What are we watching? COVID puts fairness, quality in limbo

·5 min read

There's a term for the sort of NFL contest that went down Monday night between Miami and New Orleans — a battle featuring a third-string quarterback for the Saints making his debut on a roster with about one-quarter of its regulars in street clothes.

It's called a preseason game.

More and more these days, the NFL and all the major sports leagues are calling this product the real thing.

The coronavirus pandemic and the onslaught of the omicron variant have forced a rapid rethinking and reshuffling of policies, as the leagues try to protect their schedules, their players and fans, along with their bottom lines.

While the policies are recalibrated, the leagues and sports fans have mostly avoided the question that first hit hard in the dark days of March 2020: Are we so thirsty for entertainment that we'll risk everything — or watch anything — simply to make it feel like normal?

Back then, the answer was “no.” Starting with the NBA, then moving to March Madness and the NHL, leagues abandoned their schedules, well aware that there was too much uncertainty, and the risks were too high, to keep pretending sports could run like business as usual.

Now that sports are back, vaccines are widely available and data-based health decisions are easier to make, no league appears prepared to turn away again. This puts the NFL on a potential collision course with a disruption that could wreak havoc on the road to the Super Bowl. In turn, it puts fans in a position of paying full price — both in pure money terms, but also in emotion and time invested — for a product that is, for lack of a better word, compromised.

Not that anyone expects the ratings to decline.

“It's not that different from what we're used to seeing,” sports marketing expert Joe Favorito said. “It's an inability to play for whatever reason, whether it's the virus or a bad knee.”

Other headlines this week:

— The NBA set a record when Greg Monroe of the Minnesota Timberwolves became the 541st different player to play in a game this season. We haven't reached the All-Star break yet. No fewer than 63 players were ruled out of Monday night’s seven games.

— The NHL partially resumed a schedule it had put on hold for nearly a week over Christmas while cases soared. But games in Canada are still being postponed. The Tampa Bay Lightning geared up to host Montreal in a Stanley Cup Final rematch by using a coach and an emergency goalie in net during practice, then brought in a minor leaguer for the game.

— Only hours before the scheduled kickoff, Tuesday night’s Holiday Bowl became the fifth postseason college football game to get scrapped because of COVID-19 cases. Meanwhile, administrators in charge of the three most important postseason games — the winners on Friday between Alabama-Cincinnati and Michigan-Georgia will meet next week for the national title — have said those teams could forfeit if they can’t field healthy rosters for any of those games.

The NFL finds itself on much different footing than in the early days of COVID-19, which hit during its 2020 offseason. While other leagues canceled and postponed, then eventually resumed in makeshift bubbles and with makeshift schedules, the NFL took the best of all the ideas and made a season out of it.

A few of the 256 games from last season were debacles, such as when the Broncos were forced to play the Saints using a wide receiver as a quarterback. And without fans in the stands, and with the U.S. election season in full swing, and with a number of games being rescheduled, ratings actually dropped by more than 6%.

That did not, however, keep the league from making new TV deals in the offseason worth nearly double the old ones. And it hasn't kept fans away from their stadiums and TV sets this season. Ratings are up again.

“This is not replacement football," the likes of which we saw during a short strike in 1987, Favorito said. "That was really kind of a detriment to the game. These are elite athletes, many of whom have spent the season on practice squads.”

But it's hard to argue the product on the field is not being threatened by the virus. As of Monday, more than 400 players had tested positive for COVID-19 in December. That compares with 262 during all of the 2020 season. Even in a league used to large-scale attrition due to injuries, this number is jarring.

This week, the 400-plus includes 17 players from the Chargers, 13 from the Colts (including quarterback Carson Wentz) and 12 from the Dolphins. All those teams are in the playoff hunt. So, too, were the Saints, as they headed into Monday night’s meeting with the Dolphins. But they played with their top two quarterbacks, four defensive starters and 11 other players on the COVID-19 reserve list.

It wasn’t just that they lost — that was expected — but the game was a world-class snooze. Miami prevailed 20-3, and other than the Dolphins, the real winners were those hoping to get to bed early.

“One of those perfect storms,” Saints coach Sean Payton said, laying out the difficulty of analyzing rookie Ian Book's performance considering the circumstances.

Could there be more to come?

The thought of the Chiefs meeting the Buccaneers for a rematch in the Super Bowl, but this time with Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes forced to watch from a quarantined hotel room, isn't as unimaginable as it seemed a mere month ago.

The thought that wide swaths of football-loving America might find something better to do with their evenings if such a scenario transpires? Close to zero. Even the least-watchable games, such as Saints-Dolphins, were regularly drawing more than double the audience of the next-best-rated shows on Monday nights this season.

“I think you’d still get the amazing story of the backups who rallied one of those teams to win,” Favorito said. “Because one of them will have to win, and that's creating a new hero for someone else.”

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