By Peter Schmuck
The easiest thing to do right now is remind yourself that, during this dangerous and growing coronavirus pandemic, the negative impact on our favorite sports doesn’t amount to much in this crazy, mixed up world.
And you would be wrong.
Obviously, there is no equivalency between the cancellation of sporting events and the ravages of a life-threatening disease that has already killed thousands around the globe. Everybody knows that and understands the necessity of doing everything possible to slow the spread of the virus, no matter what the economic consequences.
That doesn’t mean, however, that those secondary consequences, both human and economic, are of no consequence. The impact of the nationwide shutdown of professional and amateur sports mirrors the shock wave that has reverberated throughout the global economy and sent markets into free fall.
The financial crisis also pales in importance to the attempt to protect the lives of millions of people, but no one would deny it still matters.
From a Baltimore perspective, even when you think about the magnitude of all of that, it’s still hard to trivialize the damage that a protracted moratorium on large sporting and other big events might do to an already struggling Orioles organization and a strained local economy.
The Orioles now are facing the prospect of a shortened home schedule at a time when attendance already is in stark decline. The 2019 season saw a fifth straight drop to a season total for a non-strike year (1,307,807) that hasn’t been lower since the 1970s. Even before the crisis, the prospects for avoiding a sixth straight downturn were not good.
The franchise will survive, of course, and the players will get paid. Major League Baseball and the other big professional sports leagues have proven during their various strikes and lockouts that they are well-equipped to weather this kind of economic setback, but Baltimore won’t be so fortunate.
Even with the baseball team struggling to attract the kind of crowds that once routinely packed Oriole Park, the Orioles are a consistent driver of business for the bars and restaurants that surround the Camden Yards sports complex throughout the spring and summer months.
It remains to be seen how dramatically the crisis affects the horse racing industry, but it now seems very likely that the Triple Crown races will be delayed indefinitely. That situation should become clearer later this week when officials at Churchill Downs are expected to announce the postponement of the Kentucky Derby, which is currently scheduled to be run May 2.
Presumably, the Preakness and Belmont Stakes would fall into line behind whatever date is eventually adopted for the Derby, but even if the races are held in, say, mid-to-late summer, there might remain questions about the wisdom of stuffing crowds that average well over six figures into Churchill Downs, Pimlico Race Course and Belmont Park.
Everyone knows what the Preakness weekend means to Maryland racing, which supports an estimated 20,000 jobs across the state. The huge crowds that show up at Old Hilltop for Black-eyed Susan Day and the Preakness are the economic underpinning for the entire local industry.
Racing will continue at Laurel Park in front of empty stands, but that is much less of an issue on regular race days because in-house crowds are generally small and most betting is now done remotely. The major tracks will feel that more, but fans and bettors can still watch televised races on various betting apps, while fans of the major sports might have to content themselves with rebroadcasts of classic games.
Give some credit to the NCAA — which I rarely do — for doing the right thing to lessen the negative impact on the spring sports athletes who have had their seasons cut short. The addition of an additional year of eligibility for seniors will allow those who decide to continue an opportunity to finish their degrees or begin graduate studies.
The NCAA announced that it is also considering what to do for winter sports athletes who have lost their conference and national tournaments. That also might involve some eligibility extensions, but it’s sad to see local college basketball stars such as Maryland’s Anthony Cowan Jr. and Kaila Charles unable to make a final run at the Final Four.
Couldn’t be helped, but it’s not a small thing, even if it doesn’t compare with everything else going on in the world.
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