SportsPulse: We caught up with broadcast legend Andrea Kremer to get her thoughts on what NFL broadcasts could look like in the fall without fans.
Numbers have always been the backbone of sports, and for going on nearly three months now, its aficionados have gone without RBI and points per game and shots on goal.
Even worse, these innocuous and even comforting metrics have been supplanted by horrific measurements like mortality and infection rates, vector transmissions and ventilator availability.
From the moment a group of coaches and officials gathered at a scorer’s table March 11 and declared an otherwise unremarkable Utah Jazz-Oklahoma City Thunder game postponed, it was obvious COVID-19 and sports would be a terrible pairing, what with games based largely on physical contact and fan passions stoked by intimate gatherings in tightly packed arenas and stadiums.
Sports for the most part have gone ghost. For those hoping to will them back into existence as they were with raucous crowds, the coronavirus simply uproots these goalposts and moves them further away, breeding frustration and confusion. For those viewing sports as a beacon of “hope” – either as a diversion or an example that the world may again be normal someday – this can feel like a calamitous loss.
So maybe, it’s best not to pounce at the carrot in front of us. Maybe it’s best to look far down the road at an object we can’t quite make out, knowing that it will eventually come into focus.
Perhaps, if sports fans want to maintain sanity and moderate expectations appropriately, and dream about packing stadiums and arenas as they once did, there’s a number we can all focus on.
Ouch. Prefer your sports return measured in days and weeks, not months and years, right? Yeah, waiting ‘til next year, let alone the year after, might be a little harsh.
And in a literal sense, it’s also inaccurate.
Heck, NASCAR, mixed-martial arts and match-play golf with Tiger Woods are already back. Major League Baseball is making plans to start play in early July. The NBA and NHL are hoping to complete their seasons this summer. Football will happen in fits and starts this fall, because it waits for no one, though it almost certainly won’t be played on every college campus that usually fields a team.
And 2021 should bring back just about everything. If the Masters occurs in April after this year’s attempt to play in November, there will be no need to Photoshop azaleas into the Augusta National backdrop. March Madness, the first major casualty of this scourge, could be back. And, of course, the Summer Olympics.
That’s great, particularly since by then, we’ll all be done with “Ozark,” and perhaps even “The Complete Works of Dostoyevsky.” Finally, games to watch, to wager on, to fill the many silences of life as we now know it.
Sure, it will be a balm, but it will still feel hollow.
And why is that? Well, consider all the times you’ve heard this phrase since our global crisis began: “When this thing is all over, the first thing I’m going to do is ______.”
Finish that sentence as you like: Hugging a loved one, or indulging in a margarita on a sun-filled patio or slamming a hot dog at the ballpark.
Not many would say they’re pining for the crack of a bat reverberating through an empty stadium.
Or The Best Damn Band In The Land dotting the “i” in “Ohio” in front of nobody.
Or a soccer game in Seattle or Atlanta or Portland or L.A. bereft of songs, chants and drums.
That will be our immediate reality, one we’re willing to accept. We’re all for leagues starting up whenever they’re able to do so in a manner safe and responsible for both the athletes and the communities in which they play, no matter how eerie it may look or sound.
This pandemic does not come with an expiration date. It will be mitigated based on how much we are willing to sacrifice, and it will end only when there is a treatment or a vaccine is developed and mass produced.
And if your greatest desire is experiencing sports much as you did before March 11, know now that 2021 may not feel much better than 2020.
Let’s take attending games, and let’s start with a place oft in the spotlight for its hands-on approach to COVID-19: California.
As it turns out, the first confirmed fatality in the U.S. came in Santa Clara County, on Feb. 6, well before the previously believed first death, on Feb. 29, in King County, Washington.
Given the early community spread, its relatively dense population and significant international travel, the Bay Area could have been waylaid by COVID-19.
Yet the Bay Area’s six counties also imposed the first stay-at-home orders of any municipality in the country and largely avoided the barrage of fatalities Washington and New York City endured.
Under what conditions does the state feel safe letting fans back into stadiums?
That falls under Stage 4 of the California Department of Public Health’s pandemic road map, marking an end to its stay-at-home order and enabling the re-opening “of highest risk workplaces once therapeutics have been developed – concerts, convention centers, live audience sports.”
Therapeutics – yes, that means medication or, better yet, a vaccine.
The latter, as Anthony Fauci and other infectious-disease superstars hopefully note, could be available in 12 to 18 months. The reality – from research to clinical trials to manufacturing, approval and distribution – could be much longer, even with the head start afforded by what scientists already learned from SARS and MERS.
California could see fit to bend its guidelines, but let’s just say their turnstiles stay quiet in 2021. That’s 19 pro franchises playing before silent houses.
Of course, managing the pandemic won’t revolve around binary choices of fans or no fans. Teams and leagues are already plotting modes in which they can welcome fans in a socially distanced manner. Think: Hand sanitizer more prominent than ketchup dispensers.
These well-considered, good-faith efforts run counter to our sporting instincts. In hopes of salvaging a 2020 season, colleges are considering ways to discourage large gatherings around a stadium. Oklahoma football coach Lincoln Riley understands better than most the responsibility he has to his players and fans. “We’ve gotta be patient. We get one shot at this, and we’ve gotta do it right,” he said.
It sounds likely fans are not ready for that, anyway. An Ipsos/538 poll conducted May 5-11 was the latest to indicate fans are disinclined to go root for the home team. The survey of 1,109 adults, with a half-dozen weighing categories, indicated 76% would not likely attend a sporting game or event in person right now if government restrictions were lifted.
A sampling of avid NFL or SEC football fans would probably reflect different results, and autumn will truly test our sporting culture in the time of COVID-19.Billions of dollars, after all, will be on the line.
So sure, sports are on their way back. They’ll populate our screens in full force as early as this summer, and in some form or another in 2021. But we’re guessing what you really want isn’t more screen time.
We’re guessing you crave the unabashed joy that comes when you’re inspired to toss half-consumed booze to the heavens and douse dozens of your newest friends, knowing you just witnessed history.
We’re guessing you don’t want to avoid strangers in the parking lot, but rather welcome them into your tailgate.
We’re guessing you want to belt out “Rocky Top” or “Gloria” or “Hang On Sloopy” without wondering how many aerosol particles you or those around you are emitting.
Sadly, those days seem far away. The most optimistic among us want to wish them closer, while the darkest souls wonder if they’re gone forever.
Instead, imagine what it is you want the most and what it looks and sounds like. Know that it will come again.