When Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 back in March, the entire world of sports screeched to a halt. Games were cancelled, leagues were shut down, and players sent home. Fortunately for us sports fans, by mid-summer, most professional sports leagues had developed a plan to restart league play and conclude their respective seasons. Each league instituted their own unique plan. The NHL, NBA and MLS formed “bubbles”—sites at which all teams would convene, living and playing in a select few venues, and protected from the outside world—whereas the MLB, NFL and major European soccer leagues decided to allow their teams to travel, and play games in stadiums at zero capacity or reduced capacity.
For us avid sports fans and even the average ones, the reintroduction of sports into daily life did wonders for our mental health. With so much going on in the world, pandemic-wise and otherwise, being able to enjoy professional sports again was a godsend.
Yet, as dominant sports leagues resumed and those athletes returned to their gyms, stadiums and arenas to conclude their seasons, a much larger number of athletes were not as fortunate. Because of the way that a select few professional leagues dominate media discourse, we tend to think of the “sports world” only in the context of a small number of leagues across a small number of sports. As such, we tend to ignore the thousands of athletes, both professional and amateur, who weren’t able to resume play this past summer, and possibly might not get that opportunity for a while.
While the NBA and NHL, for example, earn billions of dollars each year in revenue, and pay their athletes multimillion dollar salaries, they do not represent the broader world of sports, despite what primetime television slots and Twitter discourse would have you think.
Restarting was simply unaffordable for the vast majority of leagues, who rely on game day revenue—mainly ticket sales and concessions—as well as paying measly salaries in order to remain financially afloat. Without million dollar TV deals to fall back on, losing game day revenue was simply a hurdle too large to overcome. That is without counting the enormous additional costs of daily testing, PPE, and enhanced cleaning measures that are necessary to run a sports league in this environment, which only the highest earning leagues are able to afford.
Now I know that in the midst of a global pandemic, watching the NBA and NHL resume this past summer was a great escape from the COVID-19 drama that continues to dominate our daily lives. That being said, the widespread notion that the “sports world” is managing the pandemic well, or, dare I say, thriving given the circumstances, is only true for a select few elite leagues and their players.
To give you a glimpse of the other side of sports, the side hidden from the mainstream and firmly out of the spotlight, let’s take a look at the CFL. During the summer, the CFL applied for a $30 million loan from the Government of Canada to finance a league restart, but that request was rejected, and the CFL cancelled their season, leaving every single player, coach, training staff, medical staff, equipment manager, and stadium worker out of a job. It remains to be seen how the CFL will tackle the challenges of holding a 2021 season, and what that means for the players and the league’s future.
In another instance, NWHL players, who in the best of times never made more than $26,000 per year (only the top earners), and more often than not earned salaries much closer to $10,000, were also hit hard by the league cancellation. Many professional women’s hockey players have been known to work two jobs, as the typical salary from a women’s professional league alone is not sufficient. Needless to say that the cancelled season had a tremendous financial impact on these players.
The archetype of an athlete isn’t LeBron James, or Sidney Crosby, it is more accurately the minor league pitcher who needs every pitching opportunity he can to be noticed by a scout. It is the small-school senior quarterback who may have lost his last chance to get drafted because his pro day was cancelled. It is the highly-touted point guard who lost her opportunity for national exposure when the NCAA cancelled its March Madness tournaments. It is also every single Stanford athlete that plays any one of the eleven sports that were cut from Stanford’s athletic program due to pandemic-related lost revenue.
The point is not to not enjoy the sports that are still happening, on the contrary, we should enjoy them and feel grateful that there are some sports that we are still able to watch. But, we also must remember that the world of sports is much larger than the four major North American leagues, European soccer and a few tennis stars. So, next time you turn on the TV to watch a game, know that that does not represent the majority of sports-affiliated jobs, and that those people, affiliated with less-than-billion-dollar-revenue leagues, need continued support during the pandemic, so that hopefully, when the time comes for that first game day back, when stadiums can be filled and beer can be sold, there will still be a game left to be played.