Do you like golf? Not so much? Too bad. Because that’s what you’ve got.
The PGA Tour made it known this week that it intends to return to normal operating service shortly.
“I’m not going to say that I have 110-per-cent certainty, but we are very confident that we will be able to play [the] second week in June,” Tour official Andy Pazder told reporters on Thursday.
You know what I’m 110-per-cent certain of? That inflation is going to be somewhere around 110 per cent before this is all over. I’m not sure that imaginary number applies anywhere else.
Sports has been turned upside down by the pandemic more profoundly than a simple cessation of business. It is now entering a period where it must radically reconsider how pro sports are exhibited, and whether that’s even possible.
Golf is the early winner because it has several structural disadvantages. At least, things that used to be so.
You can’t make a living selling seats at a golf tournament. No one wants to sit in the baking sun for 12 hours (the amount of time competitors are on the course on a given Thursday or Friday). People do it, but no one really wants to.
If you can get one (you can’t), a four-day pass to the Masters costs US$325. A four-hour pass to the Super Bowl costs more than 10 times that.
Instead, golf makes its money from television. But because you will make room in your life for a British Open, but have never heard of nor will ever watch the Sanderson Farms Championship in Jackson, Miss., there isn’t a whole lot of that.
This is why top golfers make so much less than their basketball- or soccer-playing counterparts.
Unless you are in the uppermost tier, the golfing life is a grind. Constant travel. A great deal of solitude. If you don’t perform, you starve.
Now all those weaknesses have become strengths. Golf can continue much as it was. There won’t be an audience, but the players probably like that wrinkle. No random idiots yelling ‘get-in-the-hole!’ through your backswing. At worst, they may have to start carrying their own bags.
Would you still watch golf without a crowd? Probably.
Now would you watch baseball under the same circumstances?
We’re still in the teeth of this thing, but nonetheless sports got pushed up the agenda this week, particularly in the United States.
“We have to get our sports back. I’m tired of watching baseball games that are 14 years old,” U.S. President Donald Trump said. “But I haven’t actually had too much time to watch. I would say maybe I watch one batter then I get back to work.”
None of that statement makes any sense, but you get the gist. Sports that aren’t live aren’t sports. They are file footage.
America’s de facto pandemic czar, Dr. Anthony Fauci, set a date by which he thought baseball might spin up again – July 4.
“People say, ‘Well, you can’t play without spectators’. I think you’d probably get enough buy-in from people who are dying to see a baseball game,” Fauci told Vanity Fair. “Particularly me. I’m living in Washington. We have the world champion Washington Nationals. I want to see them play again.”
It is hard to imagine a top science official saying this sort of thing right now about any of his other hobbies.
You know, like, ‘I really want to go spelunking with my pals again’ or ‘My model train club hasn’t met in six weeks and we’re panting for a little choo-choo time’.
But where sports are concerned, people have never been reasonable. They want their sports under any circumstances.
The will to rush sports back is there on the demand side. The question is supply. Every major league has a different calculus in this regard.
Baseball’s first up and worst off. Its finances are crowd-sourced. No crowd, no source.
The money drawn from local TV contracts varies wildly among clubs. According to recent figures compiled by Fangraphs, you’ve got the Los Angeles Dodgers at the top (US$239-million a year) and the Florida Marlins at the bottom (US$20-million).
(The Toronto Blue Jays are a black box in this regard. No one’s sure exactly how much team owner Rogers Inc. pays itself for the right to broadcast its own baseball team.)
Most teams lean heavily on the money they make at the gate and at concessions. Those streams amount to about 30 per cent of the game’s total revenue.
That means a lot of teams are down a third or more to start, while their costs remain static.
A month ago, everyone involved agreed that players would be paid a pro-rated 2020 salary.
But that compromise was negotiated while leagues were still living in the fantasy that everything would swing back to normal in a few weeks.
That is clearly not happening for years, never mind months. Absent a widely-distributed vaccine, sports as we know them are over.
All that is possible now is a compromise sports, a pandemic sports. A completely different sort of sports.
Different sports requires different rules.
First, no one is getting rich any more. Not stupid rich. Sports for the next year or two is a well-funded non-profit. Broadcasters will take a bath, the owners will tread water, and the players will have to take major pay cuts.
This, rather than anything logistic, is where the rubber hits the road.
You know how players love to say, ‘I’d play this game for free’? Let’s see if they’ll play it for half the amount they agreed to.
Baseball is famously bad at consensus. It took weeks for anyone to bring up the obvious fact that salaries must be reduced. When it was raised, the person who did so was New York governor Andrew Cuomo, a man one assumes has bigger problems on his plate.
Once he had, super-agent Scott Boras immediately shot him down. No retreat and all that.
If wage cuts are not on the table, there is not going to be any baseball. That’s not a good look for anyone involved.
The leagues are now in a supra-competition with each other. Everyone wants to be the first back at it. What they should care about even more is that they aren’t perceived as the one group of guys who took their ball and went home because they were making four million instead of eight.
Because you can guaran-goddamn-tee the NFL is going to figure this out.
It’s not that the NFL makes so much annually off its national TV deals (US$5-billion-plus) that it doesn’t need bums in seats to break even. It’s that the NFL has a ruthless history of pushing its employees around.
You don’t want to self-isolate in a hotel for four months during football season? You don’t want to take a salary haircut? Fine, clear out your locker and best of luck coaching high school football in the Ozarks.
Unless you are Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes or … actually, no, just those two guys, the NFL does not need you. Teams can fire players at will. Patriotism will be weaponized so that high-profile dissenters are cast as traitors in a time of crisis.
The logistics are easy. There is no shortage of empty, pro-level football stadiums in the United States. Every podunk college town south of the Mason-Dixon Line has one. It doesn’t matter if a mayor or governor bans sports in his city or state. Red-state strongholds will beg blue-state franchises to defect.
By August, when the NFL is getting ready to wind back up, people will be champing for something besides golf. I would bet good money the NFL season goes off as scheduled, with major alterations to the TV-viewing experience so that the absence of fans is less noticeable. Animating out the stands is one idea. Pumping in artificial crowd noise is another.
That puts the pressure back on the NHL and NBA. Despite the fact that neither will yet say it, the current season is done. That leaves them with a decision come fall.
The NBA makes good money off TV. The NHL does not. Both will bleed money if they come back. That means the pain must be shared. Will their employees agree to that?
At a guess, NBA players – the most free-thinking in sports – will not; and NHL players – the most servile of any sporting collective – will.
At another guess, the NBA and its owners take the short-term hit in order not to be left out of the loop, while NHL owners decide it’s worth trying to break even now with a recession coming.
By spring 2021, baseball will have realized the existential danger it has put itself in and figure out some sort of deal. By then it may be too late for a sport whose institutional mission statement often seems to be “irrelevance at any cost.”
Everyone is guessing at everything at the moment and here’s mine – big-time sports is back by late summer with the NFL and will stagger forth until whenever this ends.
This will not be the sports we remember. It may not even be the sports we need. But sports isn’t concerned about what’s cautious or prudent, because so few of their customers are.