By Tony Adams, Sports Editor
The UFC returned to the octagon last Saturday at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla.
It marked the second professional league to re-launch their product. World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has been working throughout the pandemic, restricting their events to the WWE Performance Center in Orlando. They also held their annual Money In The Bank pay-per-view match at their corporate headquarters on Sunday in Stamford, Conn.
The organization took all of the necessary precautions from the start of the week to the conclusion of UFC 249. Participants were all tested for COVID-19. One of the fighters and two of his trainers were exposed to family members that had the virus and went into quarantine.
The event on the First Coast displayed the social distancing procedures without a crowd and minimal staffing in and around the octagon. It gave viewers a look at professional sports and how preventive measures are being maintained.
To the television viewer, the production of UFC 249 was no different than if there was a crowd in the building. The cameras stayed concentrated on the action and rarely panned to the empty seats.
I covered many events at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena that was built in the early 2000s and completed in 2003 (which was re-branded with the VyStar Credit Union name in 2019). The arena can hold up to 15,000 spectators, depending on the sport that they are hosting. VVMA is the home of Arena Football League’s Jacksonville Sharks and East Coast Hockey League’s Jacksonville Icemen, the AA affiliate of the National Hockey League’s Winnipeg Jets. The absence of noise presented the aura of deafening silence.
While the UFC went back to work, they demonstrated their idea of how sports “should” get back to work. With all of the initial testing before the event and the testing after, it is a litmus test of sporting life sans fans.
The Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) got their season underway on May 5. KBO Opening Day was originally scheduled for March 28.
The 10-team league is based in South Korea and has captured a new audience in the United States that is sports-starved in the throws of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the games are live on ESPN, who acquired the United States media rights on May 4. Yes, baseball is back on television, although the 14-hour time difference forces many to have to view the games on the ESPN application or ESPN+. Many of the 6:30 p.m. KST weekday games translate to a 4:30 a.m. CST start.
Some may see the league as a lower professional level. However, ESPN has done an excellent job on giving viewers the back story behind the KBO that was established in 1982, displaying the geographic layout of the league today, as well as the history of the organization.
We also see how South Korea is handling the pandemic from the baseball side. Many players and coaches wear masks in the dugout. The umpiring crews and the base coaches wear masks on the field. However, the players do not wear masks at their positions in the field. These games are being played without fans in the stands.
These are things that Major League Baseball and other professional leagues around the world are watching and taking notes on how the KBO handles matters.
The KBO is researching opening ticket sales to 20 percent capacity in observance of social distancing.
Removing the stadium with the two smallest seating capacities, Daejeon Hanbat Baseball Stadium (13,000) and Gocheok Sky Dome (16,813), the average capacity of the remaining seven venues is 20,267. Twenty percent of that total is 4,053.
What would this mean for KBO fans? It would definitely be a challenge, especially for the Doosan Bears and LG Twins, who share Jamsil Baseball Stadium (capacity of 25,553), as their 20 percent capacity number is 5,110. It is the third-largest facility in the KBO, behind Busan Sajik Baseball Stadium (26,800) and Munhak Baseball Stadium (26,000). If they play one another, it would ideally split the availability of tickets.
The blueprint of this idea could be the roadmap on how MLB and its affiliates would begin to reincorporate fans into ballparks after a trial basis of playing to empty ballparks. Keep in mind, the only MLB that seats less than Jamsil, Busan and Munhak is Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., home of the Tampa Bay Rays (25,000). The average capacity of a current MLB stadium is 34,059. The 20 percent capacity for an average park is 6,811.
Tampa’s 20 percent (5,000) is vastly different than Dodger Stadium’s 20 percent (11,200). Of course, MLB stadiums are not as cookie-cutter as they were in the 1960s and 1970s. There are just a handful of stadiums still in existence that were built before 1990. So, the layouts for a 20 percent attendance design could be challenging, if it is a plan for MLB at all.
The minor league affiliates may have a more difficult time with the attendance figures. The AAA International League affiliates have capacities that run from 10,000 (PNC Field in Moosic, Pa. and Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, NC) to 16,600 (Sahlen Field in Buffalo, NY). This would put their 20 percent numbers between 2,000 and 3,300, depending on the park and the design. The Pacific Coast League drops considerably, ranging from 6,500 (Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, Wash.) to 14,511 (Smith’s Ballpark in Salt Lake City). That would put the 20 percent number at a range of 1,300 to 2,900. Revenue losses would be debilitating and affiliates may have to lean on the parent organizations and localities for financial assistance.
The A, High A, and AA leagues have smaller capacity ballparks, respectively.
Just looking at the Texas-based minor league stadiums, Dell Diamond in Round Rock seats 11,631 (20 percent = 2,326), Dr. Pepper Ballpark in Frisco seats 10,316 (20 percent = 2,063), Southwest University Park in El Paso seats 9,500 (20 percent = 1,900), Wolff Municipal Stadium in San Antonio seats 9,200 (20 percent = 1,840), Whataburger Field in Corpus Christi seats 7,050 (20 percent = 1,410), Security Bank Ballpark in Midland seats 6,669 (20 percent = 1,333) and Hodgetown in Amarillo seats 6,631 (20 percent = 1,326). Twenty percent capacity is certainly not ideal on any night, and that goes double on the weekends.
Even when you factor in the American Association/Independent affiliates at The Depot in Cleburne (5,000, 20 percent = 1,000) and AirHogs Stadium in Grand Prairie (5,445, 20 percent = 1,089), Sugar Land Skeeter’s Constellation Field in the Atlantic League (7,500, 20 percent = 1,500) and Alpine’s Kokemot Field in the Pecos League (1,400, 20 percent = 280), the loss of revenue would be devastating.
The uptick of COVID-19 cases would be a calculated risk between playing to no fans, 20 percent fields, 50 percent capacities and regularly sold events in any sports capacity. Obviously, the mitigation of the spread of COVID-19 versus the financial erosion of the business side of sports has to be carefully weighed.
The KBO has a good game plan initially in place. However, fear is the second wave of COVID-19 cases, which is something the league is prepared for. If a second uptick happens, then the league may not have a final say-so on another stoppage; it would be on the South Korean government.
However, we’re talking a peninsula that is the population of upwards of 77 million (51.6 million in South Korea, 25.5 million in North Korea) and 85,000 square miles, as opposed to the United States, which is 3.797 million square miles and a population of 328 million.
It still may be some time before MLB and its affiliates can formulate an agreeable plan to restart.
On Monday, it was announced that the 2021 World Baseball Classic has been canceled. The fifth installment of the tournament was scheduled to be played between March 9-23. The sites were to be Tokyo, Japan, Taichung, Taiwan, Arizona’s Chase Field and Miami’s Marlins Park.
The National Football League released its 2020 schedule last Thursday, with the regular season starting on Sept. 10 when Houston travels to play the Super Bowl Champion Kansas City on Thursday Night Football.
On Monday, the United Kingdom cleared the English Premier League to restart its season on June 1 behind closed doors after it was halted on March 13. They are back in training, the progress that is much needed in the resumption of worldwide sports.
MLB proposed an 80-game schedule on Monday. However, MLB and their Players Union have to hammer out a plan in which is equitable for the owners and the players. That is a nightmare showdown waiting to happen. It all boils down to how the union keeps their ground under the current collective bargaining agreement. If neither side gives, we could be looking at a lost season.