Mar 13, 2020

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

๐Ÿ˜ท Good morning. I'm at a loss for words right now (not good! kind of my job!), but we'll get through this together and I'll see you back here on Monday.

  • Heads-up: We have a special coronavirus deep dive coming this weekend. As a subscriber to this newsletter, you'll see that in your inbox from Mike Allen tomorrow.

Today's word count: 1,519 words (6 minutes).

1 big thing: โœ‹ What happens when sports stop

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The period of coronavirus complacency came to a dramatic end in the last 48 hours, as the stock market plunged, states issued grim warnings and schools closed their doors.

  • But it was the cancellation of sports โ€” March Madness, in particular โ€” that hit the hardest for some Americans, serving as a reality check as to just how serious this situation is.
  • The coronavirus was already changing what we saw on the news and how we did our jobs. Now, it's keeping us from the things we do to get by. Suddenly, something that brings people together is keeping us apart.

The big picture: In the time of a pandemic, sports are both insignificant and powerful.

  • On one hand, we're reminded of how little sports matter in the grand scheme of things, and that the institutions we've built up around them โ€” leagues, franchises, TV networks โ€” are no different than any other businesses.
  • On the other hand, sports are where we turn when times get tough, so now that they won't be there to entertain us through stories and link us through fandom, we're reminded of the comfort and powerful perspective they provide.

The bottom line: It's in this moment that leagues, commissioners, athletes and other sports figures have the power to lead by example and change the minds of people who lack perspective on this worldwide crisis.

  • Jerry Brewer, WashPost: "If a global health crisis doesn't provide the inspiration to be more than a money-printing diversion, then these games arenโ€™t worthy of all the attention."
  • Scott Van Pelt, ESPN: "Maybe the diagnosis of [Gobert] did our country a huge favor. This much I know to be true: He hit the warp-speed button on all of this. And by taking away the games ... it forced everybody to take all of this a whole lot more seriously."
2. ๐Ÿ€ March Sadness

Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

There will be no March Madness this year. No shining moments. No Cinderellas. No cutting down the nets. No winning the office bracket pool. No Bill Raftery yelling "Onions!" at the top of his lungs.

Why it matters: While this was the only responsible decision, the ripple effects will be felt throughout the country โ€” from bummed out fans, who will miss one of the biggest sporting events of the year, to the NCAA, which just lost 75% of its annual revenue.

  • Yes, but: The real victims here are the players. The fans will be back next year and the NCAA will be fine โ€” but for the players, many of whom will never play competitive basketball again, this is legitimately heartbreaking.

By the numbers: 132 men's and women's teams were set to participate in March Madness, and hundreds more were part of the D-II and D-III tournaments, which had already started.

What they're saying:

"We should all feel for the players first, foremost and perhaps only. They're the reason the tournament exists, they're the reason we coach and compete. They're the reason โ€” period."
โ€” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski

Lingering questions:

  • Loss of revenue: Most of the broadcast revenue from the NCAA tournament is distributed to the participating schools, who then use it to subsidize other sports. How will they adapt without that influx of cash?
  • Canceled vs. postponed: "I think all of us felt we could postpone it even until May, and if we needed to cancel, we could then," said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. I, too, wonder whether May Madness could have worked, but assume the logistical hurdles were simply too high.
3. ๐Ÿ“ธ Yesterday in photos
Photo: Sarah Stier/Getty Images

๐Ÿ€ College hoops: The Power 5 leagues canceled their basketball conference tournaments yesterday, with several indefinitely postponing all athletic events.

  • The final game of the season: The Big East announced the cancellation after St. John's and Creighton had already played the first half of their quarterfinal matchup at a fan-less Madison Square Garden. Very eerie scene (see above).
Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

๐Ÿ’ NHL: With roughly a dozen games left in the regular season, the NHL suspended its season indefinitely.

  • League statement: "Given that our leagues [NHL and NBA] share so many facilities and locker rooms and it now seems likely that some member of the NHL community would test positive at some point โ€” it is no longer appropriate to try to continue to play games."
Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images

โšพ๏ธ MLB: In an announcement that came while spring training games in Florida were still in progress, MLB suspended all remaining spring training games and delayed the start of its regular season by at least two weeks.

  • Worth noting: Unlike the NBA and NHL, which could restart their seasons and play into the late summer, MLB can't extend its season all that far due to the weather (November baseball isn't going to work in most cities). So that makes this a particularly alarming situation for baseball.
Photo: David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

โ›ณ๏ธ PGA: After playing the first round of the Players Championship (Hideki Matsuyama tied a course record with a 63) and announcing that the tournament would continue through the weekend with no spectators, the PGA Tour changed course last night and canceled it.

