The inalienable rights of sports fans in Boston and across North America to cheer, boo, or simply watch a live sporting event were denied with alarming abruptness this week because of the coronavirus.
This jarring new sports-free reality overshadows a looming threat. If sports leagues, stadiums, and arenas remain shuttered for months, not weeks, the financial impact on the estimated $100 billion North American sports industry threatens to balloon into a burden none of the teams in any of the leagues are prepared to face.
In Boston, the removal of fan-generated revenue from the big five local pro franchises would turn coffers red very quickly.
With Thursday’s announcement that at least the first two weeks of the baseball season would be scrubbed, the Red Sox lost six games from their 81-game home slate at Fenway Park. Based on 2019’s average ticket price of $59 (as computed by Team Marketing Report) and an estimated 50 percent share the team receives of the average $14 spent on concessions per fan per game, the lost week will cost the Red Sox $13.8 million, and that’s not including premium-ticket and related catering revenue losses.
Should the shutdown linger, each lost month — with its average of 14 home games — would cost the Red Sox $32.8 million.
And while the NFL is in its offseason, the Patriots’ single-game average ticket and concession gate is worth $9.2 million — double that in an average month.
Marty Conway, professor of sports and business management at Georgetown University, said the NFL is the least exposed to a financial hit, with game-day gate accounting for roughly 15 percent of each team’s revenues. That’s followed by the NBA (22 percent), MLB (30 percent), NHL (36 percent), and MLS, which is at more than 40 percent until it signs its next media deal, when it is anticipated that media rights will be worth more.
Combined, the lost revenues across the globe are real. And they’re significant.
“It’s going to change day by day," said Conway, "but in North America, the sports industry is about a $100 billion industry. Might we be looking at $5 billion [lost] if it’s 5 percent, or $1 billion to $3 billion if it’s 1 to 3 percent?
“I think that will change every day up until there’s a peak and then a downside [to the coronavirus spread]. Maybe it will be four weeks, or six weeks, but I think 1 to 3 percent would be fair when it’s all added up at the end.”
Andrew Zimbalist, professor of economics at Smith College, did not want to proffer an estimate on losses.
"This could go on for a month, it could be three to four months, or longer than that,” he said. "How do you possibly project that?”
News Thursday that the remainder of the spring training slate would be canceled hit hard in Fort Myers, Fla. The two Lee County teams — the Red Sox and Twins — were supposed to host a combined 35 games. Forty percent of those have been wiped off the schedule.
Based on the $70 million economic impact that spring training generates each February and March, according to county figures, losing up to 40 percent of that — $28 million — is a grim prospect.
“It’s difficult for us to know right now [the size of the loss]," said Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau. “It’s potentially a big number.
”I’m assuming some of those folks are already here in the market and would have been going to games over the next two weeks, and some of them probably were coming this weekend. It’s tough to know whether those plans will be followed through on or not."
Much the way insurance companies will not draw up a policy that covers a business for losses sustained in a war, floods, wildfires, or tornadoes, they do not offer pandemic insurance to sports teams, meaning they will have to swallow the costs involved with lost ticket revenue.
“When you don’t sell a ticket for a game, you can’t make it up. It’s gone,” said Jamaica Plain native Bob Caporale, co-founder and president of Game Plan Inc., which provides investment banking and consulting for the sports and entertainment industry.
“Here, the most critical point will be, will they be able to resume and play games that were postponed or will they actually lose games? Because if they do lose them, that ticket revenue is lost. Although I don’t think it will hurt TV revenue that much.”
Besides gate and concession receipts, revenues from national and local TV and radio deals, corporate sponsorship deals for stadium signage, and rights to be the “official product” of a team make up the remaining revenue pie slices. The payment structure of most of those contracts, said Conway, does not require teams to pay back the sponsor, but make-good provisions could include extending the contract or offering credits in the future.
What remains to be seen is how teams and arena operators choose to deal with the lost wages of the myriad workers needed to keep a stadium operational and fans comfortable: Janitorial staff, vendors, security guards, ticket-takers, ushers, and more. Some of those workers use the job as supplemental income, while others depend on it solely.
When Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban spoke to the media after the NBA halted games Wednesday night, he said he was getting to work on a plan that would help mitigate the financial hit such workers would take.
“I don’t have any details to give, but it’s certainly something that’s important to me,” Cuban said.
Conway sees this moment as a significant one when it comes to sports franchises doing what’s right.
“This event at this time, politically and otherwise, will shine a bright light on the amount of contingent employers and contingent payments that support the sports industry,” said Conway. “You’ve seen organizations and corporations go through this, whether it’s Walmart or Amazon or others saying, 'You’re building your business based on a substantial amount of contingent workers; what are you going to do for them when the time comes in a point of stress?’
“I think you’ll see some of the more progressive owners take this on, which could put some pressure on others in the industry to address it going forward.”
While it’s hard to put a precise price tag on the financial impact to the sports industry in these early days of the shutdown, an even tougher exercise is to envision Boston without games and the Marathon this spring and summer. Entire communities, not just inside the ballpark, will be affected, and there will be a disturbance in the city’s soul.
“The taxi drivers, the parking lot attendants, the waitresses, the ancillary people around the ballparks are going to get hammered,” said Warren Zola, executive director of the Boston College Chief Executives Club, a program of the Carroll School of Management. “To me and so many of us, what’s so important about sports is that it’s part of the fabric of a community and it brings people together.”