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Playing with plague: sports under COVID-19

Left JAB by John Bell

June 27, 2020

Pro sport is big business. In just one season (2019) the NFL alone generated $16 billion in revenue. Major league baseball, basketball, martial arts and the rest make billions more.

The National Hockey League raked in over $5.9 billion in 2019.

Big name franchises sell for astronomical sums. The Houston Astros MLB franchise has an estimated value of $1.85 billion. A bargain compared to fellow Texans, the NFL Dallas Cowboys, the highest valued team in all of sports: price tag $5 billion.

The Toronto Maple Leafs franchise is the second most valuable in the NHL behind the New York Rangers, valued at $1.5 billion. No NHL team even makes the list of top 50 sports franchises.

Revenue comes from ticket sales and merchandise branding, but the big bucks come from TV contacts. The NFL’s current contract with FOX, CBS, NBC, ESPN and DirecTV (running from 2014-2022) generates $54.6 billion.

To recoup that investment, TV carriers charge huge advertising fees. In 2017 a 30 second spot on Monday Night Football was over $700,000. That despite the fact that sports ratings are actually declining, and that many viewers use PVR to eliminate ads.

Sports is not about fun and games. It is a cut-throat business with literally trillions of dollars at stake. So imagine the panic in league offices, clubhouses, network HQs and ad agencies around the world when COVID-19 quarantines shut their business down.

It must have been particularly galling to have millions of viewers in lockdown in front of their TVs, and not have sports product to sell us. For three months they filled the airwaves will recycled content and “classic” matches that most viewers ignored. Womp womp. 

No pain, no capital gain

The owners of pro sports teams have never been shy about sacrificing the bodies of its players, at the best of times. According to a 2014 study the average life expectancy of an NFL player is 53 to 59 years, depending on position played. 

So it is no surprise that those owners are not hesitant about putting athletes (and the rest of the workers who make sports happen) at risk from COVID-19 in order to get that revenue river flowing again.

In that they were just in sync with the pressure coming from all branches of the capitalist system–your death will serve the American (or Italian, or Brazilian, or Canadian, etc.) Way of Life. Back to work, play ball!

So pro baseball, hockey, soccer, basketball and especially football are cobbling together far-fetched plans to reopen their sports while skirting public health rules. Playing without fans; keeping players and essential workers in a bubble; eliminating travel by playing in “hub” cities. MLB is looking at two states that have the multiple facilities they require: Florida (over 5000 new COVID cases per day) and Arizona (a record 20,249 cases on one day, June 27th).

Good luck with that.

It’ll never work, not unless they completely ignore their investments, the players, becoming sick, risking long-term health problems and the occasional death. 

The games haven’t even begun and athletes are testing positive. Toronto Blue Jays shut their training facility after an unnamed player tested positive. The Phillies shut down when 5 players became ill. Both are based in Florida. Over in Scottsdale AZ, the San Francisco Giants shut down when COVID hit a player’s family.

Perhaps needing the cash flow, world’s top ranked male tennis player Novak Djocovic organized an exhibition tournament. Players and families, coaches and select fans only were allowed. A safe, luxurious bubble. Much self-congratulations and little PPE. The tourney was followed almost immediately by a COVID outbreak with Djocovic himself one of the victims. He tweeted his apology and remorse from his hospital bed.

NHL mandatory testing has revealed 11 COVID-19 positive players, including Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews. Plans to open training camps and restart the season are still officially on the table, and owners and industry dependant media are trying to put a positive spin on what is a slow motion NASCAR wreck. 

The wild card in all this is the players. They are being asked to take pay cuts as well as risk their lives and careers. Will they start to refuse unsafe work? What kind of pressure will owners put on them? Will fans sit idly while their paragons are sacrificed for a few hours of entertainment? Will this be a long term blow to an industry where viewership is already in decline?

There is an additional pressure to get the fun and games business up and running. Sport plays an important ideological role. Sport offers a false solution to individual alienation and a measure of social control for the system writ large. Witness the symbiosis between sports and the military, the patriotic fervour accompanying games, the camouflage uniforms and the warplane fly-overs. It is there in every sport. Pro golf tourneys are no exception; the 17thgreens are usually attended by a military honour guard.

With protests at unprecedented levels, they system needs all its smoke-and-mirror machines to be chugging. And no industry is smokier, or more reflective than pro sports. 

The conundrum facing pro sports is the crisis facing capitalism. It cannot just shrug off the potential profits going to waste. But its business priorities are at odds with the health and safety of the humans whose labour makes sport happen. As long as money rules the game, this contradiction cannot be resolved.

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