Issue 50: Professional sports and the pandemic economy

As various professional leagues try to restart, some familiar socioeconomic divisions are revealing themselves, with important lessons for the general economic reopening

Andrew Potter is an associate professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.

MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER (aka The MLS) returned to play last night, becoming the second professional sports league in North America to do so. Like most professional sports, the MLS season was halted after less than a month of play back in March. But now the league’s 26 teams have gathered in a “bubble” at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World in Florida, for a World Cup-style knockout tournament that will serve as a prelude to the regular season restart. 

Well make that 24 teams. Two teams, FC Dallas and Nashville, have had to drop out of the tournament after a number of their players tested positive for COVID-19.  [Note This is an edit from the newsletter, which had only FC Dalles dropping out — ap] Despite this, there is no talk of calling the whole thing off, and on the whole the players seem to be fairly solidly behind the plan to return to play. 

And for good reason:  MLS soccer is not exactly flourishing. The league doesn’t have a lucrative TV broadcast deal, and just two teams had an average attendance over 30 000 per game last year. Only seven other teams averaged over 20 000, with five teams under 15 000. League officials openly concede that if they were to lose this season, there’s a good chance the league is done for good. 

Things are a bit different when it comes to the big bucks pro sports such as basketball and baseball. After some very tough negotiations with the players’ union, MLB announced a shortened 60 game season starting July 23. But a number of high profile players have already said they won’t participate over COVID-19 fears. Similarly, the NBA is getting ready to restart its season at the end of July, also at Disney World. And as with baseball, a bunch of players are already saying thanks but no thanks. 

Can we draw any lessons from this for the broader pandemic economy?

In a column about the NBA restart, the economist Tyler Cowen suggested that the resistance to returning to play by basketball players might serve as a canary in the coal mine for the general workforce: “if players being paid millions, and put into a highly regulated bubble, and tested regularly, feel this way, what about the broader work force?”

His inference is that if the most protected and well compensated workers are not keen on going back, surely the less well protected, and less well compensated, are even less happy about going back to work. And of so, isn’t this a warning sign about the prospects for general economic reopening?

I actually think Cowen has it backwards. The reason these well-protected millionaires aren’t keen on going back to work is because… they’re well-protected millionaires. Sure there is a lot at stake -- ego and pride for sure, more millions perhaps, the passage of time in a short athletic career. But rich athletes don’t *need* to get back on the court or the pitch in order to feed their family or pay the mortgage or keep the lights on. And this is all the more true for the athletes in the three big leagues, which aren’t going anywhere. If this baseball season is a write off, pitchers and catchers will still report in February. If the NBA doesn’t crown a champion this fall, there’ll be a new champion next year. 

That’s why it isn’t the wealthy protected athletes who are the real bellwethers here. For guidance, we should be looking to the behaviour of the poorly payed athletes in the marginal leagues -- the players who can’t afford to miss a year of salary, and the teams that can’t afford to lose a year of gate revenue. Hence the fact that despite one or two MLS teams being forced out of the tournament in Florida because of COVID-19, the show will go on. 

So if the return of professional sports tells us anything about how the reopening might go, it is this: the workers with the most financial or employment security and the least at stake professionally will be the ones most likely to resist getting back to “normal.”

It is in this light that we should evaluate things like Harvard’s recent announcement that the entire 2020-21 school year will be delivered online, or the significant faculty revolt at Georgia Tech over the administration’s plan to have face-to-face instruction on campus this fall.  If you live in Ontario, you might at this point want to take note of the current plan for school reopening in the fall, the position of the teachers’ unions on said reopening, and make the obvious calculations. In the pandemic economy, security is power.

This shouldn’t really surprise anyone. The basic dynamic has been at work in the economy at large since the very start of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. Many of the workers deemed “essential” -- grocery store and pharmacy workers, caregivers in long term care facilities, temporary foreign workers --  were those with the lowest pay and worst job security. In these cases, “essential” just meant “you’ll keep working because you have no choice.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a crude but highly informative filter that has sorted our workforce and industries into two broad classes: those for whom the pandemic has been something close to an existential crisis, and those for whom it has been at worst a stressful annoyance, but in many cases a source of professional opportunity or personal satisfaction. 

Oh, and what was the first professional sports league to return to play in North America? That would be the NWSL, the professional women’s soccer league, which restarted at the end of June. You want to talk precarity? The NWSL has an average attendance per game of around 7000. The minimum salary is US$20k, the highest allowed is US$50k. Three of the league’s biggest stars, including World Cup hero Megan Rapinoe along with two other members of the US women’s national team, opted not to return to play over COVID-19 fears. (AP)

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Policy for Pandemics is produced and edited by Andrew Potter. If you have any feedback or would like to contribute to this newsletter, please send an email to andrew2.potter@mcgill.ca. If you liked this, why not share it?

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