GAME OF INCHES: The NFL regular season kicks off in September, but other sports have already returned without fans in the stands. (Getty Images)
Live begins its comeback, using best practices that are being established even as you read this
It’s unfathomable all that’s happened in the past nine weeks. The human toll is incomprehensible. It is also difficult to understand the shuttering of our multibillion-dollar industry and indeed the rest of the American and global economies. What a difference, though, a few months make.
Though we are by no means Pollyannaish, there is much these days to be hopeful for as glimmers of light begin to take shape as we carefully inch our way back. Strategic planning is well underway as sports leagues, venues, promoters, artists, concessionaires, production companies, security and other sectors of the live business plan their comebacks in the safest ways possible while establishing best practices under these radically different circumstances. And though we will never again operate in the same manner, the protocols we are establishing today will ensure our businesses’ success far into the future.
On May 25, Memorial Day, The New York Times reported a drop nationally of 8% in new COVID-19 cases over the past 14 days and fatalities down 52%. A story the next day described the national picture as “improving” with “some of the hardest-hit states, like New York and New Jersey (reporting) steep downward trends.” However, lower density states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee, the report said, “are seeing recent increases in newly reported cases several weeks after moving to reopen.” While we are not out of the woods, overall numbers indicate the country is heading in the right direction.
The very beginnings of music performances have begun, as predicted, in smaller venues, mostly bars and clubs. On May 18, Travis McCready (Pollstar cover subject) out of Natchez, Miss., played TempleLive Bar in Fort Smith, Ark. To say the show came about easily would belie the reality. The ticketed performance, which saw the venue’s capacity cut from 1,100 down to 229, was originally slated for May 15, until the state issued a cease and desist order and took the venue’s licenses off its walls, compelling venue GM and show promoter Mike Brown of TempleLive to move the show to May 18. This because the state slated its openings for three days later despite other public assemblies coming back earlier and indications shows would return sooner.
Brown was dismayed he had already gone well beyond the state guidelines for other public gatherings. This meant a capital outlay on disinfectant, fog sprayers, touchless thermometers, masks, prepackaged drinks and a full staff for a show a fifth of the venue’s capacity. He also traced the geographical locations of all ticket buyers and shared that information with the state’s Department of Health. It’s been 10 days since the performance, and thankfully there are no reports of anyone contracting the virus.
Meanwhile, the drive-in show is quickly becoming a viable format, first in Europe and now the U.S. Electronic dance artist Marc Rebillet, repped by United Talent Agency, announced a tour in June that takes him through Baltimore; Charlotte, N.C.; Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis; Kansas City, Kan.; Tulsa, Okla.; Fort Collins, Colo.; Fort Worth, Texas; and Houston. Live Nation announced it would be promoting drive-in shows in Denmark. Keith Urban played a pop-up drive-in show for frontline workers at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Even Yankee Stadium is planning a drive-in series.
Similarly encouraging is seeing each of the four major sports leagues inch their way forward. In mid-May Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manford appeared on CNN to say he was hopeful the season would begin in July with games initially played to empty stadiums. He laid out specific testing plans, which included players getting tested multiple times a week with a 24-hour turnaround for results. There will also be “point of contact” tests for anyone showing symptoms. If they are positive, there will be contact tracing, more testing and quarantining.
The difficult and unresolved questions facing MLB are the economics and how revenue will be shared potentially in a 50/50 revenue split or a sliding scale for a shortened 2020 season (possibly 80 games) and a prolonged playoff. The commissioner, in the same interview, said the losses to the owners could approach $4 billion if they don’t play.
Also in May, the NFL announced a full 16-game regular season would kick off Sept. 10 in Kansas City with the Super Bowl champion Chiefs playing the Houston Texans at Arrowhead Stadium. “The plan is to move forward as normal to play a full season, a full schedule, until the medical community tells us otherwise,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, told the league-owned NFL Network during its announcement show. “And that’s been our approach from Day 1. … Let’s just make sure we’re responsible. We’re doing proper planning. … Any guidelines as it pertains to what the governors’ orders are for the stay-at-home policies, let’s just make sure that we’re aligned (and) we’re following those guidelines.”
NFL team facilities — closed since March 25 — began a phase one opening on May 19 which called for a limited number of non-player personnel, 50% of teams’ staffs with a maximum of 75 people total per day, unless state or local regulations limit gathering to a lower number. During the first phase, no players would be allowed in team facilities unless they are continuing any therapy or rehabilitation that began prior to the facilities being closed.
This season will also see the addition of two new world-class stadiums, SoFi Stadium near Los Angeles and Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
On May 23, NBA spokesman Mike Bass issued a statement saying the league, in conjunction with the National Basketball Players Association, was in “exploratory conversations with The Walt Disney Company about restarting the 2019-20 NBA season in late July at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida as a single site for an NBA campus for games, practices and housing.”
“Our priority continues to be the health and safety of all involved, and we are working with public health experts and government officials on a comprehensive set of guidelines to ensure that appropriate medical protocols and protections are in place,” Bass’ statement read.
The NBA earlier in May began allowing its practice facilities to open as stay-at-home orders were eased. The league provided extensive details to ensure sanitized and healthy environments and limited use to no more than four players at a time for workouts, which are voluntary.
