Coronavirus still stalking sports as leagues seek return

If things goes well with the battle against COVID-19 - and last week showed that rates of infection nationwide are not going well - athletes and fans of college professional sports are funneling toward an explosion of games this fall.

The freeze from mid-March caused professional basketball and hockey to ‘pause’ their seasons. Now, if plans by the leagues hold, the championships for the NBA and the National Hockey League could be held around the time of the World Series. The Indianapolis 500 has been moved to August, while the Kentucky Derby and golf’s U.S. Open are rescheduled for September. Golf’s Master’s tournament is slated for November.

That is all with the NFL and college football still trying to start at their usual times - with or without fans in the stands.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed, the Dayton Daily News has investigated what is next for major aspects of our society: schools, businesses, the arts, government.

The investigation has found that operators of sports teams - one of the region’s largest entertainment products, especially in the fall - continue to wrestle with confusion, changing data and uncertainty. They are seeking ways to play without athletes getting sick. And they are having existential questions - why play the games at all if you are putting fans or athletes at risk.

RELATED: Businesses have plans to keep workers safe. Are the protections enough?

Neil Sullivan, the director of athletics for the University of Dayton summed up planning for the future in a pandemic this way: “We’re intellectually humbled to make the best decisions we can with the information available.”

Sullivan has been at the epicenter of the sports-coronavirus clash since March when the cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournaments hit UD on multiple levels and cost the school millions in revenue.

It prematurely ended one of the greatest seasons in history for a proud Flyers men’s program. It denied the Dayton women’s basketball team another trip to their NCAA tournament and wiped out the university’s annual opportunity to host the men’s tournament First Four games, which would have kicked off the men’s tournament at UD Arena.

Sullivan said the First Four cancellation - as well as that of numerous other events the arena was to host - cost the university millions in revenue. He declined to put a specific number on it.

“I would say that it is very substantial,” Sullivan said. “The vast majority of our athletics generated revenue flows through UD Arena and things associated with hosting men’s basketball games — events, concessions, corporate partnerships, parking, outside events, the First Floor.”

UD has canceled its season-opening football game, citing a lack of time to prepare its players physically for a trip to Southeast Missouri State, but Sullivan said some athletes including basketball players could return to campus for voluntary workouts later this month.

» ARCHDEACON: A virtual celebration of UD football

Wright State announced tentative return dates for men’s basketball (July 6), cross country, men’s and women’s soccer and volleyball (all July 13) and baseball, golf, track and field and women’s basketball (July 20). A Central State University spokesperson said the school “is still assessing the best course of action” on when and how to resume its sports program. He said the school “will operate in the best interest, safety and well-being of our student-athletes, coaches, staff, fans and community.”

Wittenberg University in Springfield is also taking it slow, although athletics director Gary Williams said that as with UD, Wittenberg will take cues from Division I football and the professional leagues that have already resumed at least some voluntary workouts.

“And what Division I is going through right now in terms of positive COVID testing and how they’re managing through this, we’re gonna learn a lot,” said Williams, who is the chair of Wittenberg’s committee determining best practices for reopening the university to students this fall.

From a literal standpoint, sports are likely to look different as they return.

The NHL, NBA and Major League Soccer are all planning to return to action this month at “hub” cities to play games at neutral sites with no fans present.

Major League Baseball reportedly considered similar options but is planning to start its season July 23-24 in home venues with some rules changes. The Cincinnati Reds are beginning training soon.

For baseball, disagreement about how to share revenue in a season without fans in the seats delayed the return by at least a few weeks. Reds general manager Dick Williams said there is a at least some possibility the team might play in front of spectators at Great American Ball Park before the end of the summer.

» RELATED: Dick Williams fired up about return of baseball

Ripple Effects

One casualty has been the entire Minor League Baseball season, which led the Dayton Dragons last week to cancel all the rest of their 2020 games.

That not only hurts the team, but many surrounding businesses.

The building that houses Brixx Ice Company has already survived at least one global pandemic, having been around before the Spanish Flu of 1918.

General manager Chris Bhai is hopeful his bar on East First Street in Dayton will make it through another, but the absence of Dayton Dragons baseball certainly has not helped.

“I’ll be 100 percent honest: We’ve been here for 18 years, and this business was built around baseball,” Bhai said. “This was the original ‘Dragons’ den.’ I don’t know if you know this, but as the stadium was getting built, they needed offices for the staff and everything and that’s what was being done here.”

The Dragons cancellation hit the team hard.

“We will now work with our state government, local government, public health directors, Major League Baseball, Minor League Baseball, and the Midwest League to ensure that we are prepared to open the ballpark for our 21st season next year in 2021,” Dragons team president Robert Murphy said in a statement.

Bhai said his business was off about 75% in June with the Day Air Park across the street idle.

That was an improvement over May, when business was down 85%, and April (95%).

The coronavirus causing the state to issue a stay-at-home order and the lack of baseball bringing 8,000 or more fans to the Brixx Ice Company doorstep about 70 times per year has been a double whammy, and the future remains uncertain

That is especially true with Montgomery County among areas of concern cited by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine as COVID-19 case counts have increased in recent days.

“We can probably survive (until next spring) at 40% off, maybe 50% off but I don’t know if we can survive when it’s 75% off,” Bhai said.

“I’ve been here for a long time. I have a commitment to the city, to my staff, to myself and my wife to do everything humanly possible to hold on, to make this work. If that means I’ve got to work longer hours, if that means we’ve got to open for breakfast if that’s what it takes or we have to stay open until whatever, we’re willing to try a lot of a lot of things, anything outside the box that we can think of, we’re going to try.”

