Sports leagues look destined to play without fans, but is it a fair option for players, fans and bettors?

Hartley examines how viable it will be to play U.S. major pro sports with no fans in the stands.

Seemingly hundreds of ideas have been floated to restart U.S. sports

As states start to consider whether to loosen restrictions amid COVID-19, one of the suggestions being made in relation to resuming sports is to play without fans and possibly in neutral locations.  

Asked if sports could resume Dr. Fauci, current Director of NIAID, suggested it was okay if precautions were taken:

COVID pro sports games"There's a way of doing that," Fauci said on Snapchat's show Good Luck America when asked if sports could be played in 2020. "Nobody comes to the stadiums. Put (athletes) in big hotels, wherever you want to play. Keep them very well-surveilled but have them tested like every week and make sure they don't wind up infecting each other or their families and just let them play the season out." 

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also indicated in one of his daily press briefings that he would like to see sports in the state resume, and he said he has spoken to New York team owners who were cooperative. At the same time, he said that games would have to be played without fans and that leagues would have to determine if the finances make sense after considering salaries and TV revenue. "Be creative" were his final words in the briefing.

Minor Sports Playing

Some U.S. sports have been operating for the last month, including minor league golf, horse racing in some states like Florida, Oklahoma and Nebraska, as well as WWE wrestling. But most sports have stopped. Fauci's suggestion of playing without fans was about to take place just prior to the cancellation of games and tournaments as the PGA Tour indicated the final three rounds of the Player's Championship would be played with only players and staff on hand; NASCAR and F1 indicated it would race without fans; the NCAA announced that March Madness would take place in empty arenas; and the NBA and NHL announced similar plans to play out their schedules. But in each case, plans were scrapped when someone tested positive in each of those leagues and organizers didn’t want to risk others getting infected. As well, many horse racing tracks that were given the go ahead to race without fans such as those in California, Louisiana, New York and parts of Canada all had to stop operations when states either instituted strict lockdowns or someone in the barn tested positive and the racing commissions felt they had to stop operating for fear the virus would spread.

The question that must be asked now is what Cuomo posed. Which leagues can viably operate without gate revenue and concession sales and which would have to take a pass because without that revenue they would be operating deep in the red?

Individual Sports

Two sports that could easily continue operating with only TV revenue are golf and tennis. Because they are individual sports, there are no contracts or salaries to pay and the TV revenue for both sports, at least in the larger events, are enough to offset the prize money. Moreover, the sports could work with the players and golf courses to try and offset some of the lost revenue by lowering the payouts. Some players may oppose that, but if they don't want to play in a specific tournament at a lower purse there are many other players waiting in the wings that would jump at the opportunity. At every tournament there are qualifying tournaments and a waiting list and almost every player in that boat would jump at the opportunity of playing in a PGA Tour event or a WTA tour tennis tournament, even if the final payout were lower.

Nascar racing no fansAuto Racing

Auto racing is a bit more complex. The majority of NASCAR Nextel Cup teams, as well as F1 teams, would have no trouble justifying running without fans since the TV money is so high and the majority of team owners are rich. But IndyCar, which receives very little money from TV contracts, would likely find it impossible to justify racing without gate receipts, the exceptions being the Indy 500 and possibly larger races like the streets of Long Beach. As for team sports, the answer of whether it is feasible to operate without fans would depend on the league and the team.


There's no question that the NFL would be able to survive on TV revenues alone, but one must question whether the games would be worth watching without fans. One of the aspects of NFL games that makes it exciting is fan noise and crowd interaction. In fact, some cities like Green Bay, Seattle and New Orleans are so loud and the teams rely so much on the 12th man that many bookmakers assign up to 5 points for those teams on the spread for home field advantage. The lack of fans creating and home-field advantage certainly will make it harder to handicap and bet NFL games in 2020.

Many teams like Dallas and New England are wealthier and far more able to withstand a loss of gate revenue than cities like Buffalo or Detroit, so the TV stations would have to agree to put some of the lesser teams on the national broadcasts rather than focusing on games involving only teams like Dallas, Green Bay or San Francisco to help spread the wealth and make up for lost revenue. And no doubt there will be calls for the richer teams to subsidize those that are struggling through the COVID-19 crisis.


MLB games with no fans in the standsThe same holds true for Major League Baseball. Teams like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers will have no issues functioning without gate revenue but the poorer teams like Miami, Tampa Bay and Oakland may struggle to justify player salaries without fans, especially since they are already operating close to the red and do not have large TV and radio contracts. Major League Baseball has suggested playing all the games in two or three neutral markets and of all leagues, baseball is the one where lack of fans should have little impact. Baseball crowds tend to be the quietest due to the slowness of the game and for the most part the results of games are far more dependent on who is pitching than where the game is being played. Bookmakers only give a small money line advantage for home field in MLB.

