COVID-19’s Impact on Sports Broadcasting and Salaries

It’s been just over two weeks since the last live broadcast of a professional sporting event and the effects are rippling through the world of sports business. COVID-19’s arrival and subsequent spread across the United States prompted the suspensions of the NBA’s, NHL’s and XFL’s seasons, as well as the delay to the start of the MLB season and countless other disruptions throughout sports. Much like almost every other area of the U.S. economy, sports have taken an enormous hit and while fans and organizations alike are eager to see their favorite athletes return to competition, it is uncertain as to when they will be able to safely, and lucratively, do so.

Between the timing of COVID-19’s lockdown on U.S. sporting events and the ambiguous 2-to-6 month timeframe medical experts are forecasting for a full recovery, each league has tailored its own plan in response to sudden halt of play. Below is a quick summary of just a few of the major sporting organizations’ financial and/or scheduling proposals.

NBA: After announcing that players would receive full salaries on the April 1st due date, the NBA announced earlier this week that it would be reducing the pay of 100 of the leagues’ highest-paid executives by 20% for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. Moreover, the league has extended its credit limit to $1.2 billion for added flexibility in covering its coming expenses. While there is no set plan on when play for the current season will resume, league commissioner Adam Silver has insisted that regardless of timeline, the league would prefer to salvage some portion of the season and crown a champion for the 2019-2020 season. Among the avalanche of proposals of how to “save the season,” Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, recommended permanently pushing back the start date of the NBA season to December and concluding with the NBA Finals in late summer, given the current season would optimistically end in August or September. Moreover, Brooklyn Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie tweeted out an interesting idea in which the NBA season would resume with a March-Madness style tournament involving all 30 teams.

MLB: The MLB reported this week that it had reached an agreement with the MLBPA on a loose framework of financial and scheduling logistics regarding the upcoming season. Perhaps the most shocking news was the revelation that IF the season is cancelled, players would receive the same amount of service time they received the season prior. This means that players with a year remaining on their contract, such as recently-acquired outfielder Mookie Betts, will hit free agency in 2021 without ever playing a game for the Los Angeles Dodgers who traded valuable assets for his services this year. Also, in the event that the season is cancelled, the MLB made it clear that players would not be able to sue for full salaries, however all players will be receiving a $170 million advance over the next two months. Despite these insurance measures, Commissioner Rob Manfred is hopeful that the MLB resumes play this summer, while he acknowledges that a full 162-game season is likely off the table. The reported contingency plan includes 1) beginning the season once there are no bans on mass gatherings that limit the ability to play in front of fans, 2) no travel restrictions, 3) medical experts determine that games will not pose a risk to the health of teams and fans. Moreover, if/when play resumes, the MLB noted that doubleheaders, a 14-team playoff format, and a neutral, warm-weather location for a November/December World Series are all in serious consideration.

NHL: While the NBA and MLB have quickly pivoted to rescuing their seasons, the NHL has not matched their optimism nor their speed in announcing contingency options. The league has not yet united around a financial agenda, yet both the Dallas Stars President and General Manager have taken voluntary 50% pay cuts. Meanwhile, the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens announced layoffs as their own responses. While many see the cancellation of the rest of the season as the most realistic scenario, others have proposed a timeline similar to that of the NBA with the season picking back up in July/August and ending in August/September. Most notably, star players Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby said that they would be “OK” with skipping straight to the playoffs if and when the season is able to resume, however they acknowledged the question of fair play and keeping the integrity of the sport.

XFL: I really feel for the XFL here. Riding a strong start in its inaugural season, the decision to not only suspend but cancel its remainder must have been decisively more difficult than those of other sporting leagues. The XFL was exactly at the midway point of its season having played through five weeks of its ten week schedule (excluding a two-week playoff in April). Though the eight-team football league had been dealing with declining ratings following its initial excitement, it immediately committed to paying its players’ full salaries and returning refunds or credit to its ticket holders. The XFL also announced that it will be back for a 2021 season and has great reason to do so. Ten former XFL players have already signed contracts with NFL teams for the upcoming season with more likely to follow in the coming days.

MLS: Major League Soccer was in the midst of only the second week of its season when it made the decision to postpone its season for 30 days. As updates of the spread across the U.S. have come in, the Commissioner Don Garber pushed the deadline back to May 10th, but will likely have to do so again under the current climate. Garber, however, is adamant that when soccer returns, the MLS will play a full season’s worth of games even if it means extending the calendar of the season. While there has not been an unanimous response to salary fulfillment across the MLS, one team came under scrutiny for sending an email to its game day staff suggesting they file for unemployment while naming corporate partners who might be hiring.

