By Julie Maples, founder and General Partner at FYRFLY Venture Partners
Of all the pastimes that COVID-19 cancelled, perhaps none was more dismaying than sports. For many Americans, the pandemic first became “real” when the professional leagues shut down between March 6 and 13. Today, the hotly contested relaunch of sports is more than a symbolic milestone. It is a test of what Americans are willing to do to protect their teams — and each other.
What would you be willing to do to watch live sports safely in your hometown stadium again? What data would you offer to team management and contract tracers? What safety protocols would you submit to for the sake of the players and your fellow fans? As members of the extended team, what is our responsibility for the greater good?
I ask because these are about to become real decisions, and this country has no consensus on how to fight the pandemic. Lockdowns, mask wearing, and how or if to reopen schools has divided us. Yet the MLB and NHL are poised to reopen on July 23 and August 1, respectively. They have not decided whether to allow in fans. The NBA, confined in Disney World, is committed to reopen on July 30 without live crowds. NBA players, though well paid, are still distancing from their families and friends and accepting a higher risk of coronavirus just to play for TV viewers.
Sports without live fans isn’t sustainable. Research commissioned by ESPN early in the pandemic found that U.S. sports were a $100 billion industry positioned to lose $12 billion due to coronavirus. Now, the unchecked resurgence of the virus threatens to wipe out far more value, including 3 million American jobs that depend on sports. If the MLB plays even half the season with fans, says the ESPN study, it stands to lose more than $2 billion in game-day spending on tickets, concessions, and merchandise.
I grew up in an ESPN household and have always been passionate about watching and playing sports. Today, as a venture capital investor in the tech industry, I work with a wide range of startups, some of which are at the intersection of sports and technology. Unsurprisingly, I’ve been discussing the return of gameplay with my portfolio companies. Anna Jaffe, founder and CEO of Mobi, which generates personalized itineraries for theme parks and resorts using artificial intelligence, raised an interesting potential solution. Not only would it make stadiums safe; it would test America’s will to collaborate against COVID-19.
Mobi’s technology is based on mathematics that NASA developed to manage uncertainty during complex space missions. Essentially, when NASA sends a rover to Mars, it tries to account for everything that can go wrong and then adjust the mission plans, in real-time, to continuously minimize risk.
Imagine Americans as astronauts heading out into a potentially hostile environment, where there’s a chance of contracting COVID-19. Someone who takes a hike alone in the woods would have predictably low odds of contracting the virus. But launching people into a crowded sports stadium would be like sending them to Mars, where so much can go wrong.
Consider all the variables. Will everyone wear masks and is that enforceable? Will a bottleneck form in the bathroom, where a coronavirus carrier coughs? How many people can sit in the stadium while maintaining six feet of distance? Is the venue indoors or outdoors? Where do people enter and leave the stadium, and where do they order and pick up food?
Each stadium is like a distant planet where the risks of the mission depend on the particular conditions. Mobi would crunch those variables — and data from you and thousands of fellow fans — to decide what time you arrive, where you park, which entrance you use, and how you travel to your seat. If you want to go grab a hot dog and beer, Mobi would look at demand across the stadium to determine when and where you should go. Ditto for bathroom trips.
These measures could reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure by as much as tenfold — but only if fans are willing to share their smartphone location data nearby and inside the stadium and actively plan for the game before they arrive. Whereas many apps cull smartphone data for profit without the user’s awareness, fans would knowingly opt into a safety plan that can also heighten the experience by minimizing traffic, lines, and other hassles. Yet if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that even common-sense safety measures can provoke intense resistance. Why?
Americans are still mourning their lives before COVID-19. The U.S. is supposed to be the “Land of the Free” — a place that serves up your favorite dish of liberty, whether that is firing a gun on public land, betting on sports, smoking marijuana, or camping for free under open skies (or all four in one day). If there is anything Americans feel entitled to, it is their personal definition of freedom. The hard part about wearing a mask — or allowing an algorithm to look out for your safety — is remembering the recent times when you didn’t need to do either.
I believe nostalgia for the pre-COVID world has sapped America’s will to adapt to the post-COVID world. Sports could shift this narrative. They are one of the few institutions that unify people of diverse political, cultural, and social backgrounds behind one team. If the absence of sports made the coronavirus real, maybe their return can foster the collective mentality we need to defeat the virus.
If you miss sports as much as I do, stop pining for pre-COVID America and start confronting the reality we face. To return to the stadium, we, as fans, must behave like an extension of the team, wear masks and do our part for the greater good. If we can do that, maybe the rest of America will rally with us and our collective spirit defeats this damn virus.
So, what are you willing to do for your team?