NBA teams had played anywhere from 63 to 67 games of the 82-game season. Adam Silver is in constant contact with both owners and players. “It sucks, but it just may be our reality for a while,” he told players on a call with NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts, NBPA President Chris Paul and a few other players, according to a report by ESPN. “It may be that … there’ll be a point we can bring a portion of our fans back where they sit every other seat or every third seat.”
On May 26, Commissioner Gary Bettman said the National Hockey League would resume its 2019-20 season, which was paused on March 12, with a 24-team tournament format.
The Executive Board of the National Hockey League Players’ Association had earlier authorized negotiations with the league on the Return to Play Plan.
The competition will begin with 16 teams in an eight-series Qualifying Round and a Seeding Round Robin among the top four teams in each conference to determine seedings for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, according to NHL.com.
“While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety has been central to all of our planning so far and will remain so,” Bettman said.
The timing is to be determined, though Bettman said the league anticipates playing in the summer and early fall. The Qualifying Round and Seeding Round Robin will take place in two hub cities, with Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver in the running.
Outside of North America’s big four leagues, others are even further along.
Races have resumed on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit, with the roar of engines filling the air at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina on May 17, albeit without spectators. The race was the first of seven scheduled over an 11-day span in May at two different tracks — first Darlington and then Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. — including the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend (see this month’s cover).
Some fans, coming from as far away as Maine, Kansas and Texas in nearly three dozen recreational vehicles, listened to the sounds of NASCAR’s longest race, which ended after midnight due to a rain delay, from a motorhome campground adjacent to Charlotte Motor Speedway, according to a local TV report.
In the world of soccer, the German Bundesliga resumed without fans, marking the single biggest competition in team sport to reopen as Bayern Munich makes its quest for an eighth straight league title. This as the English Premier League announced that it is set to return June 17 after the teams approved its “Project Restart” plan May 29. The dates could change depending on safety measures still being put in place.
Major League Soccer, which has the third-highest average attendance of any U.S. sport and is in the middle of a venue building boom, is amid player-owner negotiations to resume its season, which was cut short on March 12. While the players and owners are negotiating, the league has proposed sending all 26 teams to Orlando and holding a mini-tournament that would be composed of a group stage and knockout rounds.
Elsewhere, the PGA Tour has slated the Charles Schwab Challenge for June 11-14 at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. The organization released a plan on May 12 with input from PGA Tour medical adviser Dr. Tom Hospel and the Federal Coronavirus Task Force, other specialists and laboratory directors, in consultation with other sports leagues. PGA Tour SVP and COO Tyler Dennis told reporters they are taking a “layered approach” that will include players and caddies being tested with questionnaires, thermal temperature readings and nasal swabs, which will begin before travel and continue through the tournament. The tour will provide masks and sanitizer at tournament sites.
Professional Bull Riders returned after a 41-day hiatus with a TV-only tour stop in late April at the Lazy E Arena near Oklahoma City. Fans will be allowed to attend the PBR’s July 10-12 team event championship weekend at the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, S.D., although only at about 35% capacity. PBR, which is owned by UFC parent Endeavor, will debut the new team competition with four spectator-free events in Las Vegas in June.
Big-time MMA returned as UFC 249 marked a resumption of hostilities with a no-fan match at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on May 10 in Jacksonville, Fla. It was preceded by a message of encouragement from President Donald Trump
“They’re going to have a big match. We love it. We think it’s important,” he said in an address outside the White House. “Get the sports leagues back. Let’s play. You do the social distancing and whatever else you have to do, but we need sports. We want our sports back,” he said.
Thoroughbred racing’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes have been postponed to September and October, respectively, but the Belmont Stakes, what’s usually the third leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown, will be held at a shorter-than-usual 9 furlongs at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., on June 20, again without spectators.
Beyond sports leagues, there are many other encouraging signs for our industry spotlighted throughout this issue of VenuesNow, including senior editor Don Muret’s look at touchless technology at arenas and stadiums, which is becoming a critical piece of overall strategy to protect fans and staff (Page 18); the International Well Building Institute’s announcement of the Well Health-Safety Rating for Facility Operations and Management (Page 8); the opening of theaters over Memorial Day weekend in Branson, Mo. (Page 12); a look at Florida’s amphitheaters, which could be among the first outdoor venues to come back (Page 38); and the importance of security remaining ever vigilant throughout this time (Page 17).
Perhaps most encouraging is this year’s list of Generation Next honorees (Page 22), who were recognized by their peers for the success they found early in their careers. Their hard work, strategic thinking, creativity and leadership skills drive this business forward.
And as we get on the other side of this highly fraught time, this next generation, with its perspective of what this industry was, will lead us back to that summit and then on to a higher one.
Now, with all the interminable Zoom calls and town halls and best practices discussions, predictive models and guess work, it is incredibly gratifying to see the nascent stages of a comeback. Yes, it is far too early to declare victory and we must acknowledge there is much that could set us back if we don’t get this right.
This is why it’s never been more important to continue these interminable Zoom calls and town halls to stay informed. We must continue the exchange of ideas, learn as much as possible from each other, consider carefully the data and science while looking for credible technologies, new economic models, industry standards, effective political advocacy and possibly even investment opportunities as we stitch together these wide-ranging plans that will move our business forward — even if, at first, it’s only by inches.