As North America attempts to re-open their economies, hope springs for some sort of return of professional sports. The NHL seems to buy into this premise. They are mistaken. Here’s why the 2019-20 NHL season should end.
The Inescapable Flaw of Resuming 2019-20 NHL Season
There is a fundamental problem for sports leagues, including the NHL. Aside from all the various regulatory risks, national and local laws, there is this: what happens if a player tests positive for COVID-19 during the continued season? From a league perspective, there is no good answer.
If a single player tests positive, it shuts down the entire team for a 14-day quarantine. It won’t matter if it is a fourth line winger or a Hart Trophy candidate. COVID-19 is unlike an injury. If one player gets injured, one player is out. If one player gets COVID-19, the entire team is out.
Shut down one team and you’ve lost the legitimacy of the season. And to be clear, it wouldn’t be just one team shut down. Recent opponents of that team get shut down as well. The domino effect is real.
Once the 2019-20 NHL season loses legitimacy, any championship is forever tarnished. The Stanley Cup deserves better. Even in the best of cases, a Stanley Cup tournament in the 2019-20 NHL season would be a far cry from the norm. But a tournament which spreads COVID-19 and finishes without a legitimate champion would make the NHL a laughing stock – or worse. Should the 2019-20 NHL season shut down a second time for a COVID-19 event, there will be more than a few executive careers which will deservedly end. This is about as ‘no win’ as it gets.
The Risk Odds of 2019-20 NHL Season Resuming
If COVID-19 has proven anything, it is highly contagious. It is tough to contain since carriers are often both asymptomatic and contagious.
We’ve frequently seen 20 percent daily growth rates in infections in various regions. Such figures means the number of infected double and double again – in one week. Two weeks out, it is 15 people infected for a single infected person just 14 days prior.
No league can avoid reality. The NHL might be among the worst when it comes to transmission risk. A typical game sees 42 people (players and officials) on the ice. The only two who are participants who don’t get close to each other are the two netminders. Everyone else winds up breathing on everyone else.
Is the risk low? Not really. COVID-19 has infected roughly 1 percent of the population (I’ll note figures vary and the current number is below 1 percent. But most acknowledge the released figures are an undercount. A recent FDA commissioner estimates the USA undercounts diagnosed cases by a factor of 10. Such a figure results in an infected rate of well over 1 percent). At 1 percent, among a group of 500 people (16 teams and 30 people per team including coaches, officials, people who do the laundry, etc), the odds are you’ll have roughly five infected people. And while there are strategies to lower the risk, none are close to ironclad. The games themselves are practically ideal for disease transmission.
The Benefits of Cancelling 2019-20 NHL Season
The benefits of cancelling the 2019-20 NHL season now are non-trivial. There are several distinct benefits. First, this adds a level of normalcy to the rest of the NHL calendar. Things like the draft, free agency and so forth can take place on normal schedules. By allowing the league and teams to close the books at the end of the (June 30) fiscal year, they can understand their finances and take needed actions.
Players, especially those holding off surgeries in the hope of a playoff can stop the wait and take the steps to recover. By setting a target date for starting next season, all the NHL stakeholders (not just the people directly employed by the league or team) can focus on what needs to be done, without banking on a plan which relies on hope.
Further, the league can set an example for other leagues. Be the proverbial adult in the room. The NHL has enormous resources compared to lower leagues. If the NHL shuts down the 2019-20 NHL season, it makes it easier for colleges, high schools, minor professional leagues, amateur leagues, etc. to follow the NHL’s lead. These leagues do not have the financial resources to implement the methods the NHL can since they lack the revenues. If the NHL sets a high bar to re-open, it encourages other leagues to take a similar, high bar, approach.
Pay to Play
One idea I’d like to float is this. And while it will create screams in some quarters, it makes sense in many others.
The way to ultimately defeat COVID-19 is via a vaccine. The vaccine will be enormously expensive because the number of people needing vaccination will be in the billions. Vaccine trials will happen in the fall, though approvals are unlikely until later in the year or into next year.
To help fund the rapid expansion of vaccinations, start with the wealthy and charge them for it (even perhaps, pre-approval, in phase 3 trial). Perhaps the first 200 doses go for $10 million each. That approach raises $2 billion which can help fund the expansion of vaccinations to those who can’t afford it (or defray some portion of government expenses). At the next level, 2,000 doses go for $1 million each. Another $2 billion.
Professional sports leagues can act as the next tier. Instead of millions of dollars per vaccination – the ultra rich price tag – perhaps $250,000 per vaccination. With over 4,000 athletes between the top baseball, football, hockey and basketball leagues, this could raise another $1 billion. The sports themselves can justify the cost. Re-opening these leagues, with confidence, makes economic sense. Billions of dollars of economic sense. At $200 per administered dose, the money raised is enough funds for 5 million recipients.
The wealthiest among us funding the way out is one way to expedite the solution to COVID-19. Sports leagues can play a meaningful role. By having those at the front of the line pay big money, a vaccine becomes more affordable and readily available to millions of others. Though there will be critics, I’d expect a positive reaction and the sports leagues will benefit from doing good.
A Constructive Role
The NHL and other sports leagues can provide another potentially unique offering. They may be ideal environments for testing vaccines. Such studies (phase 2 or more likely, phase 3) merit consideration. Sports leagues are atypical environments, but they may help accelerate learning. There is enormous close contact among the people on the ice and on the bench. Further, the athletes themselves are more likely to recover than most of the population, reducing risks.
Even a highly imperfect vaccine, say one which is 95 percent effective and only lasts for a year, could be good enough. If 95 percent of players, officials and staff are immune from catching COVID-19 and incapable of transmitting it, this (coupled with frequent testing) is probably sufficient to run the league.
It is time the NHL gives up on the folly it can credibly resume this 2019-20 NHL season. Perhaps they should target a restart for training camps in November and a regular season start date later in the month. The day after American Thanksgiving seems a good time. This enables a 60-ish game campaign, giving the league a chance to get it right with enough time to insure the resources are in place for a credible season. Most of all, it gives medical advances a chance to make a real difference.
Gambling On Two Levels
In the end, gambling might be the most trivial of reasons to discontinue the season. Sports betting is a big business and people would absolutely bet on an NHL playoffs. Of course, they would also be, in effect, betting on who gets (or doesn’t get) COVID-19. There’s a nefarious (hopefully fictional) movie plot in there. Alas, it could become reality. The idea one cough could change the Stanley Cup champion is intriguing to those with money on the line. Not likely, but again, we’re talking about the league being credible. One can imagine how the league would look if COVID-19 decided the winner.
The obvious is worth considering. Three meaningful events are upcoming for the league. The international showcase of the Olympics, a new television rights deal and a new contract between players and ownership. It’ll be enormously costly if the league becomes a laughing stock because something goes wrong in a situation where the odds are already not good. With so much riding on upcoming events, there is little reason to take a major risk. The hockey world won’t love canceling the rest of the season, but it will absolutely understand and probably agree with the call.
In attempting to find a way forward to salvage the 2019-20 NHL season, the league is gambling on a lot going right. But we’re in an era where Murphy’s Law rules the day. Most people get to live life, just a bit smaller these days. This will end at some point and more normal life will return. But it won’t be May. Or June. Or July. In the interim, the NHL could inflict a lot of damage upon itself by attempting the foolish.
Instead, the league can show leadership, help society, show wisdom and act morally. The decision to cancel the 2019-20 NHL season does all of these. Now I’m back to gambling. Would I bet on the league making a decision which reflects these values? Not a chance.