What if they played the games and nobody came?

Jim Litke

Pro sports leagues in places as far-flung as Italy and South Korea are about to find out. With government approval, both Serie A soccer and the Korean Basketball League are opting to broadcast regularly scheduled games played in empty stadiums and arenas rather than postponing or cancelling them – and the list of events is expanding – in response to the growing coronavirus threat.

The length of the experiment hinges on the progress of the virus. But if it’s a success, both in terms of public safety and the leagues’ bottom lines, it’s not hard to imagine the first made-for-television-only Summer Olympics, with normally bustling Tokyo less a backdrop than a sound stage.

“It could be a viable option, and depending on the situation, maybe the only safe option by then,” said Dae Hee Kwak, an associate professor and director of the Center for Sports Marketing Research at the University of Michigan.

“Say the virus lingers on and on. And governments continue banning mass-audience events and people go along with some version of self-quarantine. … Will the games look and feel different on TV? Will people be disappointed, especially in places where attending games is part of their identity? Of course.

“But in this case, the trade-off is hardly worth it,” Kwak concluded. “The fear of endangering your family and friends and community should always be greater than the fear of any lasting harm it could do to sports.”

Games have been played and televised from empty stadiums before for varying reasons. But they’ve always been exceptions.

The Baltimore Orioles played host to Chicago White Sox in an empty Camden Yards in April, 2015, with the city still simmering outside the locked stadium gates several days after a 25-year-old black man named Freddie Gray suffered a fatal spinal-cord injury while in police custody.

Spanish soccer giant Barcelona played Las Palmas behind closed doors in October 2017 to register its protest against the government’s attempt to block a vote over independence for Catalonia. The team’s Camp Nou stadium, among Europe’s largest with a capacity approaching 100,000, has long been a rallying point for Catalan nationalists.

Stadium seats are empty during the Korean Basketball League between Incheon Electroland Elephants and Anyang KGC clubs in South Korea. PHOTO: AP