BIG3…?: I was hesitant to include the Big3 in this rundown of major sporting organizations, however its response to the coronavirus crisis may just elevate its status to that of the leagues listed above. For those who are not familiar with the Big3, it is a 3-on-3 basketball league composed of former NBA and college players such as Amar’e Stoudemire and Joe Johnson. The games are played half-court style with rule oddities that differentiate it from the NBA such as the addition of a 4-point shot and first team to score 60 points as the winner. As for the coronavirus’ impact on the BIG3, originally games were supposed to be played around the country in Memphis, New York and more. However, BIG3 co-founder Ice Cube announced yesterday that the organization will be partnering with the producers of reality TV show “Big Brother” in efforts to air a basketball tournament-reality TV show hybrid to fill the significant void in the sports world. It was reported that the tournament will feature 16-22 players, who be previously tested for COVID-19 and if selected, will be quarantined in a house together for the duration of the season with anyone who breaks quarantine being kicked from the house. It was also reported that some of those selected may even in former top women’s basketball players.

The idea is that the three-person teams would shuffle teams each round and once an individual player accumulates three losses they would be eliminated from contention. Then, the final three players would win cash prizes with the top prize being at least seven figures. The goal is to air the tournament starting in May and given the current sport’s climate, or lack thereof, the BIG3 will surely see a large opportunity to scoop up hungry sports fans across the country craving any form of live competition. There is no word yet on whether or not these fans will be able to bet on these contests, however given the nationwide craving to slowly restart the economy, it wouldn’t a surprise to see Las Vegas announce the lines once the details of the BIG3’s proposal are ironed out. In any event, every other aforementioned league is looking at June start/resume dates in their most optimistic scenarios, so at the very least the BIG3 has at least a month to show us all what it has to offer, and hopefully hold us sports fans over until our favorite teams are back in action.

Spencer Dinwiddie butts heads with the NBA over his “crazy idea”

Whispers of a potential legal dispute between Spencer Dinwiddie and the NBA became real this past week as the league officially hired outside counsel to navigate ongoing discussions with the sixth-year guard and his plan to turn his contract into an “investment vehicle.” The NBA’s decision to bring in the Debevoise & Plimpton law firm signals the league’s expectation of a larger legal conflict in the near future.

The controversy first arose when Dinwiddie conceived an interesting way to capitalize on the three-year, $34.4 million contract extension he secured last winter with the Brooklyn Nets. The 6th-year guard had the idea to convert his contract into a digital investment, which would allow investors to purchase stock in Dinwiddie as professional athlete investment tokens, or “PAInTs.” However, Dinwiddie’s plan goes even further as he has created his own company, DREAM Fan Shares, that would expand this investment vehicle to other professional athletes and their contracts as well.

The profitability of these tokens is derived from the ability of the athlete to “out-play” their contract and earn more on their next. For example, Dinwiddie has consistently improved over his last couple seasons, averaging 12.6 points per game in 2017 to 16.8 last year and is right around 19 to begin this season. His contract also contains a player option worth $12.3 million in his 2021 season, meaning he can play for that amount or opt out with the expectation that he will earn even more. So, if investors accurately predict that Dinwiddie will be in a position to opt out for greater money, both parties will stand to net a huge return.

The LA native’s creativity in this venture stems from his fascination in cryptocurrency. In 2017, Dinwiddie invested in Bitcoin just before it boomed and spent any time off of the court learning as much as he could about crypto technology. Two short years later, he’s partnering with Ethereum, a blockchain similar to the decentralized platform of Bitcoin, and now envisions a future in which crypto currency is the primary medium of investment. However, the innovative athlete is going to have to gear up against the NBA before anything can get started.

Despite two meetings between Dinwiddie and league officials over the last month, the two sides seem extremely far apart on reaching any resolution on this issue. The most recent collective bargaining agreement states, “no player shall assign or otherwise transfer to any third party his right to receive compensation from the team under his uniform player contract,” seemingly rendering Dinwiddie’s idea defunct. Moreover, NBA EVP and Deputy General Counsel, Dan Rube, told media outlets that the league has reviewed variations of the digital token plan and arrived at the conclusion that all versions would violate the CBA.

Dinwiddie, however, remains steadfast on launching his company and plans to move forward in spite of the league’s position. In response, it was reported this past week that if the Nets’ guard continues with his investment platform without league approval, he could be subject to fines, suspension or even the termination of his contract. It is unclear in which direction Dinwiddie will go next, but it seems that he will need to get a lot more creative in navigating his way through the case that the NBA and its legal team will be looking to make against him.