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Ed Willes: Pandemic will pose problems for pro sports as sponsors, fans take a hit

Fans and sponsors became accustomed to forking out big bucks for big thrills — like watching or sponsoring the NFL's Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field for example. Will COVID-19 spell the end of this relationship? Some experts believe it will take 10 years to recover from the economic hit levelled by the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Fans and sponsors became accustomed to forking out big bucks for big thrills — like watching or sponsoring the NFL's Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field for example. Will COVID-19 spell the end of this relationship? Some experts believe it will take 10 years to recover from the economic hit levelled by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

You try to make sense of the numbers but, after a while, they lose their meaning.

Sports in the United States is a $100-billion per year industry that is facing $12 billion in losses this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s also the conservative end of the estimate according to a study commissioned by ESPN.

Within those numbers you find gems like this: The NFL is facing losses in the tens of billions if their season is cancelled. The NHL? Pffft, a meagre $1 billion in losses if they lose the rest of the 2019-20 campaign, $500 million if they pull off their modified version of the Stanley Cup tournament.

They’re also in an enviable position compared to Major League Baseball, which will still lose $2 billion if they can cram in half a season, or the NCAA which is facing $4 billion in losses, two-thirds of that owing to the cancellation of March Madness.

The numbers in Canada aren’t quite as jarring, but in 2018 Statistics Canada reported spectator sports accounted for more than $3 billion in revenue in our country.

Great. Whatever. I mean, two billion, three billion, a jillion billion. Spend enough time on this and it all sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher, but here’s the thing: As scary as things are right now, it feels like we’ll be able to get through the next couple of months. The real fear is in what lies ahead with an economy that has been scarred beyond all recognition.

Will our society be able to support this massive industry? Will it want to? Should it want to? Can it afford not to?

There is so much riding on those questions. People’s livelihoods are at stake. A certain way of life is threatened and if that sounds overly dramatic, think of the impact sports and recreation makes on our young people. Hell, think of the impact it makes on old people. Ask yourself, do we want a world where sports and everything they represent are marginalized?

That’s inconceivable. But just look around and try to predict where this will take us.

In the end, the NHL and the other major professional leagues might be too big to fail, and we’ll get back to them in a minute. But what about secondary leagues? How do the Vancouver Giants survive this? What about the BCHL? And the Western Lacrosse Association?

In Canada, we’ve already lost the Memorial Cup, the Allan Cup and lacrosse’s Mann Cup this year. Each of those trophies has been around for more than 100 years and occupies an honoured place in our country’s collective memory. Will they come back?

Giants owner Ron Toigo doesn’t think the WHL will resume play until January and, to date, season-ticket holders have been understanding.

But, “You can make that commitment today, but what happens in six or seven months if you don’t have a job? That’s the biggest concern. What will the economy look like? And that’s universal. It’s not just sports.”

Chris Hebb, the commissioner of the BCHL, paints a sunnier picture. His league is smaller and its business model isn’t as dependent on big sponsorship dollars and corporate support. It’s spread out over 17 communities in the province and enjoys a healthy brand loyalty in each locale.

“I don’t see a tremendous amount of adjustment other than this year,” Hebb says.

The Canucks, on the other hand, are dependent on big sponsorship dollars and corporate support, and who knows if that will be available in the new world order.

Then again, who knows if fans will continue to pay top dollar to attend Canucks games in a depressed economy? And who knows how hard the Aquilinis’ businesses have been hit already and how hard they’ll be hit in the future?

We realize we’re asking a lot of questions without providing any answers, but that’s the nature of the pandemic. Nothing is certain. Everything is a guessing game. True, some of those guesses are more educated than others, but just follow the news cycle for a week and see if you can extract any eternal truths.

All we seem to know is, for the moment, the arenas and stadiums are dark in North America and that produces its own level of anxiety. You see it in the projected losses of the major sports leagues. You hear it in the voice of Gary Bettman when he says: “Let’s be clear about one thing: We have no revenues coming in right now and that poses an issue.”

Or NBA commissioner Adam Silver when he says: “Our revenue, in essence, has dropped to zero.”

But it’s not what will happen in two months that should scare those leagues. It’s what will happen in two years. Will the economy be able to support an industry in the style to which it has become accustomed? Will it support the leagues that don’t occupy the spotlight but have been a significant part of our province and country for as long as anyone can remember?

“It’s going to take 10 years to get back to normal,” says Aziz Rajwani of the Langara School of Management and UBC’s Sauder School of Business. “Sports might bounce back faster because of the connection it has to fans, but society as a whole, it will definitely take that long.”

At least that’s a number everyone can understand.

ewilles@postmedia.com

twitter.com/willesonsports

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1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

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