Let's start with two observations we can now consider truth about sports in the COVID-19 era.
First, half-measures don't work. If you're not screening participants daily, then quarantining them from the outside world, the way the NHL and NBA did with their respective bubbles, and the way big-time fight promoters have in Las Vegas and Abu Dhabi, you're leaving openings the virus can, and will, exploit. That's why COVID-19 didn't permeate the NBA's secure campus in Orlando, and why the virus forced the cancellation or postponement of more than a dozen NCAA football games last weekend alone.
Second, the sports world won't return to whatever normal is going to be until a safe, effective vaccine reaches a broad cross-section of the population. Teams need to sell tickets to boost revenues, but you can't build an NBA-style bubble around a sold-out stadium. If you want a standing-room-only crowd and the kind of full-throated cheering that accompanies high-stakes games, you have to be sure spectators who arrive healthy won't leave with a potentially deadly virus.
That's why recent news from big pharma should have sports fans excited in North America and beyond.
Late last week, drug maker Pfizer announced early data indicated that their COVID-19 vaccine was 90 per cent effective. On Monday, Moderna issued a news release saying their new vaccine prevented COVID-19 in 94.5 per cent of participants in a preliminary trial. News like that could make you envision a return to everything we've missed since the COVID-19 pandemic upended the sports industry last winter – full schedules, packed stadiums, in-person meet-and-greets with your favourite athletes.
But a pair of news releases from drug firms competing for market share aren't enough to bring pro sports back to normal. And if you think we're all just a needle away from packing Jurassic Park to watch the Raptors in the NBA playoffs, you should temper your optimism with patience.
Sports fandom should, after all, teach us the pitfalls of extrapolating from limited data. If my favourite baseball player goes 3-for-4 on Opening Day, I know better than to think he'll hit .750 for the season.
WATCH | Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine tests show promising results:
Experts better-positioned than I am will tell you that the early reports, while encouraging, don't give definitive answers on how these two vaccines will stand up to further trials, or, assuming they're broadly effective, how to store and distribute the drugs for maximum impact.
But if everything unfolds the way we hope, with regulatory approval pending and broader availability a few months into 2021, we might see something resembling a normal Olympic Games in Tokyo next summer. International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach certainly sees the promise in soon-to-hit-the-market COVID-19 vaccines, and says immunization will likely become a requirement for athletes and spectators in Tokyo next July.
"In order to protect the Japanese people and out of respect for the Japanese people, the IOC will undertake great effort so that as many [people] as possible — Olympic participants and visitors — will arrive here [with a] vaccine if by then a vaccine is available," Bach told reporters in Japan this week. "This makes us all very confident that we can have spectators in the Olympics stadium."
Of course, the road to a COVID-19-free Olympics, contested by the best in the world in every event, goes through the United States, a regular at the top of the medal table, and home to the IOC's most lucrative broadcast rights deal — NBC signed a 28-year, $7.75 billion contract extension with the IOC in 2014.
But in the country that also leads the world in COVID-19 cases (11.3 million by Tuesday afternoon), and where more than a quarter million residents have already died of the disease, addressing the pandemic often has more to do with politics and ideology than public health.
Undermining severity of COVID-19
If we drew a Venn diagram charting people who don't believe in vaccines and people who think face coverings rob citizens of their freedom, we might not need a second circle. And if we counted the ways lame-duck President Donald Trump and his political allies helped spread COVID-19, we'd run out of fingers and toes.
In the pandemic's opening stages, Trump's administration bid against individual states for personal protective equipment, raising prices and lowering supplies of gear sorely needed to keep frontline medical staff safe.
In October, a COVID-positive Trump may have exposed Secret Service members to the virus when he had them drive him around Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to wave at supporters who had gathered there.
And in September he lent his heft to a campaign to force the Big Ten conference to reverse its decision to postpone fall sports like football. When the league finally decided to play football this fall, Trump tried to take credit for the decision, hoping it would help him win battleground states like Wisconsin and Michigan.
Trump failed to win Michigan or Wisconsin in this month's election, but the virus succeeded in infiltrating football programs across Big Ten country. Before the Wisconsin Badgers smashed the Michigan Wolverines 49-11 last Saturday, the team endured a rash of positive tests and a two-week shutdown. Last month, the Wolverines kept practising even as a surge in COVID cases locally prompted a stay-at-home order for students on campus. And an outbreak among Maryland's football team forced them to cancel a game against Ohio State.
Wrestling COVID-19 into submission seems the most effective way to return to sold-out stadiums, and to protect the athletes those fans pay to see. But reaching that point, whether for mainstream American sports or the Olympics, means surviving two more months with an administration determined not to attack the problem.
Until then, some sports outfits will move forward with compromises aimed at limiting the risk. The NCAA has announced plans to hold the entire basketball tournament known as March Madness in Indianapolis, instead of spreading its 67 games among far-flung host cities.
But other operators are treating COVID-19 as a nuisance, and not a threat to public health. When the pandemic wiped out the Battle 4 Atlantis, an annual season-opening college basketball tournament in the Bahamas, the event relocated to South Dakota, the U.S. pandemic's current epicentre, where more than 58 per cent of COVID-19 tests come back positive. Organizers are selling tickets, even though as of Nov. 16 the state's seven-day rolling average of new cases was 1,424, in a population of less than 885,000. If Ontario logged new COVID-19 cases at that rate, we'd see more than 23,000 a day.
In sports terms, it's like walking Rich Aurilia to pitch to peak P.E.D. Barry Bonds.
And in terms of restoring the sports world to whatever normal is going to be in 2021 it's a big step backward, even with vaccines on the way.