What if they played a game and nobody came?
Professional sports leagues in places as far-flung as Italy and South Korea are about to find out. With government approval, both Serie A soccer and the Korean Basketball League are opting to broadcast regularly scheduled games played in empty stadiums and arenas rather than postponing or canceling them — and the list of events is expanding — in response to the growing coronavirus threat.
The length of the experiment hinges on the progress of the virus. But if it’s a success, both in terms of public safety and the leagues’ bottom lines, it’s not hard to imagine the first made-for-television-only Summer Olympics, with normally bustling Tokyo less a backdrop than a sound stage.
“It could be a viable option, and depending on the situation, maybe the only safe option by then,” said Dae Hee Kwak, an associate professor and director of the Center for Sports Marketing Research at the University of Michigan.
“Say the virus lingers on and on. And governments continue banning mass-audience events and people go along with some version of self-quarantine. … Will the games look and feel different on TV? Will people be disappointed, especially in places where attending games is part of their identity? Of course.
“But in this case, the trade-off is hardly worth it,” Kwak concluded. “The fear of endangering your family and friends and community should always be greater than the fear of any lasting harm it could do to sports.”
Games have been played and televised from empty stadiums before for varying reasons. But they’ve always been exceptions.
The Baltimore Orioles played host to the Chicago White Sox in an empty Camden Yards in April 2015, with the city still simmering outside the locked stadium gates several days after a 25-year-old black man named Freddie Gray sustained a fatal spinal-cord injury while in police custody.
Spanish soccer giant Barcelona played Las Palmas behind closed doors in October 2017 to register its protest against the government’s attempt to block a vote over independence for Catalonia. The team’s Camp Nou stadium, among Europe’s largest with a capacity approaching 100,000, has long been a rallying point for Catalan nationalists.
The first round of the (now-defunct) North Atlantic Conference tournament was played in a nearly vacant Hartford (Conn.) Civic Center in March 1989 after one outbreak of measles at Siena College and another at the University of Hartford persuaded organizers to bar spectators. A win over Boston University at the buzzer gave Siena its first NCAA Tournament bid and a subsequent upset of Stanford in the first round of the big dance put the small school on the college basketball map.
“Over the long run, the way things happened made us even more famous,” recalled Steve McCoy, who rebounded a missed shot and hit the game-winning layup against BU.
“I live in Boston now and I’m in church the other day, on Ash Wednesday, and I run into a Siena guy at the end of the mass. We wind up talking for an hour about ‘89 and how it was one of the greatest experiences of our lives.
“As soon as somebody finds out I played there,” McCoy concluded, “the first thing they usually say is ‘Siena had that measles team.’ ”
“It’s not like we drew big crowds at the time, but our last two regular-season home games were empty because of the measles. So at least we had some experience with it,” said Tom Huerter, McCoy’s teammate at Siena back then.
“The first time you walk into an empty gym for a real game, it feels like a high school scrimmage. You can hear the coaches screaming — every word — and there’s no other energy to feed off, so you’ve got to rely on each other,” he added. “We were lucky to have a tough-minded team.”
Fear of the virus spreading further in Italy forced Serie A, the top Italian league, to postpone five matches this weekend — they were scheduled to be played in empty stadiums until Saturday morning. In the biggest match, not far from the epicenter of the virus outbreak in northern Italy, league-leading Juventus was to host third-place Inter Milan in Turin — the so-called “Derby d’Italia.”
“Soccer needs the crowd, to hear the atmosphere around it,” Inter Milan coach Antonio Conte said. “That’s the best thing about the game, the atmosphere around the soccer being played. These decisions have been taken with public health in mind but I hope that everything returns to normal as soon as possible.”
That’s unlikely, but sports-marketing experts say the television-only model could have staying power.
“Look at it this way: The ‘gate,’ has been a declining share of revenue for big-time teams and leagues for some time now,” said Marc Ganis, president and founder of Chicago-based Sportscorp, a leading business consulting firm with deep ties to Chinese sports dating back more than a decade.
“Empty stadiums can only go on for so long, but for big-time enterprises — international soccer, the NFL and NBA, and especially the Olympics, say — it makes economic sense to show them in the meantime. They’re essentially TV properties. Way more of their revenue is generated from broadcasting rights than ticket and concession sales.
“And right now, the biggest threat to that model is uncertainty — government mandates, public acceptance … and at some point, while I hate to bring it up, we’re going to have to add legal liability to this discussion,” he said. “So far, we’ve been very fortunate in the United States.
“But what happens if an athlete or fan or support-staff member gets infected with the coronavirus?” he asked, then answered his own question. “Lawsuits won’t be far behind.”