National Post (National Edition)
AND THE SPORTS MONEY TRAIN CHUGGED ALONG
PANDEMIC PROVES THAT THIS BIG BUSINESS ADAPTS ON THE FLY IN A QUEST FOR REVENUE
Adecade or two from now, the record books on 2020 will look oddly normal. The Tampa Bay Lightning, a good team and pre-season favourite, won the Stanley Cup. The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Finals after hitching the MVP talent of Anthony Davis to LeBron James, the best player in a generation. The L.A. Dodgers won the World Series after a decade of misses. Dustin Johnson won The Masters, which seemed inevitable at some point. Rafael Nadal won the French Open, which is inevitable. The Toronto Maple Leafs had an embarrassing playoff ouster, which seemed, well, you know.
It's only on a closer look that the craziness of 2020 in sports reveals itself. That Masters victory for D. J. took place in November, not April. Nadal's win at Roland Garros came in October instead of May. Mookie Betts led the champion Dodgers in home runs — with just 16, because the Major League Baseball season was a wee stub of 60 games. All over the world, games were played in isolation bubbles in strange locations, absent of fans and any atmosphere other than the sound of coaches and players yelling at one another. Then there were the cancellations: Wimbledon, the Open Championship, countless smaller events and the entire Canadian Football League season. Tokyo 2020 was moved, theoretically, to 2021.
So, what just happened? What are we to make of the sporting calendar in 2020 when the calendar came to a dead stop and then was hurriedly remade on the fly? Perhaps more importantly, what happens next? How much will the changes and compromises of this most depressing of years impact sports for seasons to come?
The undercurrent to everything that took place with sports after the spring shutdown was the plain fact that the industry has become big business. This was hardly a revelation, but if sports were once simply a pastime, a way to provide diversion and entertainment to working folk, 2020 proved beyond doubt that the money train is too big to be brought to a halt for long. Billions of dollars flow from advertisers and broadcasters — and paying customers — to leagues and teams, and on to well-paid athletes and many more employees who are much less well paid. That leagues like the NHL and NBA were willing to spend tens of millions of dollars just to squeeze in something like the conclusion to their seasons in geographic bubbles shows how much interest they had — players and owners alike — in making sure that broadcasting inventory commitments were fulfilled and that everyone got paid. MLB and the NFL demonstrated this point in an even more stark way, conducting their seasons outside of isolation bubbles and pushing through the COVID-19 outbreaks that inevitably popped up as they travelled around a country in which transmission of the virus was widespread. As dozens of players, and some of the league's biggest stars, missed games and the schedule became hilariously fluid, the NFL admitted that it didn't particularly care if the competitions were unfairly impacted, as long as they were played. If a team literally had to sign someone off the street to play an important position, so be it. It remains entirely possible that, as the NFL regular season winds down, a playoff team will have a Super Bowl push derailed by an unfortunately timed COVID test that renders key players ineligible. (At least NFL players got paid: U.S. college football plowed on despite a raft of positive tests and cancellations, with student-athletes providing the grist for a lucrative mill.)
The compromises, meanwhile, have continued. The NBA is charging ahead with a new season, with a delayed start and only half the schedule released, pending developments in the coming months. The Toronto Raptors, unable to secure a reprieve from border-crossing quarantine requirements, will begin the season with “home” games in Tampa. The NHL is plotting a shortened season, with odd divisional realignments, just to ensure that games will take place. MLB is said to be considering a delayed start to spring training, as all these leagues try to thread the needle that allows play to begin while still hoping that a vaccine rollout will mean the back end of their seasons will look more normal than the beginning.
Leagues scrambled to get their games staged, and athletes played on in the strangest of circumstances, sometimes with their own health at risk, sometimes separated from their families and shipped off to battle, but only with trophies and television ratings at stake. The common explanation for all of this is that the alternative was unthinkable: had sports remained idle for all these months, the losses would have been devastating, a cratering of the league's economics from which they would be unable to recover. Only the leagues' various owners know if that is, in fact, true. The players played, the coaches coached, the money train chugged along. No one doubts that the leagues and their wealthy owners took a financial hit amid a global pandemic, but it will take time to see whether the impact is lasting.
In mid-December, the Milwaukee Bucks announced that Giannis Antetokounmpo would sign a five-year contract extension.
It will pay him almost $230 million.