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Coronavirus is forcing the biggest global sports shutdown since World War II

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AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko
The sports world is reluctantly admitting it needs to take the outbreak seriously.
  • Adam Epstein
By Adam Epstein

Entertainment reporter

The last time sporting events were disrupted this widely, the world was at war.

Covid-19, now responsible for 4,373 deaths and more than 120,000 cases worldwide as of March 11, is forcing professional and amateur sports leagues around the world to reevaluate their priorities. While other public gatherings reacted relatively quickly to the novel coronavirus outbreak, sports—particularly in the US—were reluctant to do so. That is now changing.

European soccer is on the verge of stoppage. NBA play is suspended. Major golf and tennis tournaments, marathons, and entire college sports seasons have been cancelled. And that’s before we enter one of the sports calendar’s busiest stretches, packed with huge events expected to draw hundreds of thousands of fans from all over the world.

Why sports were so reluctant to adapt

The sports industry has dragged its feet on coronavirus for two main reasons. The first is money. The National Basketball Association, for instance, makes about $8 billion in revenue per year through ticket sales, merchandise, and selling television rights. The league’s TV contract with ESPN and TNT alone is worth $24 billion over nine years. If the league barred fans from attending games (or cancelled them altogether), it, and its owners, would miss out on the massive profits to which they’re accustomed.

But every global industry is vulnerable to the same kind of financial hardships during a pandemic. What makes sports unique is that it has long tried to exhibit a tough, “play-through-it” attitude. The National Football League continued pretty much as normal after US president John F. Kennedy was assassinated, even while players grieved. The league’s then-commissioner, Pete Rozelle, would later call the decision to “play through” the national pain his greatest regret. The NFL and Major League Baseball only postponed games for a week following the September 11 terrorist attacks, believing themselves necessary to help the country heal.

That so many global sports associations, including major US leagues, are beginning to listen to public health experts about the dangers of the virus suggests the current situation is nearly unprecedented. One major difference is that, unlike times of war or national mourning, large public gatherings like sporting events can actually make conditions worse. During World War II, the 1940 and 1944 Olympics, the 1942 Indianapolis 500, and 1940-1946 Tour de France races were all called off. The Covid-19 outbreak is unlikely to last that long, but its impact on sports this year could be felt just as much.

How US leagues are responding

Other than the NBA, America’s biggest leagues are still hesitant to cancel or postpone games. Many are also desperately seeking alternate options to hosting games in empty stadiums. NHL, NCAA, and MLB were planning to proceed with games as scheduled in Ohio, despite the governor’s call to ban spectators—though that call is expected to become a mandatory order this week.

In arguably the biggest move of all thus far, the NCAA is barring spectators from attending its upcoming Division I men’s and women’s college basketball tournaments, known as March Madness, which annually draw huge crowds to arenas all over the US. (Only essential employees and families of players will be allowed to attend.) The NCAA is now recommending all of its spring events be held without fans.

What’s been cancelled, postponed, or closed to spectators

Canceled entirely

  • BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament in Palm Springs, California, also known as Indian Wells
  • PGA golf tour series in China
  • Tokyo Marathon
  • Sporting events in Iran
  • Ivy League basketball conference tournament
  • New York City half marathon
  • Japan LPGA Tour
  • Women’s ice hockey world championships
  • All men’s and women’s Ivy League spring athletics

Postponed

  • The NBA season
  • All sporting events in Italy, including Serie A football
  • Three Six Nations Championship rugby matches
  • Hong Kong and Singapore rounds of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series
  • Formula One Chinese Grand Prix
  • 2022 Asian World Cup qualifiers in Qatar
  • Premier League match between Manchester City and Arsenal
  • Paris Half Marathon
  • League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational (Esports)

Closed to spectators

  • Dozens of NCAA sporting events, including the NCAA Division I basketball tournament
  • Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix
  • Professional soccer matches in Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, and Greece
  • Division III men’s basketball tournament
  • Nippon Professional Baseball preseason games in Japan
  • South Korean Basketball League games

For a more exhaustive list, ESPN has compiled virtually every global sporting event—from archery to sumo to motorcycling—that has been affected by the outbreak.

What still might be cancelled, postponed, or disrupted

March

  • NCAA basketball tournaments (Division-I is scheduled to begin March 17; Division-II on March 14; Division-III has already started, and is supposed to last until April 5)
  • MLB opening day (March 26)
  • UEFA Euro 2020 qualifiers (March 26)

April

  • WrestleMania 36 (Tampa, Florida, April 5)
  • UEFA Champions League quarterfinals (April 7-8, 14-15)
  • National Hockey League Stanley Cup playoffs (begin April 8)
  • 2020 Masters golf tournament (Augusta, Georgia, April 9-12)
  • Boston Marathon (April 20)
  • NFL Draft (Las Vegas, April 23-35)
  • UEFA Champions League soccer semifinals (April 28-29, May 5-6)

May and beyond

  • Kentucky Derby (Louisville, May 2)
  • French Open (Paris, May 24-June 7)
  • UEFA Champions League Final (Istanbul, May 30)
  • NASCAR cup series
  • US Open golf tournament (Mamaroneck, New York, June 18-21)
  • 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics (July 24-Aug. 9)

This story has been updated with the news that the NBA suspended its season after a player tested positive for Covid-19.

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