Jordan: Do you remember the night that COVID-19 got serious in North America? It was early March. Donald Trump gave an Oval Office address to America about the new Coronavirus. At the same time, Tom Hanks announced he tested positive. And meanwhile a basketball team was being pulled off the floor.
News Clip: Utah’s no longer on the floor. The Thunder are no longer on its bench. The officials have gone back to the locker room. Fans here in the arena don’t know what’s going on. We don’t know what’s going on. The game tonight has been postponed. This astounding and unprecedented story continues to evolve. The NBA is suspending the season. I say that understanding that–
Jordan: Now, this is going to sound stupid, but we’ll all that was going on while I was watching it happen, I was drafting a fantasy baseball team for the upcoming season. And now because I can’t bear to turn them off, I get notifications every week reminding me to set that fantasy team’s lineups. There are no lineups. Baseball is a fantasy right now. There are no sports. And beyond my stupid fake team, and even beyond all our collective excitement about things like watching the Toronto Raptors try to repeat the absence of sports has an impact. There are hundreds of thousands of people who make a living directly or indirectly from those games, and they’re all out of work. But also, on a more psychological level, in this age of streaming and on demand and specialized curated playlists, live sports are one of the very few things left that millions of people experience together at the same time. And the absence of that has an impact too. The sports world hasn’t stopped. It’s actually oddly busier than ever, just in very different ways. There are huge changes coming to these games. Some of them will be temporary, but some of them will be permanent. And someday, when you watch a game on TV or go to a game in person, or even if you don’t give a crap about sports, if you find yourself downtown in a big city on a game night, you’ll notice those changes. When will that actually happen? And what do they look like? Nobody knows, at least not yet. But we will talk to someone who has been working on finding out, as soon as Claire catches us up on what you need to know right now.
Claire: Well, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the government will have more funding and an expanded job placement program for postsecondary students who are struggling to find work. He says all the programs introduced for students will add up to about $9 billion. Ontario has now become the second province after Quebec to call in the military help to fight the Coronavirus in longterm care homes. Premier Doug Ford says this is meant to provide operational and logistical assistance so that workers can focus on caring for residents. Ontario is also expanding COVID-19 testing to every resident and worker in longterm care homes. Well on Prince Edward Island, the premier and top health officials say they’re hoping to lift some of the restrictions around COVID-19 in early May. They say this will be done slowly and with consultation. It’s still not known when schools in PEI will reopen, and the one thing the premier says will not change anytime soon, is the restriction on mass gatherings. PEI has had 26 cases of the virus. As of Wednesday evening, Canada has now topped 40,000 cases of COVID-19 with 2,074 deaths.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Richard Deitsch is a writer for the athletic. He is also the cohost of Writer’s Block on SportsNet 590 The Fan in Toronto, and he is also the cohost of a new podcast called Sports On Pause. A sports podcast, launched in a pandemic with no sports. Hello Richard.
Richard: Good to be with you.
Jordan: Why don’t you start as somebody who’s just completely immersed in the world of sports, by telling me what you’ve learned about sports since they vanished.
Richard: Hmm. That’s a good question. I think first and foremost, it just reemphasizes the importance of the escapism in our lives. It’s not to say that prior to COVID-19 we didn’t recognize and understand how important sports is, but I think it’s sort of human nature that when you lose something that you love, when you lose something that is very close to you, it really reinforces and reminds you just how much you’ve missed it. The interesting thing about this so far is that the literal time it’s been gone isn’t long. I mean, we haven’t been a year away from sports. We haven’t been five years away from sports. It’s, you know, depending on sort of your locale or what your sport is, you know, we’re looking under two months still. But it feels longer. That’s kind of the interesting thing with this, that it feels like we’ve been missing all this stuff for such a long time, and it reinforces just how important and you know, how impactful it is in all our lives. And no matter what your sport is, the likelihood is it impacts you in some form or matter on a daily basis, whether you’re watching the live event, whether you’re reading about the live event, whether you’re, you know, on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram talking or tweeting or posting about the live events. So I think that’s, for me, what the absence of sports has reinforced, is just how central a figure it is in so many lives.
