The restrictions on large gatherings and non-essential businesses aren’t the only thing standing in the way of sports.
Even when sports like baseball and basketball are ready to return, there’s no guarantee we will be. In two polls released this week, large majorities indicated it will be months before they feel comfortable going back to crowded arenas, stadiums and ballparks.
Only 6 percent of the respondents in a Harris Poll said they would go to a game as soon as they’re able, while 36 percent said it will be four months or longer before they would attend a sporting event. In a Seton Hall Sports Poll, 72 percent said they won’t return to games until there is a vaccine for the coronavirus, something that is at least 12 months away.
Perhaps most ominous, only 13 percent said they would feel as safe going to a game as they did before the pandemic that has infected 1.6 million people around the world and killed almost 100,000 – more than 16,000 in the United States alone.
COVID-19 hasn’t just sickened people and sent our economy into a free fall. It’s ravaged our psyches. Before last month, most of us never gave a thought to crowding tens of thousands of people into an arena or ballpark, sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers for hours on end.
Now we know that could be a death sentence.
That isn’t hyperbole. In Italy, a Champions League soccer game has been dubbed a “biological bomb,” likely sparking the country’s deadliest outbreak of COVID-19.
About a third of Bergamo’s 120,000 residents reportedly went to the Feb. 19 game in nearby Milan that featured hometown Atalanta against Valencia of Spain. Less than two months later, Bergamo has at least 9,000 confirmed cases. More than 2,300 people are dead.
“Two things we know: COVID spreads very easily and very rapidly in crowded settings,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center on Public Health Law and Human Rights.
“Secondly, we know if you have a prolonged exposure to COVID, and that would be if you’re just sitting and watching a match, you probably have more likelihood of getting the disease,” Gostin said. “And probably being more likely of getting seriously ill or dying because you get a higher dose of the virus.”
Maybe some of us will be able to go to a game – or a concert or a play – without that dark cloud of fear in our minds. But most of us have been scarred, if not forever then until a vaccine is widely available. Instead of being a distraction from the woes of our lives, we’ll wonder and worry that they’re going to be the source of new ones.
We desperately want our sports back. In the Harris Poll, 20 percent of the 1,993 respondents said sports is what they miss watching most. For the professional leagues, having to put their seasons on hold is causing genuine financial hardship, and it’s no wonder some are kicking around ideas for how to bring sports back.
Playing games without fans would have once been unthinkable – for fans and players alike. But that seems the most feasible option once restrictions begin to ease. In the Seton Hall poll, just over three-quarters of the respondents – 76 percent – said they’d watch broadcasts of games without fans with the same interest, and 7 percent said they’d have more interest.
That will only last for so long, however. Ticket revenue remains critical to sports, particularly college sports. At some point, teams and leagues and athletic departments will need fans to come back to their arenas and stadiums and ballparks.
It’s not going to be an easy sell, however. The coronavirus has taken a heavy toll on all of us.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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