Sports will look a lot different, if they return

I’m a life-long sports fan, like many of you, and have been missing sports since they understandably disappeared in March. I don’t know where you are in your thinking, but I’m convinced that, while sports will return, we won’t be viewing games –in person or on television –in the same way. Like everything else, we will see permanent changes to the sporting events we’ve come to love and look forward to.

Through the years I’ve witnessed games I’ll never forget either for the game itself or what it signified, like Michigan-Ohio State at The Big House, or Michigan-Notre Dame at Notre Dame Stadium. I saw Mark “The Bird” Fidrych pitch at a packed Tiger Stadium; a capacity Joe Louis Arena crowd erupt when Slava Kozlov, hit the ice for the first time in Detroit; a sold out Pontiac Silverdome crowd come to its feet when Chuck Long made his debut with the always inept Detroit Lions on a Monday night game and his first play was a deep pass from his own end zone; and maybe most magically, the classic Pistons-Knicks overtime game that was played at JLA where Isiah Thomas and Bernard King played “Top This” before a raucous crowd.

My point? All these games were played in front of sellout crowds–probably more than any fire marshal would like to have seen, or at least admit happened. For the foreseeable future we won’t see sold out crowds at games, or at least full stadiums and arenas since theoretically if stadiums can have 25% capacity and all the tickets are sold it’s a sellout.

Sitting here in mid June, I’m least optimistic about baseball. The NBA and MLS have their plans in place for the restart of their season in Orlando, though we are seeing some push-back from NBA players. And the NHL is expected to announce its plans next week.

But baseball? As the days continue to click away, the news seems to get more depressing. The counter-proposals simply seem like an effort in futility, especially from the owners side. If these sorts of “offers” were made by employers to those of us in the everyday work world, owners would be chastised by everyone. Yet, it’s surprising how many people side with the owners in this dispute. Maybe it’s that so many people, in their dream worlds, either believe they could play the game at its highest level or wish they could so how dare the athletes pass up that kind of money.

However, put yourself in the players’ position. You have a new agreement in March, but as the pandemic has delayed the start of the season, the owners want fewer games. This would be fine … if the owners would pay a 100% prorated salary–you know, 100% per-game pay. But alas, the owners keep lowering the amount they want to pay. And the number of games keeps dropping.

Now, remember these are the same owners where many of them said they wouldn’t pay minor league players, who don’t even make minimum wage when you factor in all the hours they are expected to put in compared to the money they make, but public outcry led them to say they would pay the players. And, perhaps most importantly, before the season, Commissioner Rob Manfred announced 42 minor league teams would be eliminated. He didn’t just come up with the plan on his own, he is essentially an employee of the Major League Baseball owners. That came from them owners – probably in an effort to increase their profits (and remember, they claim poverty but won’t open their books).

When you combine all those factors, it all points to a less-than-optimistic 2020 outlook for baseball. Fans say the owners should be able to maximize their profits, that after all it’s capitalism. But how about the players? Their careers are short, so shouldn’t they be able to maximize their income?

People want to point out that the average player’s salary is $4 million. But keep in mind that it takes 26 players who make the league minimum–approximately $500,000 (still a nice paycheck)–to bring the average up to $4 million when one player makes $30 million. You also have to remember that the players making the minimum salary likely aren’t going to play many years and if they make trips to the minors, they don’t make the $500K but a small fraction of that. Plus, agents take a cut.

On the May edition of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, a virtual roundtable of union executive directors was asked by Gumbel to put a number of their optimism about a 2020 season for their respective sports. MLBPA union chief Tony Clark gave the highest mark of 8.5 out of 10. NFLPA’s DeMaurice Smith a 7, and NBPA’s Michelle Roberts a 6. Well, the least optimistic is seeing her sport gear up to return, while the most optimistic is seeing his sport in a state of ever-increasing dispirited limbo.

While I’m resigning myself to the fact baseball likely isn’t coming back this year, at least there is hope for the rest. And, European football leagues (soccer to Americans) have and continue to return and play in front of empty stadiums.

Will we ever see 100,00-plus fans at college football games? Or jam-packed stadiums for other sports? I doubt it. We may see stadiums reconfigure seating to reduce seating but create other game day experiences that make them fun but limit how many people are jammed into the stadium.

I hope I’m wrong.

Steve Murch is the former managing editor of The Alpena News.


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