Answering Your Questions On The Future Of Sports

As we continue to navigate these unprecedented times, KCBS Radio is getting the answers to your questions about the coronavirus pandemic. Every morning at 9:20 a.m. Monday-Friday we're doing an "Ask An Expert" segment with a focus on a different aspect of this situation each day.

Today we're talking about the future of sports as restrictions are gradually lifted across the country with Bay Area sportscaster Ted Robinson.

Ted, good morning. How are you today?

Good morning to you. It's a strange Memorial Day from the sports angle, because it's the first one that I've been in the United States since 2005. This would normally be the beginning of the French Open tennis championships, known as Roland Garros. It also would have been Indianapolis 500 weekend. As they say in Menton, "c'est dommage." (laughs) Ed. note translation: "it's a pity"

C'est dommage, oui (laughs). Ted's and my favorite town in France. So let's explore this, I was trying to think as I was thinking how to introduce you this morning of all the sports you've been involved in over the years, even including calling a papal mass in Candlestick Park. You've been around pretty much all of the major sports and of course the Olympics, so you've got a pretty good feel of how these sports operate and what sorts of questions they're having to wrestle with right now as they think about what's next.

Yeah, and everyone's dealing in the sports world with what all of us are dealing with, which is the unknown. These are questions that people who spent their entire lives being in some form of sports have never confronted before. 

For example, let's just narrow it down to one pick: we all know people whose living has been made by convincing fans - people like you, you've been a season ticket holder, I've been a season ticket holder - there are people who've made their livelihoods and been very successful at convincing us to come to games, to buy tickets. Now, that's been completely thrown akilter and that may never come back. I hate to say never, Stan, but I'm not sure we'll ever have 50,000 people jammed, sitting elbows crunched against your side in a stadium together. I don't know how that's going to happen again because it doesn't just require the science, it requires human trust. And I think that's where we are all facing this massive challenge in how human behavior will change, that we will be willing to walk into a stadium, into an arena, into a concert hall or quite honestly, onto an airplane and trust that the person sitting next to us does not have a virus.

Let's talk about the pie that keeps sports going. Obviously those season tickets that you mentioned, that's part of it, the game by game sales, that's part of it but that's not where most of the money in most of the sports comes from, is it? Isn't it mostly television?

I think it depends on the stratus, Stan. At the top, for example, the NFL can survive on TV money. They wouldn't be happy about it, but they could. Let's take the Sharks, in the NHL. The NHL, of the major sports, is far more reliant on ticket sales, suites, the per game revenues and attendance. That's far more part of the NHL's package because their television revenues are not as big as the other three major sports. In college football, which is pretty much the next big sport on the agenda - can we get college football going? - if you're at the top tier of college football, it won't be comfortable but you can live off your television revenues. If you're playing at San Jose State you can't, because you don't have television revenue. And there are far more schools in that realm, is what I'm trying to suggest, than at the top tiers: the Ohio States, the Alabamas, the Clemsons. So I think it really does depend on which level of sport we're talking about. And at some point, I have a hard time envisioning that our sports can survive long term without some spectators. We can't be a long term television studio sport.

Let's get to some questions that have been sent in to askus@kcbsradio.com. What sports are best positioned to take place in front of no fans? In what sport do you think fans play the biggest role in the action?

Wow, that's great. The NFL is clearly the best positioned. The NFL can play in front of no fans. Will it be a different experience? Of course. And I've even heard the great Joe Buck has suggested that Fox might employ a laugh track, which we've seen in entertainment is still being done. I watched Bill Maher's show on HBO the other night and he's doing his standup routine from his back patio and they're putting a laugh track in over it. I would hate to think soundtrack would be part of sport, but I understand the point because calling a game is going to feel like an emptier experience in empty stadiums. But I think the NFL is best positioned to do it.

The sport that would suffer the most from the major four, again, is the NHL. The sport that would need the most, to me, without question is college athletics. That's what separates college sports from pro sports is the band, cheerleaders and rabid fans who don't know the players on their own school's team because they change every year, but they love their school.

And here's the other part of all this, Stan. I've had experience calling games in front of no fans. I went to Montreal for years to do baseball, okay? And I was talking with my former partner, the great first baseman Keith Hernandez, we were joking about this on a call about two weeks ago. Keith did it because he played in Cleveland, in the old Cleveland. And I'm only half tongue-in-cheek there. The 1985 Giants that you remember so well, Stan. There were games that were played with virtually no fans. Again it's not something you want to be long-term. As a short-term fix, you can do it.

I've told people this story and they don't believe it, quite often. But I remember games during that era where sitting - and not even in the best seats in the house - you could hear the ground balls in the grass of the infield. That "fft fft" sound. You never hear that as a fan.