Jordan: Well, yeah, they were– sports are so integrated into kind of the rhythm of our daily life. And I’m not just talking about, you know, you as a sports journalist, myself as a sports fan, but just the way kind of life ebbs and flows, they’re a constant. And I guess what I want to know is what happens in that billion, billion dollar industry when all of a sudden there’s a huge vacuum and there’s just nothing?
Richard: Well, a lot happens. And it really depends on what area you want to focus on. You know, for the business part of the industry, you’re seeing furloughs and layoffs and tournaments and/or jobs that will never come back. You know, Rogers Cup just announced it’s cancelled, and Tennis Canada just forloughed all sorts of people. And you know, it’s their intention to bring people back. But you just don’t know. You know, you don’t know what the future holds. Think about all the teams that– think about all the people who work either for a sports team, and don’t just think about like, well the vice president or the public relations person or the player, but all the jobs that are associated in and around sports. The bars and the restaurants that do business on game days, people who work in the businesses in the neighbourhood outside of ballparks, you know, vendors who provide sports teams will do whatever they provide. So the reason it’s a $6 billion business is because there’s so many ancillary parts connected to it. So very few people are not impacted by it, at least culturally or psychically. But then there are millions of people who are literally economically impacted by it. And those are the ones I think about, because the reality is all the jobs don’t come back. You know, my hope is that most do, but I’m a realist to know that all won’t.
Jordan: What have we learned about who’s getting taken care of and who’s not since this has begun in the sports world? You know, I’ve seen a lot of athletes and some teams reaching out to take care of their employees and then some outcries over other teams just letting everybody go and letting them fend for themselves.
Richard: Well, you usually learn who, you know– again, to sort of have these like larger takeaways at this point, I think is impossible and probably a little arrogant in that we don’t know what the world is going to sort of hold for us six months from now. What it does in terms of a sort of a micro focus is it, you know, it does tell you what institutions are community minded, what organizations are trying their best to save jobs, versus doing immediate cuts. But I would say honestly, for the most part, a lot of these sort of questions won’t get answered for months. We don’t really know what it means because we still don’t know how long we’re in this abnormal situation, and there are gonna be parts of North America that returned faster and parts of North America that are more conservative and don’t. And we don’t even know the impact of what that means. You know, on a personal note, I support listening to the medical professionals and scientists, and if that means we have to stay at home longer, it means that. At the same time, I’m very fortunate where I have a job where I’m sort of able to do that and still navigate. You know, there are other people who can’t, so it’s just very hard to answer that question. Organizations that really care about their employees I think will do– come up with the most creative solutions they can to ultimately save jobs or preserve jobs.
Jordan: I wanted to ask you about the big picture first, but now on a more micro level, you’re doing daily sports radio, and now you’ve launched a sports podcast at a time without sports. What the heck are you guys talking about?
Richard: Well, you’d be surprised. I mean, if you have enough creative and smart people, and I’m not referring to myself on that, it’s sort of behind the scenes people and producers and technical directors, et cetera, you can come up with stuff. You know, the fact is like the nexus of sports and COVID-19 is pretty significant. From what these leads are thinking now to what players are doing, to athletes who are connected to medicine right now, and some of the more remarkable things that they’re doing. Everybody essentially within this has a story. That’s kind of why there’s still a lot of content to do. It’s because every person in the sports world in some way is impacted by this. You know, Roger Goodell and Rob Manfred are impacted in a certain way because they’re commissioners of leagues and they have to figure out how to navigate the next path, where Haley Wickenheiser is impacted differently as someone who’s a former great athlete, but also an emergency room doctor. So, you know, has to sort of navigate that world. So at least for both the Sports On Pause as well as Writer’s Block, I have found actually that content isn’t really an issue. It’s– you know, you also have the treasure trove of talking to people who played sports in the past and sort of, it’s a great opportunity for them to reflect on what they did and who they were, and you might not be able to get to that if every single sport was active. So yeah, I know sort of like conventionally, you think to yourself, well, there’s nothing to talk about. What are you guys going to put on? But I’ve actually found that there’s more to talk about than one might think. And I also think, and again, the numbers are down compared to where they were because people are focused on news and people are focused on their family. But I think for those who have been listening, they appreciate the escapism. They appreciate still that there’s a place for them to still talk and listen and think about sports.