And how will bettors react to the most recent idea posed by MLB, with three divisions broken down by geography? 100 game season? The NL teams playing the Yankees dozens of times a year? What about the DH? All of these questions would make placing bets on MLB a crapshoot, especially in the beginning of the 'season'.


As for the other leagues, Major League Soccer should be fine even though they have a small TV contract since many team owners are very rich and NCAA teams should have no issue operating since gate revenue has generally never been a huge consideration outside of Division 1. And the Division 1 teams receive enough money from TV contracts, tuition and donations from alumni to justify playing. Also, for the time being, NCAA players are not paid any salaries.


NBA COVID-19 playoffsThat leaves the NHL and NBA which were a handful of games away from the end of the regular season before COVID-19 halted play. The leagues are pondering how to proceed, and each are trying to figure out a solution that is reasonable and fair. When the idea of playing games without fans was first mentioned, Lebron James said he wouldn't play under those conditions, but he has since changed his stance. But the real question is whether it's fair to award a championship under conditions that are so different than before. Of all sports, basketball has the biggest advantage to being at home and some cities are more important for home court advantage than others. The Miami Heat for example, who were vying for a playoff spot, had a 27-5 record at home but only a 14-19 on the road and the Philadelphia 76ers only lost two games at home, but were 14 games below .500 on the road. Obviously, those teams will be far more affected by not being able to play at home than the Utah Jazz, who had a similar record, but were 21-10 at home and 20-13 on the road. And one cannot forget that some teams had more home games left than others. As for the NHL, teams like Nashville, who play equally well on the road as they do at home would be in a much better position than say, Vancouver, who struggles mightily on the road.

How to finish seasons in progress

But even more concerning is the way the leagues are suggesting how to finish the season. Gary Bettman has suggested that the NHL season may end next fall, with the 2020-2021 season delayed and he suggested the season may just end with the current points and start the playoffs based on current standings. Teams on the bubble believe that would be patently unfair, since they could have made the playoffs and as has been seen in the past, lower ranked teams often still fare well in the playoffs.

NHL  playoffs coronavirusSergei Bobrovsky, a goalie on the Florida Marlins told an ESPN reporter in a conference call that he would deem just ending the season as grossly unfair:

"I think it's not really fair, because it's still like 12 or 13 games . . . lots of games [left] and we're right in the mix. We have the opportunity to be in there, and if they just cut it off, I don't think that it's fair. From a sports standpoint, the season is 82 games and then the playoffs start. You just can't cut off where we are and move right into the playoffs."

Bettman, on the other hand, said the league is considering all scenarios and they also have other considerations since finishing position in the regular season determines how teams will rank in the player draft.

As for the NBA, they face the same scenario, but have suggested opening arenas soon to allow teams to start practicing, even though nothing would start until at least July. But again, the NBA has to consider the draft considerations and they have to determine if it would be fair to effectively eliminate teams from playoff contention if they decide to end the season early and move right into the playoffs. And the chance of catching the virus from another player is much greater in the NBA than the NHL, since NBA players do not wear a lot of outer protection and the amount of liquids being released on the court is much higher. Both leagues said they would be testing all players vigorously before the games start, but as mentioned before players could be infected and not show symptoms or even test positive at the time of the check. When Rudy Gobert mocked COVID-19 on March 9th and licked the microphone there was no indication he had the virus and by all indications he had no symptoms whatsoever. But he ended up with Coronavirus, proving what many doctors have said, this virus is tricky and unpredictable.

Leagues at a Standstill

Everyone wants to restart the games, but it is just accepted that any play in 2020 and possibly 2021 until there is a vaccine will be played in empty fields and arenas. Some leagues such as Major League Baseball and the NFL would not have a lot of fallout in terms of fairness if they played all games on neutral fields without fans since the seasons have not yet started, so it would be an equal situation for all. But other leagues, such as the NHL and NBA, which were close to the finish of their seasons would have to decide if and how to finish the season fairly. And unless all games can be played according to the schedule (which they won't), there will be a big asterisk on whichever team wins the playoffs.

In the meantime, golf and tennis along with other individual sports should be able to start up soon with strict regulations in place, which will give sports fans something to watch on TV, players something to do and bettors something to wager on. It may require some sacrifices on the players' parts, it may require some sacrifice on the arena's part and it may require some extra incentive from the TV and radio stations, but if it can be done safely and effectively any version of pro sports will certainly be welcome.

As Andrew Cuomo said, "be creative."

Read insights from Hartley Henderson every week here at OSGA and check out Hartley's RUMOR MILL!

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