Sports teams have spent millions over the past decade loading up their front offices with analytical geniuses, but no one has a spreadsheet that can crunch the numbers on all the pros and cons of cancelling games or playing them in empty arenas. On Wednesday night, the first big domino fell, as the NBA suspended its season in the wake of a Utah Jazz player testing positive for the coronavirus. Meanwhile, other North American pro sports teams are soldiering ahead, deferring to their leagues’ head offices or local health authorities to make decisions for them.
All of which makes a certain kind of sense: No one wants to be the first to break ranks and take bold action that could upset sports-hungry fans – or, worse, cost tens of millions of dollars.
But Richard Peddie, who served as president and chief executive officer of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. during Toronto’s SARS scare in the spring and early summer of 2003, says teams need to consider what they represent to fans, beyond just the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
“Right now, [teams] are in this gray area,” said Peddie, whose tenure as chief of MLSE, which own the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors among other sports teams, ran from 1998 to 2011.
“If the NHL or NBA says, ‘We’re not playing,’ then the franchises [only] have to figure out, ‘What do we tell our fans, how do we handle that? Now we’re out millions of dollars, how do we handle that?’ They don’t have to make a decision. It’s been made for them,” he said Tuesday afternoon. The day before, the NHL’s San Jose Sharks had announced they would abide by a county-ordered ban on gatherings of more than 1,000 people. Still, the team didn’t outline how it would proceed: Play games in its SAP Center home without fans, or play in an alternate arena?
But if a team were to take action on its own, it would demonstrate something extraordinary and bold. Peddie – who noted that he had no particular insight into how the current MLSE executives were gaming out their various options – outlined some possible thinking. “I use the expression that I’ve always been ‘a vision and values’ guy," he said. "We have core values, and if one of your values is a healthy, safe experience and environment – well, how can you keep the building open? A value’s not a value until it costs you something.”
He explained: “I don’t have to close [the building] and, if I do, I’m giving up millions of dollars. But then, on the other hand, I tell all of my employees and all of my customers that we have a healthy environment. Boy, that’s where the rubber hits the road. That’s a tough one.”
Each NBA or NHL game either cancelled or played without fans would likely cost Toronto’s teams more than $2-million in ticket and concession revenue – an amount which could double during the playoffs, though some of that gate revenue is remitted to the league.
Peddie recalled an incident when he was president of Pillsbury Canada in the late 1980s, when his belief in the importance of core values was put to a very expensive test. Staff had found that a flaw in the processing of a batch of one of the company’s products – Green Giant Cream Style Corn, if you must know – that affected the taste. The corn was perfectly safe to eat, but Peddie knew customers would be disappointed. Scrapping the batch would cost $5-million.
“One of our values was ‘quality is essential,’" he said. “Five-million dollars was a lot of money to us.”
Still, when he and his team discussed how to proceed, “It was a very easy decision.” They pulled the product from the market.
“I’ll tell one thing: Everyone knew, from that moment on, that we weren’t kidding about ‘quality is essential.’ We’d just proved it. Think of what that value was going to cost us.”
At the moment, Peddie noted, NBA and NHL teams are not speculating publicly about what might or might not happen. “I imagine there’s strict communication guidelines from the commissioners on what they’re saying to [media], what they’re saying to fans, what they’re saying to sponsors. And you can get into trouble. There were times I said things maybe prematurely or off-script, and commissioners were never shy about telling me I was a bad boy,” he said.
Even so, he explained, MLSE staff are likely keeping some of the more important sponsors abreast of developments, such as Scotiabank, which two years ago agreed to pay $800-million over 20 years for naming rights to the former Air Canada Centre. What happens to the value of that sponsorship deal if, for example, no fans are allowed in Scotiabank Arena for the next six months?
“That is so important to Scotiabank, I would be on the phone to their chief marketing officer and their CEO, telling them what I know for sure,” Peddie said. “They’re just too important a partner to not do that. And maybe I’d go off-script, because they’ve earned it.”
There are some key differences, he noted, between the current crisis and SARS. Perhaps most importantly, in the spring of 2003, Toronto was seen as the centre of the outbreak in North America, rather than just another major city fighting to contain a virus.
He recalled that NHL and NBA teams visiting Toronto at the time were warned to limit their exposure to locals. Some took the guidance more seriously than others: Jeremy Roenick of the Philadelphia Flyers, who were playing the Leafs in the opening round of the playoffs that year, joked at the time that he would “have a big wetsuit on with gloves.”
When the Milwaukee Bucks arrived to play the Raptors for a regular-season game that April, Bucks management arranged a team meal at the hotel where they were staying. But, on the night before the game, three Bucks players who didn’t like being cooped up broke the unofficial curfew and sneaked out to the downtown strip club For Your Eyes Only. Around closing time, they got into a fracas outside the club with one of the club’s dancers and her boyfriend. The players – Gary Payton, Sam Cassell and Jason Caffey – were charged with assault, and went to trial in 2005. (They were later cleared.)
“I found it so ironic that they tried to make them hotel-bound, and they still snuck out and got into trouble,” Peddie said. “I’m not sure it was karma, but it was something.”