GSM Updates: COVID-19 and its impact on sport

TOKYO, JAPAN - MARCH 05: A man wearing a face mask has his photograph taken in front of the Olympic Rings in Odaiba on March 5, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. An increasing number of events and sporting fixtures are being cancelled or postponed around Japan while some businesses are closing or asking their employees or work from home as Covid-19 cases continue to grow and concerns mount over the possibility that the epidemic will force the postponement or even cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN – MARCH 05: A man wearing a face mask has his photograph taken in front of the Olympic Rings in Odaiba on March 5, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. An increasing number of events and sporting fixtures are being cancelled or postponed around Japan while some businesses are closing or asking their employees or work from home as Covid-19 cases continue to grow and concerns mount over the possibility that the epidemic will force the postponement or even cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
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We are currently working to bring you a brand new Global Sport Matters experience. Please pardon our dust while we work behind the scenes to make exciting improvements. In light of these unprecedented times, we are continuing to publish relevant insights as they pertain to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on sport.

Ever since the calendar flipped to 2020, COVID-19 has slowly but surely torn its way though countries all over the world, and taken sports with it. There are constant ebbs and flows of how countries are dealing with the virus and the precautions around it. 

Here’s a look at how countries are handling sports to this point. 

Last updated April 27th

KBO to resume May 5th

Five weeks after the scheduled start of the season, the KBO is set to return on May 5 without fans according to Yonhap News Agency. The teams will play four exhibition games prior to the newly scheduled start, and plan to play the entire 144-game schedule, although it could be shortened by as many as 36 games. The season was previously supposed to begin on March 28.

The league plans to gradually allow fans back into the stadiums as the threats of COVID-19 slowly subside. All photographers and TV cameras were positioned in the stands where fans would normally sit during preseason games, according to reports. 

The KBO says they will shorten the season if infections spike back up. As of April 26, only ten new cases were reported in South Korea.

There are some rules that will be in place to ensure the safety of players and team personnel. No spitting allowed, daily testing, wearing masks everywhere except on the field and dugout, masks and gloves for umpires, and strong discouragement of high fives and handshakes. Players that test positive for COVID-19 would be quarantined and the stadium of that team would be closed for a 48-hour cleaning period. If a player tested positive, that wouldn’t necessarily shut the league down, it would be up to KBO officials still.

ESPN is close to acquiring broadcasting rights for the KBO, according to reports from Yonhap News Agency. The network plans to broadcast multiple KBO games a week back to its American audience once/if the deal is completed.

NBA to open team facilities

The NBA released a statement Monday that targets May 8th to open team practice facilities in states where stay-at-home orders have been eased.


The players allowed in facilities would be under certain restrictions. No more than four players would be allowed in the facilities at any one time, no head or assistant coaches can participate in workouts, no group activity would be allowed and players would not be allowed to use non-team facilities such as public gyms/fitness centers. 

Other restrictions include players wearing masks at all times unless in physical activity, staffers must wear gloves at all times working with players and physical distancing of 12 feet, according to Shams Charania. Players must conduct a resting ECG and troponin test before resuming physical activity. The teams will also need to assign a senior executive to a “Facility Hygiene Officer.” 

The league has yet to give an update on when games could resume.

As of April 22nd

PGA to return in June

The PGA plans to be back in action on June 8 at the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth Texas, pushing the event back three weeks from the original date (May 18-24). 

“The health and safety of all associated with the PGA TOUR and our global community continues to be our No. 1 priority, and our hope is to play a role – responsibly – in the world’s return to enjoying the things we love,” PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan said on April 16. “Today’s announcement is another positive step for our fans and players as we look toward the future, but as we’ve stressed on several occasions, we will resume competition only when – working closely with our tournaments, partners and communities – it is considered safe to do so under the guidance of the leading public health authorities.”

The events will remain closed to the general public, but remain open to essential personnel. More information is available here.

As of April 14th

CPBL back in Taiwan

The Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) played the first regular-season baseball game in the world on April 11 between the Chinatrust Brothers and the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions, nearly a month later than the original opening day was slated for (March 14). 

Fans were not allowed inside the stadium, as expected. However, the Rakuten Monkeys filled up their stadium with mannequins and cardboard cutouts (Rakuten didn’t end up playing due to a rainout).

