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Has COVID-19 Killed Sports?

To start the month of February, two massive sporting events took place: The Australian Open, one of the four Grand Slams in the tennis world, and the American Super Bowl. Both of these events have been highly impacted by COVID-19, and these two events, and other major organizations in sports–like the Olympics–have had to react in order to stay afloat financially. This article will examine the impact of the pandemic on a few of the world’s most prominent sporting events, and analyze the differences between how the pandemic affected them, including the professional tennis tour, the Olympics, and the American National Football League. It will argue that in the face of a global pandemic, the structure of the sporting leagues, including their funding sources, precondition different sports to be more or less successful. Due to differences in the funding structures and the nature of the organizations in tennis, American football, and the Olympic Games, they were differently poised to succeed. The NFL fared relatively well, the Olympics were forced to postpone entirely, and the professional tennis tour had its ups and downs.

First, let’s delve into the NFL’s experience with COVID-19 and how it survived, including the makeup of its funding structure. The NFL, like many sporting leagues, has a variety of sources when it comes to funding—prominently from six main sources. Ticket sales are one of these six sources, but the NFL only makes a small proportion of their revenue from ticket sales: typically between 15% and 21%. The NFL generates far more revenue from TV deals, which make up the “lion’s share” (over 50%) of the NFL’s profit.The fact that in-person attendance does not make up a majority or even plurality of the money the NFL makes annually makes the NFL well-positioned to weather the pandemic and keep the money flowing.

However, more goes into keeping a league running than just the flow of money. The health of athletes is a high priority in the minds of those who run the leagues, including the “number one priority” for the NFL, according to official press releases. The NFL has had relative success in this regard—following the CDC recommendations, they initially were dealing with many small outbreaks on teams, which led to schedule changes and increased precautions in order to prevent outbreaks. Even with those adaptations, however, the NFL was met with criticism, both from players regarding their safety (particularly early in the season) and from league and team executives, who were upset about the effects of precautions, including those which led the Denver Broncos to play a game without a single quarterback eligible to play (hint, they lost badly). At the end of the day, despite the controversy and outbreaks, the NFL was able to successfully complete its season, with the Super Bowl happening on-time and featured the Buccaneers claiming the Lombardi Trophy. 

Other factors contributed to the success of the NFL’s season, including that it isn’t an international sporting league, and that it took place in a country that received worldwide recognition for how poorly it handled the crisis (shoutout America). While leading to higher rates of cases, America’s lack of preventative regulation from the government allowed professional athletes to travel and compete, which enabled the NFL to successfully weather the storm of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Other sports were not so lucky. The 2020 Olympic Games were supposed to take place in Tokyo this past summer, but were postponed until 2021. The Olympic Games had already become more of a burden than a blessing in the eyes of many countries in recent times, as the costs associated with hosting the Games rise. Accordingly, the cities and countries that host it generally actually lose money and experience an economic contraction in the following years. The revenue for the 2014 Olympic Games held in Sochi and the 2016 Olympic Games held in Rio totaled about $5.7 billion. The appeal of the Games, and why countries consider it an honor to host, is due largely to the money they stand to make by hosting a successful event. Tourism shoots up into their countries, as millions of people flock to watch the world’s best athletes compete, and tickets cost from around $50 to over $2500, depending on the events you want to see. While TV deals make the Olympics a fortune, it didn’t make sense to hold an event that depends on in-person attendance and tourism to generate such a large portion of its revenue.

The Olympics were situated precisely the opposite from the NFL in terms of its ability to weather the pandemic. Rather than benefiting from relaxed government policies within a single country, the Olympics are inherently the most international of all sporting events, and would have to deal with athletes coming from every global COVID hotspot. An Olympics without fans would not be profitable, and accordingly, the Olympics was forced to postpone until 2021—here’s to hoping it happens this year.

The professional tennis tour varies significantly from the other two events this article discusses in that it is not a unified system. While there are governing bodies for the professional tours (the ATP for the men’s tour and the WTA for the women’s tour), each individual tournament on tour is responsible for the administration of their respective event. This separation of administration leads to a highly decentralized system that requires each tournament to be able to make a profit individually. In doing so, the tournaments primarily rely on corporate sponsorships and—most importantly—ticket sales. Unlike the Olympics and the NFL, tennis isn’t as mainstream of a sport, and accordingly, tennis tournaments make a much smaller percentage of their revenue from TV deals, which is paid to the ATP and WTA, not the individual tournament. When fans can’t attend tournaments, sponsors have less incentive to sponsor that tournament, and then the tournament has a difficult time making money, which led to the cancellation of over 40 events in 2020

Tennis, accordingly, had trouble braving the pandemic. Similarly to the Olympics, some tournaments opted to postpone their tournaments, including the French Open, one of the four Grand Slam tournaments. This led to mitigated loss in 2020, and many of the most prominent tour-level events were able to continue as planned, with the notable exceptions of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, CA (which may be cancelled again), and the legendary Wimbledon, which actually had pandemic insurance, which led to it making a profit rather than taking a loss as a result of the cancellation. In the end, the tennis world is returning to competition, but not without significant changes. 

After facing many scandals as one of the first major sports to become a superspreader event, at a charity event hosted by world number 1 Novak Djokovic, tennis returns with ambitions to create a “bubble” around the players in the tournament to ensure the ability to compete. After the US Open had relative success in creating a bubble last fall, the Australian Open is holding a similar bubble, complete with 14-day quarantines. Some run-up events were cancelled, but the Australian Open has successfully begun. 

Though facing many complications and challenges, the sports world is proving resourceful in the face of the pandemic—just to varying degrees. While the Olympics’ international nature and reliance on fans forced a postponement, tennis’s decentralized system created a medium-successful 2021, and the NFL’s location in America and reliance on TV deals for funding led it to a successful season. Overall, the world is beginning to move towards a new normal. With new procedures in place and precautions aplenty, let’s all hope for a successful 2021 year in the world of sports. 

Original graphic by Sharlene Deng