Oh I remember. We're talking about the '85 Giants in Candlestick which was a one year disaster, but I remember the same thing. You'd go to a game and you'd sit down behind the dugout because there were 600 people there and you could hear the umpire talk to the batter as the batter was digging in, you could hear the chirping from the dugout. Things you could never hear at a normal Major League Baseball game.

Next question: what are you hearing about college football this fall? It seems impossible to think that colleges that aren't even holding classes on campus could have teams practicing, traveling and playing.

Right. More colleges are saying they will hold at least some form of classes on campus. Not everyone yet, but more are saying - even the UC system this past week came out and said they will have some form of online presence. I just firmly believe that college football will take place. And this is where we could get into long-winded ethics and morals conversations because it's about dollars. The college system in the United States is dependent on a couple of things: extremely high tuitions, as we all know now, and athletic revenue. And in the Pac-12 for example football generates almost 90% of the athletic revenue. So there will be an economic pressure and that will creep all the way down the chain of Division One football to those levels of schools like I referenced earlier that need fans in stands. They need football to be played. So I think there will be some college football season this year.

Can you explain the situation regarding Major League Baseball and the player's union, how they're trying to carve up the money? I'm not sure I understand this.

Yeah, listen I empathize with your question because I've lived through this, I've lived through several work stoppages and then a near work stoppage in 2002. When it's your livelihood and you have no say in the matter it's awfully frustrating. Unfortunately, there appears to just be a stain that cannot be erased, which is a history of distrust between the Major League Baseball Player's Association and Major League Baseball, the owners. And even in this case where you would think if anything was going to wipe that away, at least on a short term basis, for one year let's have a peace treaty in a global pandemic. But apparently that's not the case. 

And I think I was on with you, Stan, ten days ago and referenced just an asinine comment from a guy that won a Cy Young award a couple years ago and just utter greed and selfishness. And if that attitude pervades among too many of the players; you talk about killing the golden goose, baseball as we know is a sport that demographic struggles are well known. It is not a thriving sport in the demographic world, okay? Right now there's a lot of riches because of television, that's the golden goose. If this situation is allowed to fester and baseball can't play at all this year because the two sides can't agree on how to split the money, that golden goose goes into intensive care. 

This one's right down your alley, Ted. What changes do you expect for the Olympics next year, if there are Olympics next year?

Wow, yeah. Look, we're in an era of a lot of fear and melodrama and so the "if" gets thrown around. That's 14 months away, so I would not entertain the "if" question yet. I'm assuming the 2021 Olympics will be held, and I think the number one issue that will happen is there will be advanced sanitation/hygiene measures, if it even includes a restructuring of the Olympic village where the athletes are housed. You cannot even begin to entertain hosting the games if the athletes themselves do not feel safe. How that happens, there are way smarter people than we that will figure that out. But that, to me, is the first thing.

I think the second part of this will be a restriction on who goes. It may include people like me and my business. I think there may be fewer media people who will go. I think the paying customer will probably be the last person to be eliminated for that very reason: they're paying. But I fully believe it will happen.

And by the way, I do think this is also something that's going to be reality: I know that in the conversations to resume the NHL season in July, it's already been told that network television won't even be allowed in the buildings. There will be no network television in the buildings. The announcers will be calling from remote locations, which I've done for quite a while in some other sports but we're not used to it in team sports. I think that will be very much part of the new normal in television sports when we return.

So when you say network TV won't be in the building, you mean there will be remote cameras or robotic cameras or something like that?

No, there might be - and I've done some events this way - six cameras in the building and those will be manually operated, they have to be, but those will be the only six TV people in the arena. Just those six people. And there'll be a small little control truck outside. But everybody else will be back at their headquarters location. For example in the NHL, it's Connecticut where NBC's headquarters are. That's where everybody else will be. And this is just simply to again, limit the number of people that need to be cleared, tested, approved. If the US Open in tennis is held - which now Governor Cuomo in New York has announced professional sports can come back with no fans - so I believe the US Open tennis is going to be contested in 12 weeks time in New York and the same thing, there will be virtually no TV people in the footprint of the National Tennis Center if the event does go on.

One broadcaster to another let me ask you, what's that like?

It's different, obviously. It's not as bad as people think and again I'm speaking having done this for 13 or 14 years for tennis, I've done some Olympic sports this way. Actually I'll tell you the toughest sport I did remotely was baseball. I've done some college baseball games for the Pac-12 network remotely and that is very very hard because of the flight of the ball. Where the ball gets hit in the air and you're sitting in the studio watching off a monitor it's very hard, just like when you're watching at home, to tell, "wait was that a pop-up straight behind the plate? Was that a pop-up in the infield? Is it a little bloop to the outfield? Is it a gap shot or does that ball have a chance to go?" That's hard, and as an announcer you have a very hard time telling that right away off a center field camera shot. That's tough, but at the end of the day you can do it. 