UFC 249 postponed, but WWE rolls on

After originally being scheduled for April 18, UFC 249 and all other events are postponed until further notice, UFC President Dana White told ESPN’s Brett Okamoto. 

The event was originally scheduled in Brooklyn at the Barclays Center, then the backup plan moved the event across the country to Tachi Palace Casino Resort in Lemoore, California, sovereign native american land that didn’t have to abide by state regulations. However, due to concerns from DIsney and ESPN, the event was postponed.

“ESPN has been in constant contact with the UFC regarding UFC 249. Nobody wants to see sports return more than we do, but we didn’t feel this was the right time for a variety of reasons. ESPN expressed its concerns to the UFC and they understood,” ESPN said in a statement.

Meanwhile in the world of professional wrestling, WWE continues to run events out of its Orlando facility without fans. The brand was deemed “essential business” by Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings.

Initially, it was not deemed essential, but after discussions with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ office, that the ruling changed and WWE was allowed to continue through the stay-at-home order issued on April 3. 

A spokesperson from DeSantis’ office told ESPN that WWE is “critical to the Florida economy.” When asked if the UFC could do something similar, the spokesperson said, “The memo does not specify specific sports, as long as the event location is closed to the general public.”

“We believe it is now more important than ever to provide people with a diversion from these hard times,” WWE said in a statement. “We are producing content on a closed set with only essential personnel in attendance following appropriate guidelines while taking additional precautions to ensure the health and wellness of our performers and staff. As a brand that has been woven into the fabric of society, WWE and its Superstars bring families together and deliver a sense of hope, determination and perseverance.”

As of April 7th

MLB back as soon as May?

Major League Baseball and the Major League Players Association are examining the possibility of getting the season underway as soon as May, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan. WIth the backing of high-ranking health officials, the plan would have all 30 teams playing in the Phoenix metropolitan area.

The teams would play at Chase Field in downtown Phoenix and 10 spring training stadiums and other fields around the Valley. Teams and other essential personnel would be housed in nearby hotels in isolation, only traveling to and from the ballparks they would be playing in.

The games would be played without fans, but would be televised and broadcast on radio.

Among the steps that would be necessary to pull it off: COVID-19 tests with quick results, sufficient isolation methods in team hotels, security, transportation and the willingness from players to be seperated from families for up to 4 ½ months.

MLB responded to the ESPN report with a statement: 

“MLB has been actively considering numerous contingency plans that would allow play to commence once the public health situation has improved to the point that it is safe to do so,” the MLB statement said. “While we have discussed the idea of staging games at one location as one potential option, we have not settled on that option or developed a detailed plan. While we continue to interact regularly with governmental and public health officials, we have not sought or received approval of any plan from federal, state and local officials, or the Players Association.

“The health and safety of our employees, players, fans and the public at large are paramount, and we are not ready at this time to endorse any particular format for staging games in light of the rapidly changing public health situation caused by the coronavirus.”

Playing without fans would cost the league more than $10 billion in ticket revenue, according to Passan. A couple other things noted in the report.

  • Officials don’t believe that one positive test could shut down baseball, unlike what happened to the NBA when Utah’s Rudy Gobert tested positive. Under the proposed plan, teams would have expanded rosters.
  • Electronic strike zones would be used so umpires can maintain distance from the catcher and batter.
  • Mound visits from the catcher or pitching coach would not be allowed.
  • Teams would play seven-inning doubleheaders to allow more games in a shorter period.
  • Players would sit 6-feet apart in the stands to maintain social distancing rather than sit in the dugout

The NHL is considering something similar in North Dakota, according to Sportsnet.

UFC on an island?

UFC President Dana White told TMZ and ESPN on April 6 that he has secured a private location in the United States to resume events amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a private island in an undisclosed location, for athletes who cannot travel into the U.S. 

White said UFC 249, which is scheduled for April 18, is a full-go with 12 fights on the card. The U.S.-based location will play host to weekly fights for at least the next two months.

“I’ll tell you this, I’m this close to getting a deal done,” White told ESPN regarding the island. “So this place where this fight is going to be on April 18 I have locked up for two months, so I’m going to continue to pump fights out. I also secured an island. I’ve got an island. The infrastructure is being built right now. We’re going to do all of our international fights on this island.

“So when we do this fight April 18, international and in the United States, we’re going to start cranking. The UFC will be back up and running, internationally and here in the States.”

White said he will not be disclosing the location of the venue in the U.S., the fight will be held without fans in attendance.

As of April 6th

KBO sets date for play to resume

South Korea has done well in containing the COVID-19 outbreak, and because of that, the Korean Baseball Organization has set April 21st as the return date for the league to get underway, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan. Six exhibition games per team are scheduled before the 10-team league starts the regular season

As noted earlier, the KBO is streaming intrasquad games on Youtube while the rest of the sports world remains on hiatus, because the country has flattened the curve in its graph of coronavirus infections.

The U.S. and South Korea announced their first cases on the same day, January 22nd. In a country of 51 million people, South Korea announced just 47 new cases and three new deaths out of the total of 10,284 confirmed cases in the country as of April 6, according to the World Health Organization. The U.S. announced 33,510 new cases on April 6 alone, totalling 307,318 nationwide.

Passan spoke with eight-year MLB pitcher Dan Straily, now a member of the Lotte Giants in the KBO. Straily said that KBO and its teams are monitoring the COVID-19 situation closely. If any player, coach, stadium worker, or other participant is infected before the designated start date, the season will be postponed two weeks.

Other leagues will watch closely to see how the KBO handles the situation and will use it as a blueprint going forward. The Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) and Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) in Japan already have postponed restarts due to complications with the virus.

NFL Draft moves to a virtual format

On April 6, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced that the 2020 NFL Draft, originally to be held in Las Vegas, will be conducted remotely with club personnel staying home.

A snippet from what Goodell said in his statement:

“We have made this decision for several reasons. All Clubs will not have access to their facilities, which is contrary to the fundamental equity principle that all clubs operate in a consistent and fair way. Moreover, we want all NFL personnel to comply with government directives and to model safe and appropriate health practices. Our staff will carry out its responsibilities in the same way, operating in separate locations outside of our offices. And after consulting with medical advisors, we cannot identify an alternative that is preferable from a medical or public health perspective, given the varying needs of clubs, the need properly to screen participants, and the unique risk factors that individual club employees may face.

The draft is still scheduled to take place April 23-25.

As of March 30th

Olympics officially moved to 2021

Officially, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced the 2020 will be postponed  until Jul. 23 – Aug. 8, 2021, the first time ever the games have been rescheduled (they have been canceled three times, during World War I in 1916 and World War II in 1940 and 1944). The Paralympic games will take place Jul. 23 – Aug. 5.

IOC President Thomas Bach said in a statement released by the organization:

“I want to thank the International Federations for their unanimous support and the Continental Associations of National Olympic Committees for the great partnership and their support in the consultation process over the last few days. I would also like to thank the IOC Athletes’ Commission, with whom we have been in constant contact. With this announcement, I am confident that, working together with the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the Japanese Government and all our stakeholders, we can master this unprecedented challenge. Humankind currently finds itself in a dark tunnel. These Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 can be a light at the end of this tunnel.”

Mori Yoshiro, president of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, also released a statement at the time of the announcement that said: 

“IOC President Thomas Bach and the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee held a conference call today to discuss in detail the revised dates of the Tokyo 2020 Games. Minister for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games Hashimoto Seiko and Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko joined the call. I proposed that the Games should be hosted between July and August 2021, and I really appreciate that President Bach, having discussed this proposal with the various international sports federations and other related organizations, kindly accepted my proposal.

“A certain amount of time is required for the selection and qualification of athletes and for their training and preparation, and the consensus was that staging the rescheduled Games during the summer vacation in Japan would be preferable. In terms of transport, arranging volunteers and the provision of tickets for those in Japan and overseas, as well as allowing for the COVID-19 situation, we think that it would be better to reschedule the Games to one year later than planned, in the summer of 2021. 

“Notwithstanding the postponement of the Olympic and Paralympic Games for the first time in history, and various other issues that have already been highlighted, the event schedule is the cornerstone of future preparations, and I am convinced that taking this decision promptly will help speed up future preparations. I would like to thank all the stakeholders, including the host city Tokyo and the Government of Japan, for their hard work during this short period. The Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee will continue to work hard for the success of next year’s Games.”

Could leagues play games for the rest of their season in one city behind closed doors?

The Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) has floated around a litany of ideas on how and when to resume its season, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst.

One of those options for the CBA, which is targeting the beginning of May to resume play, is to cluster all teams in one or two cities and play games in empty arenas. Every team has 16 games left to go before the league playoffs, and the goal would be to have fans allowed back in arenas by the time playoffs come around.

The two sites the CBA is looking at are Dongguan, a city in the southern region of China without the same volume of cases as the rest of the country, and Qingdao, a city on the northeast coast that has developed effective quarantine strategies thanks to its high volume of travelers from Japan and South Korea.

The team would live in a contained and monitored environment with the players having their body temperature checked multiple times each day.

Could the NBA do the same? It’s possible. Windhorst suggests playing at a vacant Vegas casino, where everything could be done in one building (MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay). Other options include moving to the Bahamas, or to a college campus in the midwest, where the outbreak isn’t as severe. 

However, according to Windhorst, Lakers star Lebron James is not a fan of the idea of being quarantined in a hotel with other players and teams. 

“I ain’t going for that s—,” he said. “I’m not going for that.”

The English Premier League discussed the same thing, according to The Independent. The teams would be held in “World Cup-style” camps over the summer months with a plan to televise all remaining 92 matches as a “TV mega-event,” with a few matches played each day.

Like the CBA and the NBA plans, the Premier League would rely on a strong quarantine and comprehensive testing measures in an area isolated from the rest of Britain. 

Tiger and Phil again?

The PGA Tour has postponed events for the near future, but  that doesn’t mean golf is out of the picture. Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods could be working on a rematch of “The Match,” their first-ever pay-per-view golf event between them played in Las Vegas in 2018. Mickelson won, taking home the winner-takes-all $9-million prize.

The event would require the PGA  Tour’s approval, and with events postponed through May, there are a lot of logistics that would have to be worked out.

 

As of March 26th

Olympics

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced on March 24th that the 2020 Olympic Games will be postponed until the summer of 2021 at the latest.

“In the present circumstances and based on the information provided by the WHO today, the IOC President and the Prime Minister of Japan have concluded that the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community,” a joint statement between the Tokyo Organizing Committee and the IOC said.

“The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present.”

This move came after both Canada and Australia announced they would not be sending athletes to the 2020 Summer Games. Both countries initially called for the Games to be postponed another year.

Athletes like USA Soccer’s Carli Lloyd had a consistent message regarding the postponement: “It’s bigger than the Olympics.”

 

 

United States

All four major US sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NHL and NFL) and the NCAA have been hit hard by COVID-19, with the most cases of the virus worldwide.

On March 11, the Ivy League announced it was canceling all spring sport competition and practice. The NBA followed later that night and postponed its season after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19.

In the next 48 hours, the NCAA announced it would be canceling every winter and spring championship and postponed on-campus recruiting for the foreseeable future; MLB canceled spring training and postponed Opening Day; the NHL postponed its season; the XFL canceled its season; and the PGA Tour canceled the remainder of the Players Open, which was still in progress, and all events for at least the next two weeks.

Five days later, the NFL suspended all offseason training activities (OTAs) indefinitely and implemented new rules that teams cannot invite free agents to team facilities, nor can team personnel travel to meet with free agents.

On the same day, MLB postponed its season indefinitely after targeting April 9 as the return date. 

“We will continue to monitor ongoing events and undertake the precautions and best practices recommended by public health experts, and urge all baseball fans to follow suit,” MLB said in the statement. “MLB extends its best wishes to all the individuals and communities who have been impacted by the coronavirus.”

Commission Rob Manfred said the league will take a “wait-and-see approach” in regards to the regular season and Opening Day.

The NBA continues to provide updates on its season, but hasn’t said when the league is ready to resume action. 

Commissioner Adam Silver says the league is currently weighing multiple options, whether it be canceling games or moving the season that was just a few weeks from the playoffs. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, NBA owners are looking at dates as late as Labor Day to resume and potentially salvage the season.

The NHL, at the same point of the season as the NBA, is considering similar options.

In a league Q&A, the NHL stated that it hasn’t considered when play will resume or how the playoff format will look.

“The form and format of resumption of play scenarios will depend entirely on what transpires between now and when we are permitted and able to resume — and, ultimately, on timing and taking into account logistical constraints. We are going to have to be flexible and react to events as they unfold as well as the best medical advice available,” the league said.

On the timeline of the season?

“We will continue to monitor developments during the 60-day window prescribed by the CDC. Assuming events are tracking positively, we would hope to be able to begin providing high-level guidance on the potential of opening a Club training camp period roughly 45 days into the period covered by the CDC’s recommendation.”

Italy

The country hit hardest by the COVID-19 outbreak (second-most cases behind China, most deaths), has forced the entire Italian sports world into a complete halt.

The halt was confirmed by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on March 9 and was initially supposed to last until April 3 .However, that is contingent on the containment of the outbreak. Nine days later, that date was pushed back to the beginning of May. There are reports Serie A, the top-flight football league in Italy, could just get canceled

Serie A has its eyes set on an early May return date, but is unsure whether fans will be in attendance.

“I believe that Serie A can return on May 3,” Italian sports minister Vincenzo Spadafora said. “Then we will evaluate whether it’s played behind closed doors, or open to the public.”

Football has been a huge reason why the virus has been able to spread so quickly, according to reports. Double-digit athletes have tested positive for COVID-19.

“The condition in Italy now has worsened and I will say it’s not good. I am doing well but the conditions here are very bad,” Inter Milan midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah told Ghanaian radio station Peace FM.

“For now we can’t go anywhere. All training programs have been canceled. Everything has been shut down here in Milan. It hasn’t been easy. We didn’t take this thing seriously in the beginning. People were still going about their daily activities, that is why the virus has really spread that fast.”

Lega Basket Serie A (LBA), the top-tier Italian basketball league that has been halted since March 9, also sits in an indefinite suspension. 

Former Arizona State Basketball player Kodi Justice talked about how his team dealt with the situation prior and after the shutdown here.

China

Despite being the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, there is some optimism within Chinese borders that the outbreak has been contained. As of March 25, only 113 new cases were reported and just four new deaths.

What does this mean for the sports leagues? The Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) made its way through 30 of 46 scheduled games before being shut down in January. The league was optimistic in its efforts to return as early as the beginning of April.

The CBA sent a memo out to its member clubs, acquired by ESPN, that said the following:

“In January 2020, the new coronavirus broke out in many places across the country. According to the requirements of national epidemic prevention and control, we postponed the subsequent games of the 2019-2020 CBA season scheduled to be held on February 1. At present, the situation of epidemic prevention and control in CBA cities is basically stable. In order to better respond to the national requirements on precise prevention and control, solid and orderly promotion of return to work and production, shoulder the mission and task of sports confidence, warm people’s hearts and gather people’s hearts, according to the relevant requirements of China Basketball Association on the restart of the league, the rest of the games of the 2019-2020 CBA season will restart from the beginning of April.

“All clubs and teams are requested to prepare for the restart of CBA League as early as April 2. At the same time, all teams should comply with the relevant requirements of the national and local epidemic prevention and control departments, continue to strengthen the epidemic prevention and control work, do a good job in making detailed and solid security measures such as epidemic prevention and control, and ensure the health and safety of club and team members. Details of the restart will be notified separately.”

That date got pushed back even further on March 25, moving the potential start date to May, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst.

The league sent all of its foreign players home in January, including former NBA players Jeremy Lin, Ty Lawson and Lance Stevenson. The tricky part is getting the players back into the country with all of the travel bans, detailed here.

Other Notes

Last Baseball Standing: South Korea’s KBO League and Japan’s NBP continue to train and play with no fans allowed in stadiums across both leagues. Both leagues have targeted late April as potential Opening Day options.

Australia:  One of the last major countries to shut down all major sports, Australia finally axed competition due to the COVID-19 threat. On March 22nd, the Australian Football League postponed play. A day later, the National Rugby League did the same

“Our industry provides livelihoods for thousands and thousands of people but our key focus at the moment – like every organisation in the country – is to do everything that needs to be done to help slow the spread of this virus and to keep people as healthy as possible,” AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan said.

“To say this is the most serious threat to our game in 100 years is an understatement. It is unprecedented in its impact. It is unprecedented in the impact it is having on our game and the wider community, and as a community and as a code, we all need to take the unprecedented and required actions to get through this together.”

TJ Mathewson is a senior journalism student at Arizona State University.