Jordan: One of the things I’ve been fascinated by is how little sports moments have kind of been wound into the larger narrative of this virus. And I’m thinking specifically about, now that we look back and we learn that one of those soccer matches in Italy might been one of the first super spreader events that spread it in that country. And of course the night that sports shutdown was because an NBA player had tested positive. And to me it might be the power of those familiar events that kind of breaks through the bubble for people who aren’t, you know, focused on the latest news on Twitter. And, you know, I wonder what you see, as somebody who’s immersed in that world, when all of a sudden, you know, something that is usually just a game is now the focus of international news coverage for– I’m not gonna say the wrong reasons cause the Rudy Gobert thing might’ve even been the right reasons. They might’ve made a real difference.
Richard: I don’t think there’s any question Rudy Gobert saved lives. You can be upset with him in terms of his cavalier nature with this, and he’s obviously since apologized many times, and I think gone above and beyond making up for that in terms of his charity, but there’s no doubt in my mind, Rudy Gobert saved lives. A ton of lives. Because the awareness factor that sports fans had when he tested positive and Donovan Mitchell tested positive soared significantly. There were people, if you remember, who did not take that seriously as Gobert did not, who did not think they would be impacted by it. And then all of a sudden, you know, super healthy fit NBA players get it and you’re like, wow, this, this could be real. Tom Hanks gets it, and you’re like, wow. Somebody who’s super famous, I’ve heard of, has it. But I think you are going to find in hindsight that the things that happened in early March where there were thousands and thousands of people together, absolutely were super spreaders. You referenced that soccer match in Italy. No question about that. I think in the States, you’re going to find the people who went to the polls in Wisconsin– I mean, just an absolutely outrageous decision to allow those elections to, or the primaries to happen– you’re going to see people have contacted COVID-19, because they were in large groups. So, you know, in a twist we didn’t see, Rudy Gobert ends up saving a lot of lives because it was such a prominent thing to see him grab those mics and to see him sort of be cavalier about this stuff, and you need, in these kind of large scale crises or however you want to phrase it, you often need well known people to be impacted by it because then it, I think it hits home for a lot of people to realize that they can be impacted by it too.
Jordan: I’m not gonna put you on the spot and ask for, you know, you to go on the record or anything because we just did an episode yesterday about being wrong about this stuff. But, the first episode you guys did a of Sports On Pause was called, Will there be live sports in 2020? And will there? What do you think?
Richard: Yeah, I think there’ll be live sports in 2020. I can’t tell you what sport it’ll be, but I mean, you know, we may get, you know, we’ve already gotten some live sports, right? I mean, Taiwan is playing baseball and they’ve tried to play soccer, I think in Belarus, maybe– apologize if I’m wrong on that, but soccer and in a country near there. So you know, we’re going to see it. But the real question that everybody obviously wants to answer it is like, are we gonna see the NFL? Are we gonna see major league baseball? Or we can see in the NHL, or we’re going to see college football? You know, are we going to see the NBA? I have no idea if that’s going to happen in 2020. I think every league is going to make the attempt to see if they can do it. You know, given the current spreads and curbs, you would think that later in 2020 there’s a real shot at at least making a go of it. But there are so many things that have to happen to, I think, make the players and the personnel feel that they’re safe, from massive testing to temperature checks, to all sorts, you know, to basically creating like a, you know, sort of a biosphere biodome atmosphere, that it’s going to take a lot of work. But the short answer is yes. I think we’re going to see them because I think there, there is a huge economic driver to try to make it work. And I think people will try to make it work. Now, if you’re asking me, could you see a league start up and have to shut down two weeks later? Absolutely. I could see that as well.
Jordan: One of the more interesting thought exercises I’ve had through this whole thing is just imagining what sports will look like when it returns. Because one of the great things about sports is it’s been– the experience has been so similar since forever, you know, parks change and rules change and et cetera. But the actual experience of going to a ball game or whatever has remained the same. And now I don’t think there’s any question that it won’t be. And I bet you guys have spent a lot of time kind of just imagining what that experience will be like, what it will be like for a dad and his kid, you know?
