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How the coronavirus pandemic has changed sports forever

From broadcasts to betting, tickets to practices, the COVID-19 era has permanently changed the sports landscape.
Even when the masks go away, the coronavirus pandemic will leave an impact on the sports world.
Even when the masks go away, the coronavirus pandemic will leave an impact on the sports world. [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2020) ]
Published Aug. 12

As NHL commissioner Gary Bettman prepared to present the Lightning with their second consecutive Stanley Cup, he took a moment to acknowledge how much had changed in the 10 months between their titles.

The first championship came in a buzz-free Canadian bubble, months later than usual, after a stop-and-start season. The second came in front of an electric crowd of more than 18,110 mostly mask-free fans at Amalie Arena.

“It feels,” Bettman said, “like things are normal.”

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman noted how normal things felt for the Stanley Cup final at Amalie Arena.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman noted how normal things felt for the Stanley Cup final at Amalie Arena. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

And, to some degree, they are, despite the latest surge caused by the delta variant.

But even if sports feel normal again, they’re still not the same as they were in February 2020. And they never will be.

“There has been so much that has happened,” said Dennis Deninger, a former sports TV executive and current professor of practice at Syracuse University, “that you can’t expect all of this dissembling of the sports landscape is ever going to reassemble the same way that it did before.”

Instead, the sports landscape is reassembling itself differently. The schedule adjustments, empty stadiums and social distancing requirements caused by the coronavirus have led to permanent changes in how sports are consumed and organized.

Broadcasts are becoming more creative with increased references to betting. Game-day experiences and recruiting are more digitized. Practice schedules have tightened.

The fan experience has been different because of the pandemic. It might never return to how it was in 2019.
The fan experience has been different because of the pandemic. It might never return to how it was in 2019. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

In some cases, the changes continue pre-existing trends that were exacerbated by the pandemic. Others stem from only-in-2020 circumstances that will work even better in 2030.

Regardless, they’re leaving permanent effects on the sports landscape that will linger long after COVID-19 subsides.

Here are some of the key changes so far:

Broadcasts

The COVID-19 era led to record-low ratings across sports. That’s one reason why the pandemic has changed the way we’ll watch sports broadcasts in the coming years. Read here.

Betting

The Lightning’s run to the Stanley Cup featured at least four different nods to sports betting, from a broadcast company to ads on the ice. Expect to see more of them around sports because of the pandemic’s financial toll. Read here.

Social distancing at venues

“You don’t want to go back into a time capsule when you go into a sporting event.” You won’t have to with more cashless and digital ticket experiences, which will outlast the pandemic. Read here.

Game times

If more employees work remotely and the Howard Frankland Bridge no longer looks like a parking lot, does it make sense for Rays and Lightning games to start after 7 on weeknights? Read here.

Auto racing

NASCAR and IndyCar shortened some of their race weekends to limit exposure. Will they ever go back to longer stops? Read here.

College recruiting

The virtual recruiting visits schools and prospects relied on last year? Those will still have a place in the 2022 class and beyond. Read here.

NFL schedule

The NFL changed its offseason schedule last year because of the pandemic. But teams and players didn’t seem to miss organized team activities. Read here.

• • •

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