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After virus subsides, fans will crave live competition – from a safe distance

TV ratings for the NFL draft this week should be sky high. Watching “classic games” from the past is getting old for a sports-starved nation.

Our pandemic-paused country has more pressing concerns, of course. But sports matter – watching live games represents a psychological bridge back to normalcy that many of us yearn for.

President Trump last week held a conference call with the heads of major pro leagues to discuss possible scenarios for reopening parts of the economy and getting their games back in action. Vice President Pence did the same with commissioners of college sports conferences. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the faces of the administration’s team in charge of managing the U.S. response to Covid-19, has given interviews on possibilities for baseball and other sports to resume.

When games do come back, none will be business as usual. If the NHL and NBA reconvene this year, the games would likely be made-for-TV events, with no spectators in the stands. To minimize travel, they would be played at a small number of neutral sites. (With the Buffalo Sabres well out of the playoff picture, Buffalo’s KeyBank Center and LECOM Harborcenter might be contenders to host neutral-site NHL playoff games.)

Fauci told an interviewer from New York’s YES Network this week that it’s possible that Major League Baseball could reopen this year with spectators in the stands, but they would be far fewer than normal and would have to be physically distanced from each other.

Fauci, who is a fan of the World Series champion Washington Nationals, said last week he was eager to see baseball again. A frequently mentioned scenario is for all teams to play their games at a few spring training sites in Arizona, with no fans present. The players would live in a sort of bubble, protecting them from exposure to coronavirus.

Fauci says “it’s going to be the virus that determines what the timetable is” for sports returning. He thinks the chances of having fans attend baseball games are slim.

“I think it’s more likely that you’re going to have more of a television baseball than a spectator baseball,” he told YES.

The NFL draft has been a virtual affair, with representatives from each team making selections from various locations, like a high-rent Zoom call. Beyond the draft, the NFL has been proceeding as though it will have a normal schedule starting in late summer. The timing of the virus has worked in the NFL’s favor, compared to other sports leagues, but with no Covid-19 vaccine on the near horizon, it’s hard to see the season starting normally after Labor Day. There are many factors to consider, starting with the question of whether games would include fans in the stands. And if fans were allowed:

• How would distancing be maintained when entering and departing the stadium?

• Would stadium personnel be able to scan tickets and check the bags of arriving fans?

Live sports are a major source of revenue for TV networks. And team owners, management and players all have incentives for games to resume. Pegula Sports and Entertainment has either laid off or furloughed dozens of employees recently, after swift drops in revenue when the Sabres’ and Bandits’ seasons, along with the AHL’s Rochester Americans, were shut down. Sports leagues need our eyeballs to make money, and most of us are willing to do our part.

The early 1980s was the age of “I want my MTV.” Now, fans want their ESPN, with live contests to watch. That is why the sports network has been showing NBA players competing in games of H-O-R-S-E.

Whether sports impart lessons about character or amount to little more than empty calories is a debate for another day.

As spectators, we need the games to begin whenever health authorities give the OK.

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