It was the kind of news that made Bills Mafia members want to shout and cannon-ball onto a table. Even if it meant doing so from the solitude of their homes rather than off RV roofs at crowded tailgate parties outside rowdy New Era Field.
Roughly 10 weeks after sports were canceled by the coronavirus pandemic and the future looked bleak that any games would be played in 2020, Gov. Andrew Cuomo reversed his field, gave us cause for hope. The reverberations were heard and felt beyond Western New York and throughout the sports world.
At his daily press briefing Monday at Roswell Park Cancer Center in Buffalo, New York’s governor said he wasn’t just receptive to sports starting back up, but was interested in partnering with organizations to make that happen. “Personal disclosure, I want to watch the Buffalo Bills,’’ he said, while reprising quarterback Josh Allen’s geography lesson from a year ago that the Bills are the state’s only NFL team.
Cuomo’s optimistic statements were in stark contrast to his dire forecasts just a few weeks earlier when New York was getting clobbered by the pandemic. The data since then has been encouraging, thanks to the positive impact of following protocols such as social distancing, mask-wearing and home sheltering. Though far from being out of the woods, the state most affected by COVID-19 has shown signs of emerging from the abyss.
Monday afternoon, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott followed Cuomo’s lead, announcing they will allow their respective state’s pro sports teams to resume operations in the coming weeks. The positive news does come with a caveat: There will be no fans in the stands. “If they can economically have games with no fans and the numbers work for them, the economics work, because the TV revenue is enough without the fan revenue,’’ Cuomo said. “And that’s actually a sport-by-sport determination; some sports actually rely more on the TV income, televised income, than the stadium/arena income.”
Games sans fans, though strange, are better than no games at all. The way I look at it, beggars can’t be choosers. Sports fans are desperate. You can only watch so many classic games, Michael Jordan documentaries, cornhole competitions and reruns of Cheers and NYPD Blue before your brain turns to mush.
“If they can make the numbers work, I say, ‘Great, come back. The state will work with you,’ ’’ Cuomo said. “Because, remember, government rules right now could stop a team from coming back, right? What’s essential, what’s not essential. So I’m saying the state will work with them to come back. They have to make their own economic decisions, whether that economic model works for them. Can you do hockey without fans? Can you do baseball without fans? Can you do football without fans? They have to make that decision.”
If the details can be worked out, we’ll have a welcomed respite. For a few hours a day, we’ll be able to focus on curves being flattened on ball diamonds rather than in news briefings. This is not to say there won’t be issues, even without fans in attendance. We still don’t know what we don’t know. Despite all the careful planning and protocols to ensure safety, there almost certainly will be athletes, coaches and support staff who will test positive for COVID-19. The leagues will need to find a way to proceed in spite of these setbacks, just as other businesses have.
And, yes, there’s always the chance that an entire team may be forced to shut down, thereby forcing an entire league to shut down. Baseball leagues in South Korea and Taiwan have been back at it for weeks — without spectators — with promising results. And NASCAR, German soccer leagues and professional golf also have just resumed. MLB has a comprehensive plan in place, with games possibly resuming by early July. The NBA hopes to restart its season within weeks, and the NHL is talking about returning with an expanded Stanley Cup playoff schedule being played in a few hub cities. The NFL, at this point, plans to start its 16-game schedule on time in September.
Sadly, we learned last week that the Rochester Americans hockey season is officially over, and the Red Wings, as well as every other minor-league baseball team, are in limbo and at the mercy of MLB, which supplies the players. So we’re still not sure if there will be even a truncated International League season this summer.
Everything going forward will be closely monitored, and governors, not commissioners, will have final say if the games continue to be played. In the best-case scenario, fans gradually will be allowed back into the stadiums and arenas, even if it means in smaller numbers at first to allow for social distancing. “When we can fill a stadium again, we can fill a stadium,’’ Cuomo said. “But why wait until you can fill a stadium before you start to bring the team back? And if you can televise it in the meantime, great. I mean, it’s not as good as going to a game or going to a bar and watching the game. … I’m watching the reruns right now of the old, classic games, and that’s fun. But I’d rather watch current sports on TV, if it works.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. His latest book, “Remembrances of Swings Past: A Lifetime of Baseball Stories,” was published this week and is available in paperback and in digital formats at amazon.com.