Are fans safe?

By all appearances, football teams at the pro, college and high school levels are hoping to play in front of crowds this fall, though they would likely be significantly reduced from normal years.

When asked in mid-June about the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame Game being played in front of a capacity crowd of 23,000 people in Canton in early August, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said that was “highly unlikely.”

“We have to see where we are at that point,” he continued. “That’s a large crowd, a lot of people together. These are the things we talk about all the way through this as we open Ohio up and we get back to work and we get back to doing the things we like. Probably the last things that are going to be able to be open are the big crowds, particularly when you have big crowds that are close together. We have to continue to look at it and make decisions as we move forward. But if the question was, ‘Could that event occur today?’ the answer would be no. It would be extremely dangerous. It would not really make any sense to do it.”

The NFL has since canceled the game entirely.

» SUMMER CAMP: Four things to know about Reds roster

Ohio State director of athletics Gene Smith said in May the school had already started modeling how many fans it could get into Ohio Stadium — which seats more than 100,000 fans for football — while maintaining social distance. A school spokesperson said last week no final decisions have been made.

Ohio State’s conference, the Big Ten, formed a task force to develop the conference’s response to the challenges presented by infectious diseases such as COVID-19, and its chair said via email it has focused more on student health in its discussions so far.

“We have had somewhat limited discussions about fan attendance at this point and have made no recommendations on this topic,” said Dr. Christopher Kratochvil of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, “although that is clearly a critically important aspect which will be addressed much more in depth in the near future.”

Sullivan confirmed UD has studied what a socially-distanced UD Arena (listed capacity: 13,407) could look like this winter, and the school is considering both the ramifications from a financial and fan satisfaction standpoint.

“We have some models, but for right now it’s just too hard to make predictions and forecasts and it’d be nothing more than a guess or personal hope on our end,” he said. “I feel like we’ll be prepared for whatever eventuality comes our way.”

Every team at every level has to consider financial results of playing — or not — and faces different circumstances.

UD basketball and football at places like Miami University could be hurt more by having to play in front of no fans or reduced crowds because neither the television rights for Atlantic 10 basketball (UD’s conference) nor Mid-American Conference (home to Miami) football are worth nearly as much as the Big Ten’s.

“A Big Ten school gets the bulk of their revenue from television, so for them as long as they’re on TV, that’s the most important thing,” Miami director of athletics David Sayler confirmed. “But for us, it’s fans in the seats and students being here on campus participating.”

Student fees are also part of the funding equation for schools like Miami.

“The most important thing for any MAC institution — and hopefully it is for all of higher education — is making sure that on-campus classes can happen,” Sayler said. “That’s an important piece for kids that attend Miami, right? They want to have that face-to-face interaction with a faculty member. So we all want in-person classes, but the underlying piece is that how we’re funded is a lot through student fees, and if we don’t have kids here we can’t charge the students fee and then that significantly impacts how we run our operation.”

In that way, Wittenberg is similar to Miami.

For the Tigers, who do not give athletic scholarships, the opportunity to play a sport at the college level is a draw for a significant number of Wittenberg students.

“Revenue generation from fan experience is not what our concern is right now,” Williams said. “At the end of the day, we generate revenue as a university because we enroll students, and they come and play for us.

“We’re going to be really close this year to having every one of our rosters at capacity, which is really good and very healthy, but if student-athletes aren’t afforded the opportunity to participate they should and very likely will question, ‘Should I be here? Like, what am I doing here? Why am I coming to campus if I can’t play a sport?’ And if they don’t come to campus then and they’re not paying for room and board then that’s one of those are the things that we’re worried about.”

College football programs across the country are learning first-hand the problems that can come from assembling people for workouts. Numerous schools have reported positive tests among athletes returning for voluntary workouts.

MLB, the NHL and NBA have also reported some positives test among players and team personnel after allowing them to return to team facilities, though none have announced plans to halt their return nor given any indication about how many COVID-19 infections would cause them to change course.

Since beginning the reopening of the state in May, DeWine has reiterated the need to learn to live with the virus until a vaccine is developed. Williams said he believes Wittenberg has gotten to the point of accepting there will be positive cases when students return.

“We’re trying everything we can today to function as a safe environment that knows COVID is among us, and that is everywhere from the way we’re setting up classrooms to athletics,” Williams said.

Of course, calling off classes and calling off games are two different things.

For now, quarantining or isolating positive players is not disrupting competition, but what about when the time to play actual games comes?

It is not hard to envision teams having to go into contests down one or even many players.

The impact of that on competition is obvious, but it might not be the biggest problem with having to isolate positive cases.

Williams pointed out it could take a personal toll on young people, especially considering some who are infected with the coronavirus do not develop symptoms but are still threats to spread the disease.

“So this is a real difficult quandary for higher ed,” Williams said.

“Try telling a 19-year-old kid who was asymptomatic and tested positive they have to sit in your residence hall for 14 days. These are the things that we’re talking through, like the scenario of a young student-athlete from Florida who is the first person in their family to have ever gone away to college comes to a brand new place called Springfield, Ohio, and feels 100% OK but tested positive. Now I just I’m gonna have to tell that young person, ‘You have to separate yourself in a place you have no idea about, and you have to go live in a quarantine location where you can only get food brought to you.’

“I mean that’s the scenario we’re thinking through and that’s hard. It’s hard to think through. It’s hard to put yourself in that spot, and it’s hard to think about putting a student-athlete or a student through that as well, but those are the things we have to be prepared for.”

About the Author