On March 6, a Division III NCAA game between Yeshiva University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute was played in an empty Goldfarb Gymnasium at John Hopkins University. The venue, best described as a “small gym,” has a capacity about one percent the size of Camden Yards, and the amount of lost revenue for the game, between two teams most people have never heard of, was hardly huge. But the cause for its banning of audiences, the COVID-19 virus, is a much larger and more nebulous inhibitor of community gathering patterns in the near future. At this point, it’s medically troubling that this tiny game is the only college basketball contest to send away audiences, when soon the NCAA’s bottom-line-making event, March Madness, will happen. The organization has a big, moral decision to make about the tournament spectacle that makes up more than 80 percent of their annual profit. (Update: Two hours after the publication of this piece, the NCAA announced plans to limit attendance at the upcoming March Madness men’s and women’s tournaments.)
The world has canceled its sports, but America has not — not yet, at least of publication at 2:30 p.m. Eastern, March 11. The COVID-19 pandemic grows worse while the most powerful country on the planet still sees room for debate and nuance on the issue of whether the chief cause of its spread — large gatherings of traveling strangers — should continue. Presidential campaign rallies are being canceled, and debate audiences sent away; Coachella has been postponed; South by Southwest has been called off. But when it comes to sports, the possibility of merely doing them in empty stadiums is only starting to be discussed.
The most probable outcome, all things considered, is that March Madness, along with Major League Baseball’s Opening Day (set for March 26), the ongoing NBA and NHL seasons, and most other sporting events, will take place without audiences. This is what the experts have called for. Unless gathering patterns change, the coronavirus is set to spread domestically such that there will inevitably be more patients in need of hospital space than American medical infrastructure has the actual capacity to hold. A vaccine seems far off, and while spread of some speed is inevitable, slowing the contagion so to push this hospitals-beyond-capacity circumstance down the road is absolutely necessary. There is, in this strategy, even the hope that a vaccine will come before we get there.
But for the time being, it’s clear that big community events need to be limited, and a nation-wide bracket of dozens of amateur basketball games, that all bring in tens of thousands of strangers from around the country together, is, well, very big — one might even fairly describe March Madness as a paradise of germs. Barring a severe underestimation of America’s collective deathwish (a failure of estimation that, sadly, we’ve all made before), announcements of indefinite crowdless sporting seem nigh. It’s already happening in Europe, where soccer phenom Cristiano Ronaldo is scoring dazzling goals for an arena of ghosts.
There is, in any event, a deep, curious stubbornness to the persistence of American sports. Their cancellation rate has historically been incredibly low, even in extreme circumstances — be it weather, sickness of performers, or any number of other variables that a rock band or an elected official may reasonably take as cause to call off a gathering. Many American contests were canceled after 9/11, and a Lakers-Clippers game was recently postponed after the shocking death of Kobe Bryant. But, overall, no matter what’s happening, sports go on.
It is ridiculous and troubling that the following needs to be said, but the fabric of American life is such that it does need to be said: Sports are not as important as limiting the spread of disease.
A big part of it — and this is why the games simply not being played is the less likely coronavirus-related possibility — is how much money rides on media contracts. Broadcast and advertising deals are written well before anything actually happens in sports, as any NBA fan frustrated by the consistent and unmoveable national broadcasting of an awful, injury-riddled Golden State Warriors team will tell you. Plus, as a matter of business fact, the spreading coronavirus quarantines make a strong financial case for ensuring that the games are played, because there will be way more available television eyeballs than usual.
This is, of course, a sick and hubristic logic, capitalism ran so amok that the adjective “late” doesn’t really tell an adequate story. The growing pandemic puts corporate entertainment in a bind where its profit-seeking depravity no longer requires figurative language to be described; there is a literal, quantitative toll on life going on. People have died, and there will be more and more deaths of elderly people and the otherwise immunocompromised. This is scientifically certain, and anyone with the ability to prevent tens of thousands of people from gathering at this moment but doesn’t is directly responsible for the swell of that tally.
The starkest recent example of the conflict between sports and pandemic comes in the case of the aforementioned Warriors, whom the city of San Francisco recently told not to hold any more crowds for the time being. The organization rebuffed that recommendation, instead opting to indemnify themselves, and plaster the outside of the Chase Center with warnings to fans that the franchise is not liable for any disease they might catch on team grounds. All this was a bit on the nose: just within the last year, Warriors owner Joe Lacob moved the team from its committed fanbase, in the fairly normal city of Oakland, across the bay to its ambivalent but obscenely rich fanbase in San Francisco. In the end, hard intervention was required for the common-sense solution: On Wednesday afternoon, San Francisco formally banned gatherings of more than 1,000 people, and as a result the Warriors will play a scheduled game on Thursday against the Brooklyn Nets in an empty stadium.
The Warriors, league sources say, will be directed to play host to the Nets on Thursday night at Chase Center in a game CLOSED to fans— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) March 11, 2020
It’s worth noting how marginal gate and day-of stadium revenue is to an NBA team’s profit. Their aforementioned media contracts and season-ticket packages with large companies — a huge amount of which have certainly already been purchased by nearby tech giants, in the Warriors’ case — are much more important to the bottom line. But at root of the Warriors’ resistance to their new city’s recommendation is perhaps not just a greed so deep that it insists on risking further contagion for more money, but also a broader Show Must Go On sports pathology that exceeds that of other entertainment or community gathering forms. Performative toughness — and a nostalgic devotion to the brave production of it that rejects the bounds of reality— is, in this case, very measurably destructive to national health.
It is ridiculous and troubling that the following needs to be said, but the fabric of American life is such that it does need to be said: Sports are not as important as limiting the spread of disease. Neither are any other sizable public events that could, in the face of a pandemic, politely wait a year out; the Tampa Bay “River O’Green” fest, for instance, cannot possibly be making a contribution to the zeitgeist too soulfully significant to be lost, but it is nevertheless persisting. Major League Baseball, instead of facing down the possibility of repeating the surrealism of one empty-stadium Sox-Orioles game in 2015, is looking into a complicated alternate-site scenarios for its ongoing Spring Training contests and upcoming season. Wrestlemania, set to host dozens of thousands of people from around the world in Tampa Bay in just a few weeks, has not been rescheduled; neither has March Madness. Beyond that, the Olympics in July, though at least Japan — this year’s host — has done the right thing so far. It’s time for the leading live production powers of America to decide just how many people they are comfortable entertaining to death.