Richard: Well, that dad and his kid or that mom and his kid is probably going to be watching at home. That’s first and foremost.
Jordan: At first, for sure, but eventually they will come back and they’re not going to come back to a stadium the way it was.
Richard: Well, we’ll see. I’m not– I make no presumption that anybody’s coming back. I think some will come back. I hope people eventually feel comfortable enough and safe enough to come back, but I don’t know. You’re not going to see me and my children at a sporting event in 2020. I can guarantee you that. So I think everybody’s going to have to make their own individual decision. I think initially if sports comes back and there is any kind of crowd or fan involvement, there’s going to be significant social distancing, but there’s issues there. Can you get people to stay six feet away in the seats? How do you even set the seats up? What happens with concessions? What happens with bathrooms? What does that all mean? Is it even worth trying to get some fans in there, given these sort of, you know, unforeseen areas. So, you know, we don’t know. That’s sort of the thing is, we don’t know. There will be a group of people who obviously want to go back to the games and want to watch it live, but to me it is the responsibility of the teams as well, and the medical officials in that community to make sure those fans are protected, even if those fans sign a waiver to say, we’re not going to sue the team if we get sick.
Jordan: What do you think it will be like for us at home watching sports with no fans at first? What will change?
Richard: I think it’ll take a bit of getting used to, but that will be quick. My prediction there is that that does not become a factor for those watching at home. People are going to be so psyched to watch the games that I think, while you’re going to miss the– you know, you’re gonna miss the crowd roar, and that’s a big part of the narrative and the drama, you will quickly get used to and come to grips with the fact that sports are very different. And so, I don’t think that’s going to be that big an issue. To me that’s one where I think the fans will get used to it, as long as, I guess my one caveat would be, as long as the broadcast outlets are still able to cover the games, the way we’re used to seeing them.
Jordan: I’m actually fascinated by the idea of watching sports with no fans to see what else I can hear, to see if a part of the emotion that makes it so special is missing. I’ve never had that experience. And I wonder what it will be like.
Richard: Yeah. I mean, there have been some games obviously in Europe where you haven’t seen fans. Usually it’s caused by, like in soccer matches where, one fan base is basically banned because of racism and stuff like that. So it’s existed. And listen, it’s going to be a totally different atmosphere. It does change the game. It changes how you process the game at home. But I think because people are going to be missing this so much that they’re just going to be so happy to see stuff. It will be incumbent then upon the broadcast just to provide, you know– they might have to just sort of amp it up a little bit to sort of get even more excited because they don’t have the natural, they can’t naturally play off the crowd.
Jordan: Are they going to pump in crowd noise, do you think? I’ve heard that floated around.
Richard: My guess is Fox will, because they always do. But, maybe. Maybe. I mean, I think to me that would be, that’s a little cheesy, but you know, I think for some other fans, they may want it. You know, that’s just me as a television viewer. But it’s going to be different. Again, you are used to, depending on your sport, if you’re a hockey fan and somebody scores a great goal, you’re used to the crowd roaring. If you’re a football fan and somebody makes a great catch in the end zone, you’re used to the fans raring. If LeBron James, you know, dunks on a fast break, you used to the crowd going, Ooh. Not going to get that for a little bit.
Jordan: On a more serious note, tell me a little bit, because you’ve talked to both executives and union reps on this podcast and on your show, tell me a little bit about the negotiations that are going to have to happen between the league and its players in order to get things going again. Obviously both sides will want things to get going, but I imagine there’s a lot of give and take there that has to happen.
