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ASU global panel: Money, anxiety driving push for return of sports

May 2, 2020

The effects of the coronavirus on sport are being felt now, but the total damage will be greater and still is undetermined, panelists said Friday during a second video conference conducted by Arizona State's Global Sport Institute.

Australian journalist Tracey Holmes returned from the first video conference April 3, joined by ASU assistant professor of history Victoria Jackson and Howard Bryant, a U.S. sports journalist and ESPN senior writer. Ken Shropshire, Global Sport Institute CEO, again moderated the discussion centering on how to reset sports globally and the impact of COVID-19 on women's sports.

"What I mean by damage is what sports don't come back, what percentage of fans don't come back," Bryant said. "There are plenty of conversations to be had in terms of how this story has shifted."

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Sixty percent of those responding to a poll in the first video conference said sports should not be considered essential during the pandemic. Less than a month later, respondents to new polls Friday favored players returning before fans (64 percent) even though 68 percent said they don't believe a safety bubble for players can yet be created.

"The numbers just don't really add up," Bryant said. "However, people want to get on with it. I was talking to a member of the basketball union and said what information do we have right now that suggests we can even get on with it at all? Did I miss some new information? In terms of safety, I'm not sure there is enough conversation to even answer that question. Every person I've spoken with in sport has talked about re-entry based on two messages -- money and anxiety."

In Australia, the National Rugby League plans to resume its season May 28 despite pushback from one of its broadcast partners.

Holmes said other sports have "looked sideways" at NRL commission chairman Peter V’Landys for his insistence that rugby be the first sport back even though it would require travel by a team based in New Zealand.

"The players themselves are saying we'd love to come back but we want to make sure you've got to consider our hospitals are being shut for elective surgeries. If one of us gets injured, you're talking about our career being put at risk."

Like for the economy in general, the risk-reward is increasingly tipping toward re-opening sport even if many fans say they are not yet personally willing to risk returning to crowded stadiums.

Are sports essential for society, Shropshire asked as he did four weeks earlier.

"It depends on your definition of essential," Bryant said. "Sports relied on the illusion that it's important. Now you start looking it in terms of essential from the perspective of the economy. That changes the dynamic of essential.

"You've got the President (Trump) taking the owners and commissioner of sports and put them on this (economy re-opening) committee as equals to the medical community. The message being sent is financially they are essential, we need this to kick start the economy, and also psychologically you're thinking about the term essential. You realize it was sports and celebrity where people really took their cues, and it's also going to be sports and celebrity that is going to give you cues about whether it's OK to come outside."

Jackson, 2006 NCAA 10,000-meter champion while running for ASU, is concerned about the "brutal irony" that women's sports is facing a major step backwards after what she believes in 2019 was the greatest year in global women's sports history.

 

"We have this great thing in the U.S., Title IX, that says there must be gender equity," Jackson said. "We need something like that that holds organizations around the world accountable. Something to make sure monies allocated to growing and supporting women actually are going to women moving forward. We can at least put pressure on leagues around the world to buy in and pledge to building more gender equity."

Bryant doesn't want to see wealthy athletes compelled to return so "they can be sacrificed to entertain us. Financials are driving it, I'm hoping we're also going to see that spirit of community in terms of the health and safety of the athletes."

For Holmes, a big takeaway from the last seven weeks is that short of a coronavirus vaccine that the world is not going to return to what once seemed normal.

"We need to have in our back pocket of every sports organization how do we operate without plan B or C when this arises again. There are serious concerns about the Tokyo Olympic Games if there is no vaccine. I just hope in the immediate panic of trying to get sports back that we don't lose sight of that much bigger picture that this is the new reality.

"We have to find a new way to deal with these sort of pandemics because they will mutate. It will be something else in a couple of years time. We need to pull some money back for these sorts of major dilemnas that are going to come our way and make sure we're filtering that down to other sectors we need to grow. Without community sport, you don't have the elite sport. It's a bit of big-picture thinking that is now on everybody's shoulders."