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Defying Italian players who rejected a pay cut as “totally inadmissible,” despite the country having being hit harder by COVID-19 than any other, Italy’s top soccer league recommended earlier this week that clubs temporarily pay their players as much as a third less money.

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As of Thursday, there have been 18,279 deaths from the coronavirus in Italy, compared to 15,238 in Spain, where the death has soared in recent days.

Having also seen the consequences of COVID-19 at close hand, players for the world’s most valuable soccer franchise ($4.24 billion), Real Madrid, have taken a much more realistic approach than their Italian colleagues. After a bit of back and forth, the Spanish team’s players agreed Wednesday to take a pay cut of up to 20 per cent for at least the next four months.

In the same spirit, England’s county cricketers agreed on Thursday to take pay cuts in April and May and will forgo 1 million pounds ($1.24 million) in prize money.

“Like many industries, cricket recognizes the challenges it currently faces; the players have been alert to the need for them to play their part,” said Daryl Mitchell, chairman of the Professional Cricketers’ Association.

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The consequences for the NHL and its players are as stark as for any other sport. But there has been little comment from the league or the National Hockey League Players’ Association about the harsh economic realities that coronavirus is already imposing on their sport or whether the players would accept a cut in their wages.

The Athletic’s superbly-informed Pierre Lebrun wrote on Wednesday that the league and its players have been talking about only increasing the salary cap by $1 million to $82.5 million per team.

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It will be interesting to see how that disconnect with the rest of society will go over in cities such as New York and Detroit, where COVID-19 has hit hard.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas