Pro sports leagues weigh profit and player safety

by Grace Grabowski, Sports Contributor, Joyce Lee, Sports Reporter & Vivek Vallurupalli, Sports Contributor
photo courtesy of GettyImages

The coronavirus pandemic has caused widespread economic disaster, and without profit sources like ticketing revenue, even the largest American professional sports leagues — the MLB, NHL, NFL and NBA — are feeling the pressure. Combined, they’ve already lost over $14.5 billion since last March, and the industry is still struggling to find a balance between finances and player safety.

The first solutions were for teams to move into isolated facilities to practice and play games. By late July, both the NBA and NHL had established their own, with the NBA calling their 22-team campus in Orlando, Florida a “bubble”, while the NHL opted for two “hub cities”, with one in Toronto and another in Edmonton.

While these were successful — both leagues were able to crown a champion — the NBA bubble cost upwards of an estimated $150 million, and the cost of the hub cities likely weren’t far behind.

Some have suggested shutting down all operations until COVID-19 is properly contained, and for at least one league, a drastic measure like that would actually be financially sound. In a January interview with Yahoo Sports, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stated that it would be more cost-effective for the NHL to shutter the current season and return in 2022-23.

Leagues are spending incredible amounts of money to keep their players safe while maintaining play, an investment that has become key in getting the players to trust the leagues enough to put their health at risk.

Common precautions across the four leagues include frequent testing of players and coaches, social distancing guidelines for players and strict punishments for those who disobey COVID-19 protocols. 

No matter how stringent the guidelines, however, there have been outbreaks in each sport.

Be it entire teams, like the MLB’s Miami Marlins, or star players, like the NBA’s Jayson Tatum and Kevin Durant, players and coaches have proven to be fallible, resulting in competitive disparities, with depleted rosters routinely facing off against fully healthy teams.

Almost a year into the pandemic, athletes have, fortunately, largely avoided more severe symptoms. However, this is not without exception.

In July, Atlanta Braves third baseman Freddie Freeman contracted COVID-19 and reported a peak fever of 104.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Permanent brain damage can occur between 106 and 107 degrees Fahrenheit, and Freeman admitted being scared for his life, telling reporters, “I said a little prayer that night. … I said ‘please don’t take me.'”

It’s becoming increasingly clear that as long as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage, any solution is a cheap bandage on a gaping wound.

When asked why the 2021-2022 NHL season would begin despite circumstances so heavily discouraging one, Bettman said that returning would provide catharsis in a difficult time.

“We’re coming back to play this season because we think it’s important for the game,” he said. “Our fans and our players want us to, and it may give people — particularly in isolation or where there are curfews — a sense of normalcy and something to do.”

Thanks to reasonable financial safety nets for players who choose to opt out, it’s ultimately up to each individual to decide if they feel safe enough to play, and by and large, leagues have given athletes enough confidence to suit up day in and day out. The question, then, becomes one of financial tenability: can the industry keep this up until society returns to a semblance of normality? The future of American sports depends on it.