  • What to watch: The next tournament on the PGA Tour calendar is the Masters, which is slatedย to begin April 9...


  • โšฝ๏ธ Soccer: In addition to the suspension of MLS, the USMNT and USWNT friendlies in March and April have been canceled.
  • ๐Ÿˆ Football: The NFL canceled its annual owners' meeting set for later this month (no word on changes to April's draft), and the XFL canceled its season.
  • ๐ŸŽพ Tennis: All men's and women's events have been canceled until April 20 at the earliest.
  • ๐Ÿ Auto racing: Formula 1 canceled the Australian Grand Prix, while NASCAR and Indy Car still plan on holding races this weekend, albeit with no fans.
  • ๐Ÿ‡ฏ๐Ÿ‡ต Olympics: President Trump's suggestion to postpone the Tokyo Olympics for a year was immediately shot down by Japan's Olympic minister.
4. ๐Ÿ“บ How a sports outage impacts TV, advertising

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Without live sports for the foreseeable future, it's unclear what networks like ESPN and FS1 will broadcast in those time slots or what they'll talk about on their studio shows and radio programs during the day.

Why it matters: With so many Americans nesting at home, linear TV viewership was expected to spike. But without sports, streaming platforms, video games and other mediums will likely be the big winners instead.

The big picture: A prolonged sports outage could lead to an acceleration in cord-cutting, while also wreaking havoc on the advertising industry.

"One of the only reasons to advertise on TV in 2020 is sports. If sports aren't being played, that's going to be a huge issue for the ad market that could literally lead to a tailspin."
โ€” Rich Greenfield, media analyst at LightShed Partners, tells Axios

Between the lines: Given the fluidity of the situation, there are many advertising-related questions that have yet to be answered.

  • What happens to the ad revenue that has already been booked? Do the networks give that money back?
  • If the NBA and NHL playoffs air, it will help networks make up for missing regular-season games, but what if the playoffs don't happen? Then what?

For reference: Last season, regular season broadcasts accounted for 38% of the NBA's total TV ad revenue, while postseason games accounted for 62%. The NHL had similar numbers.

The state of play: ESPN was unable to comment on what their programming will look like without live sports, but here's what was shown on their airwaves yesterday:

  • ESPN: SportsCenter all day and night
  • ESPNEWS: Video simulcasts of radio shows and taped programming
  • ESPN2: Simulcast of ESPN and ESPNEWS

The bottom line, per Greenfield:

"Think about the TV ecosystem as a huge Jenga game, which is already under extreme stress. The last piece holding up the whole thing is sports, and in the last 24 hours, you've pulled that piece out for an unknown amount of time."
Bonus poll: ๐Ÿ“Š Cable needs sports
Data: CivicScience; Chart: Axios Visuals

According to a poll we conducted yesterday in partnership with CivicScience, 54% of American adults said they wouldn't pay for a cable package if it didn't include sports.

The bottom line: If the only reason you had cable was for sports, you may not need cable for a while.

  • And it's not just cable ... Think about the Super Bowl ad for Hulu: "Hulu has live sports." Well, now Hulu doesn't have live sports.
  • The sports outage could result in people canceling their subscriptions โ€” at least temporarily โ€” to Hulu Live and other sports-heavy streaming services (YouTube TV, ESPN+, etc).
5. Everything else
Courtesy: Washington Post
  • ๐ŸŽ“ Coronavirus redshirt: With most spring seasons canceled, conferences will likely request redshirt seasons for athletes to give them a fifth year of eligibility.
  • ๐Ÿ˜ท Athletes and coaches with confirmed cases: Daniele Rugani (Juventus defender), Rudy Gobert (Jazz center), Donovan Mitchell (Jazz guard), Mikel Arteta (Arsenal manager), Callum Hudson-Odoi (Chelsea winger).
  • ๐ŸšŒ School closures: Multiple school districts have closed all K-12 schools indefinitely. Others are remaining open and have canceled all sports, raising questions about supervision. Where will kids go after school if their parents aren't home or able to work from home?
  • ๐Ÿ€ Love pledges $100K: Cavaliers star Kevin Love has pledged $100,000 to aid arena workers, and it sounds like other players will follow.
  • ๐Ÿ‡จ๐Ÿ‡ณ What to expect: Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta was asked on CNBC how his restaurant businesses were faring in post-quarantine China. His response: "Let me use just one word: bad. ... We were finally able to reopen a Morton's in Beijing the other day โ€ฆ and the sales for the day were zero."

P.S. ... In basically the only non-coronavirus sports story of the day, U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro resigned. See ya!

Kendall Baker

Talk Monday,

Kendall "Sad" Baker