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Sun, May 31

Beyond the Lines: Coronavirus impacting sports

The gates were padlocked and everybody except players, team personnel, employees, scouts and media, was barred from entering the stadium during the game being played in Joe Riley Stadium.

No, this wasn’t due to the coronavirus, just another promotion by the Minor League Charleston (S.C.) RiverDogs and their creative owner, Mike Veeck. “Nobody Night,” held on July 8, 2002, was designed to set the record for professional baseball’s lowest attendance - zero. Mission accomplished.

Hundreds of fans milled about outside the stadium while the RiverDogs game was played, knowing the gates would open after the fifth inning when the game – and the record - became official and everyone would be allowed to enter free of charge.

There have been other Major League sporting events in this country where fans were excluded from the facility, but not because of a medical scare. That won’t be the case if sports leagues in this country implement contingency plans currently being formulated to play games in empty stadiums and arenas as a result of the coronavirus.

While no professional league in this country has taken such action, leagues in Europe and Asia have, among them sumo wrestling and the Tokyo marathon which barred fans in an effort to prevent the disease from spreading. Organizers are adamant the Tokyo Summer Olympics will go on as scheduled, even if the events take place without fans.

The U.S. has already seen its first sports event held without fans due to the coronavirus. On March 6, Yeshiva University beat Worcester Polytechnic Institute in an NCAA Division 3 men’s basketball tournament game in an empty gym at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

In order to prevent any non-authorized individuals from entering the gym, police officers were stationed outside with a sign that read, “No spectators.” No one challenged security. In fact, fears of the disease are so high that Yeshiva’s original hotel reservations were cancelled and, perhaps in a sign of times to come, three WPI players refused to take the court.

The Indian Wells Tennis Tournament in California was cancelled due to fears of the coronavirus but for now, professional team sports in the U.S. are going on as scheduled, although all leagues are closely monitoring the situation. The NBA and NHL are in the last month of their regular seasons and MLB teams are in spring training with Opening Day less than three weeks away. Reports from camps in Florida and Arizona indicate that players are taking precautions from exposure to the disease by refusing to shake hands with fans or sign autographs.

All teams in the NBA, NHL and MLB have been asked to prepare plans to replicate “Nobody Night.” When Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, the highest profile player in the NBA, was asked about the possibility of playing games in empty arenas he had a curt response: “I ain’t playing without fans.”

The coronavirus is a reminder that sports is not insulated from the rest of the world. What affects the general population will ultimately impact the games we love.

Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.

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