On Sunday, soccer superstar Christian Ronaldo lost control of a cross at the top of the six-yard box that teammate Aaron Ramsey picked up and swiftly buried into the goal, sealing Juventus' victory 2-0 over Inter Milan.
It was perhaps the biggest moment in one of the biggest Italian soccer games of the year but after the goal, there was near-total silence. The two famous clubs were forced to play in an empty stadium thanks to the coronavirus (COVID-19) and the massive quarantine protocols in Italy.
European football is hardly the only sport to be impacted by the spread of coronavirus —NCAA basketball games have been played in empty gyms, tennis tournaments have been postponed, the Women’s World Hockey Championship was cancelled, and Japan’s top baseball league has delayed the start of its season.
The major sports leagues in North America are already responding with new measures but with coronavirus expected to spread further over next few months, you can expect to see some big changes for your favourite sport—even if some of the bigger stars won’t be looking forward to it.
“We play games without the fans? Nah, that’s impossible,” LeBron James said this weekend. “I ain’t playing if I ain’t got the fans in the crowd, that’s who I play for.”
Here’s what fans need to know about how coronavirus is affecting sports, and what could happen in the next few months.
What has happened so far?
Actually, quite a bit has occurred on the ol’ corona/sports front.
In Italy, where one of the worst outbreaks is occurring—over 463 dead and thousands more infected as of March 10—all sports at all levels have been cancelled until at least April 3rd as part of the quarantine implemented by the government. This includes the massively popular Serie A league (their top league) but not the national team or teams that play internationally like Juventas, who will still play in the UEFA Champions League. In Japan, the start of their top professional baseball league has been postponed. Several Grand Prix, including one in Bahrain, will either be postponed or raced in front of no one.
In North America, the International Ice Hockey Federation has cancelled the Women’s World Championship that was set to take place in Halifax, Nova Scotia at the end of March. On Sunday, it was announced the California tennis tournament, the BNP Paribas Open (better known as Indian Wells), has been postponed until an undetermined date. Small NCAA basketball games have been played in empty gyms as post-secondary institutions head into the March Madness tournament. In Santa Clara County, health officials have temporarily banned events that would gather over 1,000 people in one area, meaning the NHL’s San Jose Sharks may have to play some of their three scheduled home games in front of an empty arena.
Lee Igel, a clinical associate professor at the New York University Institute for Global Sport, told VICE that we will likely see more empty stadiums and canceled games.
“As schools, academic institutions and workplaces start telling people to stay home and work remotely, (sports) may follow suit,” said Igel. “Not to make anything about sports boring, but at the end of the day, it's organizations and people going to work. We just pay attention to it much more and in different ways.
“So, I think we’ve got to be on the lookout for where other closures and cancellations are taking place and start to see sports falling into that.”
Is going to a sporting event really going to increase my chance of getting coronavirus?
Going to any sort of large gathering will increase your chances of getting COVID-19. Dr. Christopher Harrisonn, a pediatric infectious disease doctor at the Children's Mercy hospital in Kansas City, told VICE that because coronavirus spreads easily through infected saliva and the contagions can last for a long time on some surfaces, sporting events could quickly become a hotspot.
“When you think about going to a professional hockey game or NBA game, you're going to those places where there's a lot of places like turnstiles that people touch,” said Dr. Harrison. “Even with daily cleaning, if you have, you know, 20,000 people coming to a turnstile and 4,000 or 5,000 going to the restrooms and things like that, the cleaning is only as good as the next person who sneezes or touches it. It's gonna be hard for any practical method to keep those places from getting contaminated with this coronavirus.
“If you look in the stands when people are celebrating for their team, they hug and hang off people, some share drinks—things you wouldn't do at home sometimes,” he added “That kind of atmosphere is great for spreading this kind of highly infectious illnesses.
The leagues themselves have been making decrees of their own—after all, their players are their product, so they can’t have them getting sick. The NBA has told their players to stop high fiving fans and to only use personal pens when signing autographs. The majority of NHL, MLB, and NBA teams have banned media from entering dressing rooms for interviews.
What could happen?
We’ll know a lot more in the next 10 days because by then North American medical clinics will have run a lot more tests and have a far better understanding of the scale of the problem, says Dr. Harrison. We could learn the problem was far larger than previously thought. If that's the case expect more temporary bans of large gatherings like in Italy or San Jose, which could have a major impact on the NBA and NHL playoffs as well as the start of the Major League Baseball season. As many players have said, it would change the complexion of a game.
“Boring.” Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson told NBC. "We get the energy from our fans. It would suck, man.
Despite how the athletes feel, it may be a prudent decision.
What happens though, if things get far worse and a league finally decides to pull the trigger and cancels games to lower the risk to their players and team personnel? It's not as if they can just postpone the games. Frankly, as Igel explains, if games were cancelled, a season similar to a lockout-shortened one would be the most likely route. Flailing around and attempting to schedule a ton of make-up regular season games would be a logistical nightmare.
“When you get into when you're talking about everything from travel and accommodations, to broadcasters, to moving equipment, to concessionaires, the supply chains, and so on," said Igel. "Just start to think through the sort of back of the house kinds of things that need to be done. You start to play with these kinds of permutations and schedules and it becomes less and less likely to make this stuff happen.”
When it comes to what will happen with an event like the Olympics, which billions have been invested in, we're in unfamiliar waters. Organizers are adamant the games will go on but, like many other events, they may occur in empty arenas—the largest of which was built specifically for this event.
Has this happened before?
Hell, just four years ago, before the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Zika virus fears were strong enough that some athletes didn’t attend the games. But still, in the end, the games went on and it was relatively normal. Igel told VICE that to find something in recent memory that maps similarly to this—with events being cancelled or postponed with no idea of what is going to happen—you would have to go back to the 9/11 attacks.
Coronavirus would not be the first outbreak to have a major impact on pro sports leagues, that would be 1918-1919’s Spanish Flu epidemic that killed upwards of 50 million people. Despite all but one game of the NHL Finals being played, the Stanley Cup wasn’t awarded that season, after the majority of the Montreal Canadians players caught the illness. Joe Hall, a Hall of Fame defenceman for the Canadians, would die of complications from the flu four days after the last game was played.
Could my favourite player get it?
Oh yeah, they’re only human after all.
As mentioned earlier, salvia is one of the key ways this virus spreads. So, if you think of what playing sports typically entails you know how easily your spit could inadvertently end up on another player. Furthermore, once a player gets it and decides to fight through the sniffles to play, it could easily rip through a team and potentially, a league.
“It's hard to imagine that you could play something like good defence in basketball, or something like that, and not have some exposure in practices and games,” said Dr. Harrison. “Once it gets on a team, it will probably spread quickly.”
Thankfully, the majority of athletes are young people with finely turned bodies so even if they do get the illness it will, most likely, just feel like a bad cold.
Is this the end of sports this year?
Probably not. There’s too much money at stake for leagues not to figure this out.
But if that’s the case, then we have larger problems than the Edmonton Oilers wasting their relatively strong year in a weak NHL Pacific Division.
Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.