Chinese Pro Sports Hiatus Extended

JohnWallStreet

Pro sports leagues in China - which have been halted since late January - will have to wait a bit longer to resume play after failing to gain governmental approval to restart their seasons. ESPN reported that Chinese officials were hesitant to grant the domestic leagues permission to start playing again after the IOC decided to postpone the Tokyo Olympics and with leagues in Japan and South Korea having already “abandoned restarts” (basketball leagues in both countries have since cancelled their seasons). The Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), which had planned to begin play again on April 15th (the initial plan was the first week of April, it was moved back by 2 weeks), now hopes to recommence in May.

Howie Long-Short: The CBA was initially planning to play games in empty arenas (teams would be clustered in one or two cities and play games in a round-robin format at a single monitored facility where they would also be housed), but with the country now having a few extra weeks to recover from the Coronavirus pandemic before play resumes there would seem to be at least an outside chance that the government could allow spectators to attend games. Greg Turner, a 20-year veteran of China’s sports, entertainment and venue management business, isn't counting on it. “The government is going to look at how other parts of society are managing before making a decision [on if it will permit thousands of fans to gather at a sporting event]; for example, how has it been working out with movie theaters and music halls?” Unfortunately for those who want to go to games, the answer to this point has been ‘not-great’. Movie theaters, which reopened last week, have already been ordered to re-shutter (granted, amusement parks and museums remain open). Of course, the longer the Chinese league remains on hiatus, “the more likely there will be fans in the stands when it comes back.”

It’s understandable why some might see the CBA’s plan to restart games in May and think that the U.S. leagues will also be back on the court/ice/field after a four-month hiatus, but that’s faulty thinking. It will be the U.S.’ response to the outbreak - not China’s - that ultimately determines when games can begin again on domestic soil again. Turner says until the number of new COVID-19 cases begins to trend downward, “there’s no reason to talk about when the American pro sports leagues will start up again.”

The CBA hopes to play out the remainder of its regular season schedule (each team has 16 games remaining) before moving on to the playoffs, but unlike the U.S. pro sports leagues there is no talk of bending over backwards to make it happen (see: Scott Boras' plan to crown a W.S. champion on X-Mas Day). That's because “in China, businesses work for the government [as opposed to the other way around here].” While American team owners are motivated to play as many games as possible so that they can capture what would otherwise be lost revenues, the Chinese government's top priority is beating the virus, any individual business results come a distant second.” Of course, the pro sports leagues in China don’t generate nearly as much revenue as the U.S. leagues do, either. 

Once the games begin again in China, it’s expected that both the fans (if permitted) and sponsors will turn out. Turner says day-to-day life has already returned to normal on the mainland. “You walk down the street and besides the fact that everyone is still wearing a mask, you wouldn’t have any idea that there was an issue here over the last few months. Restaurants are packed. The fans will come back pretty fast and sponsors are chomping at the bit for sports leagues to start up again."

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