COVID Still Tough Opponent for TV Sports Industry

Yankees player Aaron Judge
(Image credit: Aaron Kee/ESPN Images)

Just months after the major pro sports leagues resumed play after the pandemic forced an unprecedented shutdown of live sports for nearly a year, COVID-19 is still having an adverse effect on the live sports event business.

While the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines has paved the way for a return of most pro sports events in 2021 — and has allowed fans to attend events at full capacity in many venues — observers said the industry has not yet declared victory against the virus.

“We’re not out of the woods yet with COVID,” sports analyst Lee Berke said. “The industry still has to be cautious. There will be these outbreaks that will cause last-minute switches and cancellations.”

Indeed, last Thursday (July 15), several New York Yankees players tested positive for COVID-19, forcing a postponement of the Yankees-Boston Red Sox game two days after Major League Baseball's high-profile All-Star Game. Fortunately the series was able to be completed, but baseball and ESPN missed out on a chance to showcase one of baseball’s fiercest rivalries in a primetime window with very little sports competition. 

Two marquee pay-per-view boxing matches — the scheduled June 19 Teofimo Lopez-George Kambosos fight and the July 24 Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder trilogy bout — were postponed after fighters Lopez and Fury tested positive for COVID-19. Both fights have been rescheduled. 

As NBC Sports kicks off its live coverage of the Tokyo Summer Olympics coverage today (July 20), several high-profile U.S. Olympians will not participate in the two-week event due to positive COVID tests. Tennis sensation Coco Gauff and U.S. gymnastics alternate Kara Eaker both recently tested positive for the virus and will not participate in the games. U.S. men’s basketball stars Bradley Beal, Zack LaVine and Jerami Grant were placed under USA Basketball’s health and safety protocols and will not travel with the team. 

The men’s basketball team cancelled an exhibition game against Australia last Friday out of an abundance of caution.

Berke says while the COVID-19 vaccines have allowed live sports producers and programmers to entertain the prospect of returning to a sense of normalcy, he says that for now the industry has to remain vigilant. 

“We’re still in this new normal,” Berke said. “We’re not out of this yet.” 

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.