The major sport that would be by far the hardest to do would be football. If you're not there, the camera can't capture the whole width and length of the field and every player so that would be difficult. But guess what, I don't care about difficulty. I think it's going to be part of our new normal when we come back.

What's going to happen to what I guess we would call the non-revenue sports, worldwide sports like swimming and track and field?

If the question is referencing college, that's the danger part. That's why if we don't have college football it's going to be trouble. And god Stan, I could go on for an hour about this so I won't, but we've already seen a few examples of colleges around the country eliminating Olympic sport programs because of the loss of revenue from March Madness, when we didn't have basketball this year. If we don't have football, that will multiply immensely.

I'll tell you something else Stan, amazingly, a profession that has had stunning job security amidst this global pandemic: college basketball coaches, shockingly. Because the season didn't end. And because of that with the pandemic, the loss of revenue, the immense buyouts that a lot of coach contracts have at the top level, there have been exactly two coaching changes since March 11th, the day the world stopped. Two in Division One college basketball. That is stunning. Last year there were almost 60. So amidst this terrible time, there's an unexpected silver lining: coaches who would all normally be on the hot seat have found that job security. 

But the point I'm making, back to the question, is because the size of the buyouts in coach contracts is so immense, schools are saying, "I'm not going to pay the buyout. We'll stick with our guys and our women for another year." And this will continue. I do believe firmly that one fallout in the college athletics world from the pandemic is going to be the end of the arms race in coaches salaries. And in football, it's gotten to the point now where coordinators in the SEC, as usual because they basically play pro football they drive this, you have coordinators making seven-figure salaries. Which is just obscene, obscene. And that, I think, will stop.

This next question must be from a real fan. On a competition level, do you think disruptions will be better for the front-running teams like the Dodgers, Yankees and Astros in baseball or will chaos reign and create a more level playing field for everyone?

That's a good one in baseball. I've thought much more about that one in football, where I think it affected the draft dramatically because in football you're not sure how much hands-on time you're going to have with new players prior to the start of the season. Boy, this is something I've thought a lot about in tennis too. 

Like the Dodgers, who have a lot of older players, right? A lot of their established players. Does this long layoff actually help them, giving their older bodies a little more time, a little more rest? Or does it get harder to crank that up? That's a great question that I think you could have a heck of a lot of debate over. Boy, we really don't have a playbook. The '95 strike was the only thing in baseball close to this, where it was almost eight or nine months and I know that season was just an average season. It was average in so many ways that it was just one of those asterisk years. So whatever baseball gets played in 2020 is going to be the same.

What do you think of what NASCAR has been doing?

With the virtual?

Yeah, I haven't watched one of these myself but I guess they've been running almost every other day. It's not just a weekly race, but I think they crammed a half dozen races into 10 days or 12 days, something like that. Nobody in the stands, all the cars were in a round, big open track. NASCAR racing with nobody cheering.

I am probably in the same boat as you. NASCAR's not on my radar so I don't follow it very carefully. I'll note this, because I do work with a lot of people who work on the NASCAR side: they have long been one of the most progressive sports organizations in professional sports. Most willing to work with partners, including television, drivers most willing to cooperate. I can't tell you how many times I've heard this, Stan. And if you go to a race, what do you see? You're sitting on one corner and I'm not even sure that I get it. But the point I'm making is if NASCAR continues in this mold, they are frontrunners and they will be the most flexible organization in the top tier of pro sport that I am aware of, in being willing to accommodate their schedule and their rhythms to come back.

This has to do kind of with the question of the big revenue picture for sports. The Warriors just opened their new arena in San Francisco, they are the hottest thing in basketball worldwide. How much does this cost them? I think the implication here is it's not just the tickets that aren't being sold but without the team being out there, the merchandise, everything. 

Yeah it stinks. That's of course the risk. We all know, and I'm sure you know, I know, many listening know people who have either entertained or eventually bought packages at the new Chase Center, and the cost was costly. The product and the return so far, from what I've heard, has been terrific. But the Warriors, without recognizing that revenue, it's painful. 

So to wrap, the longer term fallout of all this to me becomes, when we come out of this and however long we have to play sport with no spectators, what does that do for the golden goose of TV money? And eventually, the ESPN model of you and me and every subscriber paying almost $8 a month for a channel that's giving me no sports, that hasn't given me sports for the last 10 weeks, at some point that model breaks. A year, two years, three years down the line when the pro sports leagues and the top college conferences are all lining up at the trough again to get paid by TV - is that money going to be there? Or is streaming going to be the new avenue? And what will streaming companies be willing to invest in live sports? So those are the long term, big picture questions that come into much sharper focus because of the pandemic.