Sports Industry Suffers Body Blow from Coronavirus Fears

March madness took on a whole new meaning for the sports industry this past week as major sports leagues took unprecedented moves to shut down play amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease.

With the NBA, NHL, MLB, MLS and PGA postponing live games and tournaments -- and the NCAA cancelling its annual March Madness college basketball tournament -- sports fans face the sobering prospect of not watching or attending live games for at least a month, and most likely well into the Spring.

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Ring sports events weren’t exempt from the upheaval caused by the coronavirus outbreak.ESPN and boxing promoter Top Rank KO’d its March 13 and March 17 boxing cards, while the WWE last night aired its live Friday Night SmackDown show with no audience. It's still unclear whether the pro wrestling outfit will make any changes to its showcase April 5 WrestleMania 36 event due to coronavirus concerns.

There are live sports events airing on cable sports networks this weekend. ESPN will distribute tonight’s (March 14) Kevin Lee-Charles Oliveria UFC mixed martial arts fight card from Brazil, albeit without any fans in the stands. FS1 on March 15 will televise the Pro Bowlers Association’s Storm World Series of Bowling XI World Championship finals, also without an audience.

“Overall, this is a difficult one for fans,” said sports analyst Lee Berke. “Nobody is playing and [the sports blackout] is potentially going to extend for weeks and months.”

Berke said the moves were necessary to ensure the health and well-being of the U.S. population and will ultimately cost the sports industry a fortune in terms of lost revenue -- Disney and AT&T are expected to lose in ad revenue about $481 million and $211 million respectively, if the rest of the season and playoffs are not played, according to reports.

Berke adds however, the leagues and sports networks will recover once the games begin again, although he would not predict when that might be.

“There's a lot of negotiations and logistics that have to take place from a distribution, scheduling, sponsorship, production standpoint, but it's all manageable," he said. "The one thing that the networks are good at is the blocking and tackling of logistics, but it’s going to be expensive and nerve racking for everybody.”

Once the games do begin, the fans will come back, particularly as the country also recovers financially from volatile stock market performances due mostly to coronavirus concerns. Berke pointed to ratings increases for national and regional cable sports networks after the financial crisis in 2008.

“When the live games come back sports viewership will come back with a vengeance,” he said. “We might be heading into an economic downturn and viewers may not have the funds to go out like they did before the [virus outbreak], but they'll be able and willing to watch sports games on TV.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.