Dead Men Walking: Big Time Collegiate and Professional Sports

The anno terribile that is 2020 will claim as victims many traditions, institutions, individuals, and careers. Perhaps one such casualty is major college and professional sports. Although cracks in credibility and business models were propagating for years, 2020 dealt a death blow to big-time sports as we knew them. It was not a single death blow but a crushing, dual pincer movement of self-inflicted stumbles and exogenous shocks (pandemic, economic, etc.) that delivered the fait accompli.

Major college and professional sports have entered terminal decline. Their recovery to healthier, more prosperous times is not in the cards. Amusingly, everyone senses this except those closest to the industry. Not only will life go on, it might improve without big time sports. Despite being a life-long sports fan, I feel fine about such a prognosis. You should, too.

I’m not talking about youth sports, high school athletics, or most run-of-the-mill collegiate sports. Instead, I’m focusing on major college football and basketball and professional sports. The 100,000-seat, sold-out stadium on autumn Saturdays and the subsidized palaces sporting $300 ticket prices that are modern day arenas and stadiums for pro sports are increasingly looking like memories of the past.

Self-Inflicted Crisis in Credibility

Big-time sports did itself no favors by self-inflicting crises in credibility.

The NBA trumpets various forms of social justice and lecturing to its domestic audience yet obediently looks the other way when it comes to an oppressive and anti-human rights China, who coincidentally offers promise of future revenue and market growth.

Tone-deaf cohorts in network TV and the NFL show us millionaire kneel-ins during the national anthem on Thanksgiving games while scoreboards play live feeds of men and women of our armed forces standing for the anthem in Afghanistan.

The NHL trumpets climate change posing but bloats individual player carbon footprints by instituting energy inefficient bubbles to play games through the pandemic.

MLB loves to lecture us directly and indirectly on mask wearing and social distancing but the moment its veneer is peeled away you see a grinning, star player who just tested positive for Covid standing next to, sans-mask, an at-risk cancer survivor manager in a World Series celebration.

And the NCAA is all about equity and inclusiveness; until it comes time to pay major sports program players a fair share of the millions of dollars they earn for the university.

Self-Inflicted Crisis in Business Model

Big-time sports’ situation worsens by applying outdated and broken business models.
With 2020 bringing layoffs and reduced salaries across sports media and team front offices, the NBA found two of its teams paying Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum (who?) $120 million and $195 million, respectively.

MLB’s financial model consciously creates two team classes of big market haves and small market have-nots, where incentives are structured to reward risk-taking/big spending in large markets and miserly/perennial non-competitiveness in small markets (I’m a long-suffering fan of the poor-playing but financially-profitable Pirates that MLB incentivizes).

NCAA basketball and, increasingly, football motivates the one-and-done path to the pros, whereby collegiate teams no longer develop an identity or continuity to lineups.
The in-person live experience for all pro sports has become a time-consuming, expensive, and boring slog; games take forever, and endless interruptions and timeouts kill game flow.

Exogenous-Driven Crisis in Credibility

Perhaps big-time sports could’ve survived these unforced errors in credibility and business model. But when the pandemic and its associated economic upheaval arrived in 2020, the industry’s credibility and business model suffered mortal blows. The sports world will never be the same.

A shock to the system via Covid shattered the thin veneer of credibility the sports world projected.

Massive stadiums sat empty, with ridiculous cut-outs of people in the stands. Tune in to a lifeless game in an empty stadium and you hear fake cheering and crowd noise, as if the networks and leagues think we are that gullible. Teams shield coaches and players from reporters under auspices of health risk, yet everyone recognizes that pretense is nothing but a convenient excuse to further insulate coddled elite athletes from the annoyance of everyday people.

Worst of all, sports have ceased to be relevant in a world where everyone is struggling and is concerned about personal health, finances, job, and loved ones. We’ve realized there are way more important things in life. For many fans—from the casual to the chest painters—sports have been replaced with other pursuits and they’ve moved on to never return.

Exogenous-Driven Crisis in Business Model

Covid wrecked sports’ already buckling business models.

Leagues heavily dependent on gate revenue, like the NHL, suffered the most. A return to sold-out arenas and stadiums will be far off into the future, if ever.

Does anyone think pro leagues will return to the lucrative corporate luxury box and advertising model soon? Why would a corporation, under its own financial stress brought on by 2020 calamities, spend precious budget dollars on luxury boxes (and associated ad spend) that risk the health of its employees, customers, and partners?

As local and state governments lose tax revenue from shuttering economies, expect little support for future public subsidy of pro sports. Government needs to get kids back in school and economies functioning again; retention of a sports team has fallen down the depth chart of priorities.

Speaking of kids, the future audience and customers for major sports have evaporated in two truncated seasons of hiatus and altered play. The typical teen could not care less about big time sports today and won’t likely start to care about it if, and when, normalcy returns.

Moving On

With all these headwinds facing major college and pro sports, you would think the owners, players, and unions would band together to navigate the treacherous waters. Instead, expect hostility and in-fighting, as everyone wants to pretend times have not changed and that risk and concessions should only be shouldered and made by someone else. A word to the wise professional athlete: save your money, because a change is coming.

To all the old school sports fans out there, do not despair. Spend more time hanging with family, exploring a new topic, or learning a new skill. And to scratch that sports itch: log onto YouTube and watch a complete World Series from the 1970s. That decade delivered a golden era of baseball, with epic matchups and legendary teams, including The Big Red Machine, Swingin’ A’s, Bronx Bombers, BoSox, Orioles, Dodgers, and Lumber Company. Ten years of fast-moving games, sound fundamentals, great sportscasters, hall of fame players, and dedicated fans. That’s how baseball was meant to be enjoyed.

Dead Men Walking: Big Time Collegiate and Professional Sports