Richard: Well, I think both sides initially sort of have the same end goal, which is to play. So that helps, you know, you’re aligned at least with a goal. And so I think that helps in negotiations. But you know, everything’s going to have to be negotiated, from what the players are– what they can accept salary wise. And the salaries are, you know, depending on the sport, are going to be cut, because they probably will not get the full amount of games. The NFL not withstanding, because obviously it hasn’t started yet. In talk, you know, we had an interview with Donald Fehr on Sports On Pause, the NHL PA head, and you know, he basically said that everything that you think will have to be in negotiation, will have to be in negotiation. The players are gonna have to agree on where they’ll be playing games. You know, if they’re playing, let’s say in baseball’s case, Arizona or Florida or Texas, like the players are going to have to agree to that stipulation. Players are going to have to agree on whether they accept being in, you know, a closed quarantined hotel, players are going to have to agree with what kind of tests that they are okay with. Players are going to have to agree with what kind of privacy they may have to give up in terms of their health. So all of this stuff is going to be negotiated. But my thought, and I think Donald Fehr sort of led us down this path a little bit on this one, is that they think it’s all negotiable. This is not going to be protracted negotiations because I think everybody knows that the goal is to get back to the field and most of these guys want to go back to the field as fast as they can.
Jordan: In terms of the long run, if this drags on for months, and you know, let’s knock on wood obviously that it doesn’t and that life gets back to normal and so does sports, but if this drags on, you know, into the winter and we don’t have sports coming back in any meaningful way, are there teams or even leagues that would be in real trouble at that point? Like how, how big an impact could this have if it’s a really extended shutdown?
Richard: Significant. I think any league that’s sort of, that would fall under the phrase niche league would be in serious trouble. A lot of these leagues, they don’t make a ton of profit and they need ticket sales and they need gate and then he would ever kind of media contracts they have to sort of survive to the next year. So the leagues that are not the NFL or the NBA or major league baseball that have longterm media rights deals that pay them millions or billions of dollars, those are the leagues that are definitely in trouble. The longer this goes, the more of those leagues would be in trouble. Any kind of startup league would be in major, major trouble. We’ve already seen the XFL shutdown. Other leagues that are, you know, one or two years in, I would say significant trouble. But the ones that will first be heard are the ones that are smaller, or the ones that really rely on word of mouth or crowd attendance. Because if you don’t get those crowds coming in, you know, this fall, I don’t know if you survive till the next fall.
Jordan: My last question is not about sports, but about your experience personally. You are an American living in Canada during this, right?
Richard: So I’ve been told, yes.
Jordan: What’s that experience been like for you? We had, for reference, we had a guest on our podcast a couple of weeks ago who is a Canadian living in Texas in this, and obviously her experience was quite different.
Richard: Yeah. Her experience would be much different than mine. That’s interesting. Listen, I’m very happy to be in Canada, to be honest. That’s, you know, I am an American. I will always wish the best for my country. I don’t intend to give up my American passport, but I watch what’s become essentially a politicized nation amid a pandemic, and it’s every single emotion you might imagine, frustration, anger, heartbreak, et cetera. The one thing I really appreciate about being in Toronto is that the city, by and large, or the country by and large, I should say, route extended, is they’re letting the medical professionals sort of lead the way. The country is taking its steps via science and via epidemiology, as opposed to via politics. So I feel very fortunate. One, I feel very– I’ve always felt fortunate in this country, and Canadians had been incredibly gracious and nice to me to welcome them into their world. But in this particular time, I feel incredibly fortunate because I think it’s a place, at least by and large, that respects the science. And I think we’ll be judicious in bringing people back into normalcy, so. But I’m like, you know, we’re like everybody else. You know, we’re navigating this new world with little kids and it’s, you know, you’re trying to keep your sanity and sometimes you can’t, and we’re all sort of have cabin fever and it’s hard not to go outside, and there’s a lot of things you want to do, but you know, it’s these times where you hopefully think of the community beyond yourself, and I feel like that’s the fastest way we can get back to normal.
Jordan: I hope so too, and I’m glad you guys are here. I’m glad you’re safe. And I hope we can talk about live sports sometime down the road on the fall. Thanks, Richard.
Richard: We will. One day. One day it’ll happen again. We will.
Jordan: Richard Deitsch of The Athletic and of Sportsnet. You can find his new podcast, Sports On Pause, wherever you get yours. Same place you get ours. That was The Big Story, if you’d like more we’re at thebigstorypodcast.ca. We are in your favourite podcast player, just like Richard’s podcast, and of course we’re at frequencypodcastnetwork.com where you can find all of the other podcasts on this truly excellent network. Thanks for listening, I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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