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Professional Sports and COVID-19: A Study in Precautions and Reactions

The effects of the coronavirus or COVID-19 have been felt worldwide. The pandemic began to ravage countries like China, Japan, Iran and Italy but soon began to spread to the majority of global nations. Authorities were forced to put a halt on many festivals and sporting events and the virus currently threatens the 2020 Summer Olympics set to take place in Tokyo. For many, the pandemic didn’t become real until many famous people began testing positive for the virus including actor Tom Hanks and his wife along with Game of Thrones actor, Kristofer Hivju.

Many schools and universities across the United States and all over the world announced changing to an online format or simply canceling classes until further notice. Many non-essential jobs and professions and businesses have been encouraged or mandated to close their doors to prevent the spread of the virus. The vast majority of sporting events and sporting leagues such as the NHL, NBA, XFL, NCAA basketball and others suspended their seasons and activities to protect fans, press, and athletes alike.

When the NCAA put halt to the season and March Madness, it was heavily criticized by popular sports commentator Stephen A. Smith for waiting until the last minute. Smith went on to say that the NCAA should have ceased activity upon “hearing that the NBA stopped their season” and that they’re “known to exploit the student athlete” and that they “show no respect for their No. 1 asset, the student athlete, until absolutely, positively forced to.”

In major cities like Houston, the Texas Department of Licensing and Registration was forced to shut down Fury FC 43 just hours before the doors were meant to open and leave scheduled fighters no choice but to reimburse the friends, family and teammates planning to be spectators. Even a scheduled event the following week known as Hybrid Fighting Championship at the Spindletap Brewery was reset to May 2nd until further notice.

Fans or no fans?

As far as major sports dealing with the influence of mass quarantine, the sport of MMA seemed to have led the way in the popular way of troubleshooting. ONE Championship: King of the Jungle in Singapore headlined by Stamp Fairtex and Janet Todd was the one of the first big sporting events to operate with no audience. Just the essentials of the broadcast personnel, crew, coaches and fighters themselves. ONE refunded all live-gate tickets and made the stream available on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and ONE Super app. The event occurred while the coronavirus was making its way through east Asia. Events like King of the Jungle established an alternative method to continue in sports entertainment.

A post shared by ONE Championship (@onechampionship) on Feb 17, 2020 at 9:33pm PST

When it was being discussed by the NBA, opinions varied on whether or not to follow the example. Some being fine with having no audience and some finding it a major hindrance in games. When basketball super-star and multiple time NBA Finals Champ, Lebron James, was asked if he would play without a crowd, he responded directly that “I ain’t playing.” Elaborating that “I ain’t got fans in the crowd. That’s who I play for. I play for my teammates. I play for the fans. That’s what it’s all about.” Of course, the statement was made before Utah Jazz players Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell tested positive for the virus prompting the NBA to suspend the season. Later, the news would report super-star Kevin Durant testing positive for coronavirus as well.

Perhaps James’s response speaks about the different natures of either two sports. In a sport like basketball, the crowd and hometown advantage can play a role in gameplay with cheers effecting player morale, noise paying a small role and the audience being a distraction in the middle of free throw attempts.

For the world of MMA, some fight fans might even prefer the lack of an audience to some degree. The lack of extra noise allows viewers to hear advice from coaches and cornermen, hear all the strikes being landed, hear the ref, hear the bell and makes for a more intimate experience. In the UFC’s event in Brasilia, Renato Moicano and got into an argument after Moicano’s quick submission victory and viewers were able to hear every word being exchanged. There was no need to guess or speculate what the fighters were saying to each other.

Of course, that’s not to say that home field advantage doesn’t exist in MMA. Many UFC fighters like Kevin Lee and Nikita Krylov stepped into Ginasio Nilson Nelson and did not experience the notorious atmosphere and passion of Brazilian fans. Meanwhile, fighters like Charles Oliveira were not able to celebrate their massive victories to the love and cheers of their nationalistic fans despite being in their home country. Oliveira’s third round guillotine over Kevin Lee was a key victory to be noticed in the heavily-stacked lightweight division. But, this seemed to be a victory that more people watched than expected since it was one of the few live sporting events occurring for ESPN to broadcast.

Postponed or cancelled?

Bellator and ONE led the charge for the MMA community’s response to COVID-19. Bellator’s fighters had weighed-in and were set to fight when Scott Coker announced that the Bellator 241 fight would be postponed amid the pandemic and that all fighters would be paid.

The UFC held on to hope that UFC London would remain intact, despite a rumored relocation and changes or cancellations to more than half of the card’s fights. However, when it became apparent the UFC London fight must be relocated, Leon Edwards realized that he would not be able to make it into the United States due to impending travel bans three hours later. Rumors swirled and it seemed fans might get a treat in watching an overdue bout between Tyron Woodley and Colby Covington.

A post shared by Ariel Helwani (@arielhelwani) on Mar 18, 2020 at 3:46pm PDT

It would eventually conclude that the entire card would have to be scrapped. In fact, the UFC postponed the next few cards scheduled when more information surfaced about the spread of the virus. This decision also left the fate of the much anticipated Nurmagomedov vs Ferguson to be determined. UFC President, Dana White, has thrown around suggestions of continuing fights by using the intimate facilities of the UFC’s Performance Institute where the Contender series is filmed, but the entire organization and many others seem to be on hiatus for now.

Against All Precautions

Only one MMA organization went through the challenge of keeping their scheduled fights. Cage Warriors 113 in Manchester headlined by two former UFC fighters in Bartosz Fabinski and Darren Stewart was perhaps the only live sporting event occurring on March 20th. When promoter, Graham Boylan was asked why he went through the leaps and bounds to keep event running, he responded organization “ asked the fighters, the coaches, the managers and the staff what they wanted to do” and Boylan was told “that they needed this.” Many of these fight camps “don’t know how long they’re going to earn money for; they need the show to happen.”

Of course, the show was changed from the original venue and no audience was in attendance like ONE’s King of the Jungle and UFC Brasilia card. Many fans and participants of the sport of MMA empathize with Boylan and the fight camps of Cage Warriors 113. With the quarantine of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people around the world are out of work or can’t conduct their businesses. Depending on how long it takes for the illness to pass, it’s possible to be looking at months before communities are able to earn an income again. Players in the NBA were less reluctant to keep the season moving. With only a few players infected, it could be a matter of time before every roster tests positive if the season were to continue.

Plus, at this point in history, athletes in the NBA make way more money on average than fighters in the UFC. The average fighter in the UFC might make a few thousand off of a fight and maintain a regular day-job as opposed to average players in the NBA making five to seven figures off of contracts and more from endorsements. Amid the pandemic crisis, many basketball players like Zion Williamson and Giannis Antetokounpo have stepped up to pay the staff of their home arenas. Not many MMA fighters can afford to do that and be able to feed themselves.

But as leagues and promotions go dark for the coming weeks, there’s a little light at the end of the tunnel in that proper information with proper action will help the nations combat coronavirus. If done well life can resemble normal sooner rather than later.■

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