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All the major U.S. pro sports leagues remain shut down due to coronavirus, after the NBA, NHL, and MLS all hit pause in March and MLB never began its season. Now every league is exploring how and when to return—and they all expect to return in empty stadiums with no fans, at first.
Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant’s agent Rich Kleiman expects it to take at least a year before fans are back at games.
That’s a bearish timeline that nonetheless may prove realistic, depending on how comfortable sports fans feel about being close to strangers before a coronavirus vaccine is widely available.
"I think we're probably at minimum a year from people even talking about having fans in an arena,” Kleiman told Yahoo Finance on Thursday. “And then once you've gotten clearance... it's going to be about a confidence that people have, and society has, to be in close proximity to other people, and that’s going to be a while.”
As of now, each league has a different potential plan. Major League Baseball owners this week pitched a plan to the MLB Players Association to return in July for an 82-game season, with no fans, where teams play only teams in their geographic region, but the sticking point is a proposed 50/50 revenue split that the players fear will set a precedent for the next round of collective bargaining negotiations in 2021. Major League Soccer Commissioner has begun allowing players to do solo workouts at their team facilities, and Commissioner Don Garber is “cautiously optimistic” the league can return and finish its season.
The NBA, which was much closer to the end of its 2020 season than the other leagues when it had to shut down, reportedly hopes to start back up in July with all the players in one location, possibly Walt Disney World or Las Vegas. But there are many caveats and potential pitfalls. (What if the season begins again, and then a player tests positive for COVID-19?)
There are also legitimate concerns in the sports industry that even once fans are allowed to attend games in person, many may not want to.
“In terms of the way players feel, they want to play,” Kleiman says. “They want to do their part to help the economy, to entertain, and to finish the season. Having some closure and having a champion is important.”
The main “hesitation” for people around the NBA right now, Kleiman says, is the unknown: “Not knowing and not understanding even the steps to returning. I’m not privy to the commissioner’s calls with the owners, obviously, but I’ve spoken to enough people to understand that it’s really just not even having the roadmap to return, that’s the most uneasy feeling that everyone has.”
Kleiman and Durant, who co-founded VC firm Thirty Five Ventures and have invested in startups like Coinbase, Acorns, Lime, and Postmates, also co-produced a documentary, “Basketball County: In the Water,” premiering on Showtime this Friday. The movie is about Prince George County in Maryland, where Durant, fellow NBA star Victor Oladipo, and many other pro athletes grew up.
As ESPN has made clear with “The Last Dance,” it’s a good time to put out a sports documentary.
Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.
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