Never mind 2020 — it could be years before pro sports fans are back in the stands

Staging games with fans in the stands will be a problem for the CFL and NHL as long as COVID-19 continues to circulate among the population and no vaccine treatment is available. That may be years.

The NHL and CFL have tentative plans for games this year, but COVID-19 may disrupt plans for seasons to come

Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets winger Patrik Laine battled for the puck duringthe NHL Heritage Classic last fall. The two teams could face off in a play-in round this summer if the NHL resumes play without fans in the stands. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)

The National Hockey League hopes to stage Stanley Cup playoffs this summer. The Canadian Football League is still holding out hope for a regular season this fall.

These tentative plans have pandemic-weary sports fans excited about the prospect of watching something other than squirrels in their yard, or deep cuts from Netflix, to take their minds off the sorry state of the planet.

Pro sports may be nothing but a distraction, but many Canadians are in desperate need of a distraction, what with many of us still out of work and so much horror to consider south of the border and beyond.

Enter the NHL, which came out last week with a seemingly workable plan to stage a 24-team Stanley Cup championship in a number of yet-to-be-disclosed hub cities with no fans in the stands.

This idea appears doable because televised playoffs will earn the league some revenue and keep fans in non-traditional hockey markets engaged in the game.

But there are a lot of challenges.

Isolating players

For starters, it remains unclear how Canadian clubs will hold practices while Canada continues to demand that all arrivals from other countries isolate at home for two weeks.

Winnipeg Jets winger Andrew Copp, who has spent the pandemic in his native Michigan, said last week he's not eager to enter quarantine.

"The two-week quarantine the Canadian government has in right now will pretty much deter me from coming back until the start of training camp or until that gets lifted," Copp said during a conference call with sports reporters. 

"I've been training off the ice, and going back and sitting in my apartment for two straight weeks in Winnipeg is not going to be good for me, mentally or physically."

The obvious solution to the quarantine issue would be some form of isolation exemption for NHL players coming to Canada. It may be easier, logistically, to simply stage the entire playoffs in the United States.

The problem with that alternative is many U.S. states are COVID-19 nightmares compared to quiet Canadian NHL provinces such as Manitoba and B.C., where the disease curve has effectively been flattened.

In the U.S., NHL players will have to be isolated from the general population to a large extent. The infection of an active player would create the worst problem for the playoffs since the 1918 Stanley Cup final was cancelled due to influenza deaths.

Revenues without fans in stands

The Canadian Football League faces a different set of obstacles to starting a 2020 season, even if the quarantine requirement disappears by the fall.

From a public health standpoint, it makes sense to stage the entire 2020 season in Winnipeg and Regina, the two cities least affected by COVID-19 in the CFL.

The question then becomes a matter of whether it makes financial sense for the league to even operate. TV revenues for the CFL are a mere fraction of what they are for the NHL. 

Saskatchewan Roughriders linebacker Solomon Elimimian lunges for Winnipeg Blue Bombers' receiver Kenny Lawler during the CFL West Final last fall. Regina and Winnipeg may serve as hub cities for a 2020 CFL season. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

On the other hand, the CFL may not be able to afford a year of failing to engage its audience. The CFL desperately needs real fans to buy tickets to games, merchandise, food and beer.

The league could be holding out faint hope public health authorities will allow fans to gather in large groups this season.

That is quite unlikely, given the highly communicable nature of COVID-19 and the potential for infection when thousands of people are gathered in a confined space such as a stadium concourse.

It's hard enough for public health employees to trace the contacts of a single infected patient who works at a Winnipeg Walmart or a Brandon trucking company.

Imagine the complexity — if not outright impossibility — of trying to figure out who came in contact with one infected person among a crowd of tens of thousands at a stadium such as I.G. Field in Winnipeg or Mosaic Stadium in Regina.

"Think about the Roughriders. They get people from all over Saskatchewan, and the Blue Bombers get people from all over Manitoba and from all over the City of Winnipeg, which is three quarters of a million [people] itself," said Dan Chateau, an assistant professor of community health sciences at the University of Manitoba.

"You don't want those people to go back to their communities and eventually spread COVID-19 again through each of their individual spheres of social contact."

IG Field in Winnipeg seats more 33,000. The maximum size of a public gathering in Manitoba is 50, as of late May. (Canadian Press/John Woos)

This would not just be a problem this fall. It will be a problem for the CFL, NHL and any professional league as long as COVID-19 continues to circulate among the population and no vaccine treatment is available.

This, unfortunately, means there may be no fans in the stands for CFL and NHL games in 2021, 2022 or beyond.

Vaccine timelines

There is no guarantee a vaccine will be developed, approved and distributed anytime soon, let alone before 2023.

"A vaccine in 12 to 18 months, I don't see that happening," University of Manitoba medicine professor and National Microbiology Lab consultant Duane Funk said earlier this month during an online presentation to Manitoba surgeons.

It normally takes 15 years to develop a vaccine, he said, as initial candidates prove ineffective or even make diseases worse.

A worldwide effort led to the development of an Ebola vaccine in only four years, but the number of doses required for manufacturing was a tiny fraction of what will be required for COVID-19.

"FDA and Health Canada approval is going to take a while for this. They're not just going to release this vaccine that's going to be given to literally billions of people around the world without being sure it works," Funk said during his presentation.

Even when a viable vaccine is developed, scaling up production will be an issue.

"You've seen our N95 [mask] supply chain problems. Imagine making a billion vaccine doses," Funk said.

A scientist works on a COVID-19 vaccine in Thailand. It normally takes more than a decade to develop, approve and manufacture a vaccine. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

In other words, anyone who sees a COVID-19 vaccine as a precursor to the return of pro sports with fans in the stands may be setting themselves up for disappointment.

It's possible some U.S. jurisdictions may throw in the towel and allow gatherings of any size without regard to the public-health consequences. It's far less likely this will happen in Canada, given the greater emphasis on collective well-being north of the border.

The policy implications for professional sports leagues are clear. They must prepare for the possibility of multiple seasons without fans — or figure out some way to make it safe for fans to attend games in person.

That could mean stadiums full of fans wearing medical-grade masks or self-contained breathing gear, like the masks worn by firefighters.

As freaky as that would look, it may be less scary to desperate fans than the idea of no sports at all until the middle of the decade.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.