The Masked Future of Sports
The pandemic rocked the sports industry, but through it all, leagues and teams used their platform to vocalize the importance of masks
January 21, 2021 | Published by O2
On March 11th, the world learned that Utah Jazz centre, Rudy Gobert, had tested positive for COVID-19. The very next day NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver would suspend the season, and ignited a chain reaction of sports cancellations across the industry including both the NHL and MLB. From there it snowballed, and similar to most industries in 2020, sports took a HARD hit. Seeing the biggest disruption since WWII, the total financial damage has now amounted to $11.05 billion in lost game day revenue and 198.18 million fans displaced from watching their favorite teams live. Sports business leaders have a very doomed outlook on the future of the industry.
But, like any great comeback story, the sports industry quickly assembled to reclaim a season that could have been completely lost. In order to adapt and respond to these unprecedented times, bubbles were created, daily COVID testing took place, and masks were seen on all athletes. Sports – in some form – were back to entertain billions around the globe…at least on television. The NHL, MLB, NBA, and other leagues didn’t rush to bring fans back to their arenas (cue cardboard people) as COVID-19 cases were still on the rise and, at the time, no vaccine was in sight. For leagues that do not have lucrative media rights deals – and even those that do — this was not a sustainable strategy, and let’s face it, sports are so much better live!
With a heightened sense of priority around health and safety, sport venues started to implement stringent COVID protocols – and one in particular that is close to O2’s heart – mandating masks. Let’s face it (pun intended), masks sound like a no-brainer considering WHO and CDC had begged people to wear them for the past 10 months, but this new rule wasn’t met with complete compliance. NCAA Football has struggled to keep masks on and fans apart, and during an October Texas A&M game, 41 students were ejected for not wearing face coverings while other Colleges have called their football games “super spreader events”. However, the NFL Season Opener saw the Kansas City Chiefs play host to the Houston Texans in front of 15,895 fans (Arrowhead Stadium can hold 76,000), and out of those fans – who were mandated to wear masks – only 10 had to quarantine when 1 fan tested positive for COVID. Those are just two small examples, but as we’ve seen, mandatory mask use was enforced in leagues across the world and has truly helped to stop the spread of respiratory droplets while fans are chanting and cheering.
So, what does this all mean? Well, it could mean that masks will be part of our game-day attire for the foreseeable future. Why? Because human health and the financial health of the sports industry depend on it. One of the best indicators of success in sports business is butts in seats, and in order for that to happen, fans NEED to feel safe in venues which ultimately means that PPE must be worn not only by them, but all concession and ancillary staff in the stadium. According to a 2020 PwC study, 43.3% of sports business professionals believe that the industry will not reach full recovery until 2022, with 27.1% thinking it will be closer to 2023; a daunting figure considering leagues are still struggling….so yes, fans and in-game associated revenue (snacks, beers, programs, and swag) need to regain momentum. Now, there are two vaccines on the horizon which are providing some light at the end of this pandemic tunnel. However, many news outlets, including the New York Times and CTV News, reported concerns that those who have been vaccinated might still carry the COVID-19 virus without developing symptoms, and silently spreading the virus to others. In addition to that, the 2021 start of the NBA season saw multiple players who previously tested positive for COVID-19, recently test positive for a second time. According to ESPN, the NBA is now enforcing new safety protocols that include wearing a mask at all times if you are behind the bench. Again, the recurring theme of MORE mask use.
There is a fine line we all need to walk to ensure sports can carry on (in a revenue generating capacity), while people – both in the stadium and out – remain safe and healthy. A big question on most people’s minds is “what role does sport play in encouraging the public to take the vaccine or even enforce a COVID test prior to coming to their game?” According to the LA Times, MLB has told its teams that it will not mandate proof of negative COVID tests or vaccinations prior to entering the ballpark, instead, individual teams will have the option to enforce their own rules regarding fan testing or vaccination requirements, as well as additional ballpark safety protocols such as temperature checks. While the NBA is asking that all fans sitting within 30 feet of the court show proof of a negative COVID test. There is no right or wrong answer here, but the hope is that leagues and teams continue to do all they can to protect the entire sport ecosystem.
All this news can seem pretty scary; vaccines, lost jobs, NO SPORTS (okay, that last one might be lowest on the priority list), but this is all to inform fans on how best to get back to some form of “normalcy” and escapism that sports provide. We are not defenseless against this virus, in fact masks and respirators are some of the most powerful tools we have to stop the spread of COVID-19 — as proven by some of the wealthiest businesses in the world. Masks may also start to be more broadly used by athletes, leagues, teams, and their fans past the pandemic like during cold or flu season, international travel, or in crowds when the breathing environment is a little more sensitive.
We don’t know what 2021 has in store for us yet, but the future is looking a lot brighter! We have banded together as a society to help curb the spread of this virus and have shed light on the importance of the air you breathe. Human health and safety were given priority, and the simple action of wearing a mask has now become a symbol of courtesy, empathy and love for your fellow fan. A symbol that we all hope sticks around.