A little more than a month ago, sports peaked.
On a single day, you could watch NHL, NBA, MLB, NFL, MLS, U.S. Open tennis and golf. This supply glut collapsed demand. Ratings tanked across the board. Apparently, a bunch of people with nothing to do at night but stay home and watch TV found something else to do.
In due course, we’ll see if that was an aberration or the beginning of a trend.
If I owned a sports franchise, I’d be a little worried (or as worried as one can be while day-drunk on martinis, tooling around the Maldives).
Because now it gets worse.
If September was the flow, the ebb begins this week. The World Series will end around Tuesday or Wednesday. And then that’s it. For the next two-plus months, there will be no major-league North American sports happening aside from football.
Major League Baseball doesn’t return until April. It’s not clear when the NHL and NBA plan to resume play.
At the last moment, baseball broke the seal on fans in the stands. World Series games are admitting a limited number. Presumably, this is more about getting people used to the idea than it is the money.
Hockey and basketball still have to figure out how to square that circle. Both sports talked themselves into a corner when it comes to the issue of “safety” – a word that’s now thrown around as though it solves every problem.
Safety prompted the fan-free bubbles. That definition of safety – that nothing is safe – will continue to apply through this winter and into spring.
So if the NHL and NBA want to readmit fans (a requisite in order for them to break even) they must redefine safety. At some point, they have to choose between profits and hypocrisy. And no saint has owned a yacht.
What no one’s talking much about is the black hole, the lack of content that will lead up to these choices.
Sports have been designed to come at you unceasingly. It’s a bit like a cult. Broadcasters can’t risk you getting outside the compound, lest you discover there are people who don’t spend every night worshipping the halogen God.
This effect has been amplified in the past few years. When they aren’t playing sports, they are talking about the sports yet to be played. It’s a seamless process of indoctrination.
Now the church of sports is closing down during the week. It will be open on Sundays, but only for those of the NFL denomination.
This happened in March, but things were different then. People were terrified. That electricity carried you through the first few weeks. By the time abnormal had started to feel normal, the weather had turned. So if you wanted to be outside, you could do that.
This time, we can see what’s coming down the track. Fear is less of a factor, but the isolation will get ramped up.
Wherever your head’s at on COVID-19, you have probably baked in the idea that this is going to be the longest winter in history. Sure, you have plans. You are going to get around the by-laws by using your barbecue as a fire pit.
You are convincing yourself that this is the winter you get “outdoorsy.” Those are air quotes, because you know how you define a Torontonian? Someone who has chosen to live in a cold place and cannot stop complaining about the cold.
We all know this type well. Because we are this type. We’re that guy who goes around wearing a stand-up sleeping bag for a coat, constantly repeating things like, “God, it’s freezing out there” and “This weather is ridiculous.” If you tried that in the Prairies, they’d punch you in the face. And they’d be right to do it.
It’s Canada, man. Stop saying that. I doubt the average Berber tribesman comes rolling into the communal tent each morning going, “Why does it always have to be so hot?”
Yet speaking from the meteorological safety of October, all the Torontonians I know are planning to become regular Bonhomme de neige this winter. It’ll be all carnival, all the time.
I’m pretty sure that when the temps dip in November, these people will come out of their homes about as often as bears. The cabin fever will really get hold of them in December. By January, wine o’clock will coincide with shower o’clock.
This is where the entertainment rubber meets the road. And when the COVID-19 housebound are trolling for distraction, there will be next to no sports there to see them through. What if that absence is habit forming?
In this imaginary ‘if I owned a B-tier sports franchise’ exercise, this is where my fiscal jitters start humming. It isn’t that you’re going to lose a bunch of money right now. That money is a sunk cost. It’s that the value of your franchise could deflate, flattening the curve of all future profits.
If a good chunk of people stop watching sports, all those fat TV contracts you’d counted on in the years to come get thinned out. If fans find other ways to spend the money they once forked over for the live experience (an experience vastly more expensive and markedly inferior to watching the game at home on a flatscreen), that cuts at the other end of your revenue stream. Now you’re getting whacked coming and going, like a Benny Hill skit for billionaires.
Like any pastime, sports viewership is based in part on inertia. Why do you go to the gym? It’s certainly not because you like it. You go because that’s the thing you do at X time on Y day, which gives your life structure. Once you stop for a while, it’s hard to persuade yourself to start again. Because your life has taken on a new (lazier) structure.
Once a fan discovers her team, sports viewership provides her life with ballast. Season starts in October. Ends in April. Hopefully, really ends in July. A few months to recharge, and then you’re off again.
But not any more. The longer people go without all sports, it is only natural that they are more likely to find something else to fill that entertainment void. Perhaps permanently.