A May 17 Return For NASCAR Becoming More Real, What About Other Series? A Look At Why No Fans Are In The Cards And How They Can Navigate

INDIANAPOLIS — We’re about to enter the seventh week since COVID-19 altered the sports world as we know it. On March 10, we were entering a big time for sports. The NCAA Conference Tournaments were about to get started in the next few days. The NCAA Tournament itself was to begin a week later. The NBA’s regular season had a month left before their 16 team postseason began a month later. The Masters was on the horizon for golf, NASCAR was heading to their fifth race of the season while IndyCar and Formula One were about to begin their 2020 campaigns. Plus, a few weeks later, MLB’s opening day was going to kick off their 162 game season.

A day later, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus and the entire landscape of the sporting world changed. Since March 12, we’ve seen no live sports. As we head to the 50th day of no sports this upcoming week, there’s really only a couple of major sports around the planet of ours that are realistically planning on moving forward again.

In order to return to live games, the sports leagues first have to accept the obvious – fans can’t be in the venues to watch them in person. That’s a fact. While several states here in America have said that they’d welcome a return to live sports, all have also been unanimous that if they were to conduct sports in their respective states, fans won’t be allowed in.

That’s going to unfortunately be the new normal anyways. Yes, all models have seen the novelvirus dip in confirmed cases. Yes, deaths are far less than we initially expected. But, that’s all due to a solid plan from our local and federal governments which majorly included social distancing from each other.

That’s the real reason cases and deaths have remained far lower than the initial data suggested and also the other reason to why we can’t expect to have our tickets scanned in sports venues anytime soon.

I get some people say that this is taking their civil liberties away, but it also could be taking lives way from others too. Yes, you say you’d risk this virus that “wasn’t that big of a deal” right? Well, that way of thinking is because we social distanced and coming out and acting like it wasn’t “that bad” is going to make it come back far worse than it was before. That’s why all of these decisions of “reopening our economy” doesn’t include going back to our “old normal.” We will still have to social distance in everything that we do for the foreseeable future.

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A big crowd watches the last race run here in the United States at Phoenix back in early March

There’s no way to social distance at a sporting venue. Experts show that talking and screaming, like you would do while cheering for you favorite athlete or team, can easily spread the virus through droplets coming out of our mouths. I don’t need to tell you how easy it is for this thing to spread and how it makes its way into each person’s body. Everyone should be well aware of that by now, so I’ll just stop there and not mention how impossible it would be to not sit by anyone, not eat, not touch your face, no go to the bathroom or touch any surface anywhere in the venue.

So, while numbers are in our favor, the virus didn’t necessarily go anywhere. It’s still out there waiting to prey on our desperate bodies that are so concerned to get back to “normal.”

The desperation is going to open states back up again albeit not the way it was on March 10. Social distancing measures are going to be taken for months still. We’re slowing going to come back out of this and like it or not, there’s no way we can be around 20k+ of our closest friends watching live sports in person. Sporting venues would be a hot bed for the coronavirus.

An Indy Star article here in Indianapolis had a fascinating story last weekend on a high school basketball tournament venue saw five people die later of the coronavirus. All were in attendance of those games and the article painted a picture on how each could have had it already at the games or came in contact with it there too. No one knows how each person got it, but they did and all five were in the same gym during the course of the three-day tournament and later passed away. Several others were in attendance at the 2,800 seat capacity venue and got it as well. That venue seats less than 3k. The virus is still out there in this world and the only reason the cases aren’t higher is because we’re not going to those games anymore. We’re not eating out in public in restaurants, or going to concerts, or hanging out with friends in bars or movies or anywhere like that.

If we were, data shows that the cases would be far higher. Now, there’s no vaccine still nor no guarantee that you can’t die from this. The virus is still out there. I can’t stress that enough.

So, how can sporting venues, which host arguably the highest concentration of people in one spot, hold those fans when nothing is out there to prevent this thing from spreading?

The answer is simple — they can’t.

So, you have to turn to who can conduct games or races without fans in attendance and make it work? The NBA and MLB are showing it may not be possible. They can have the venues and lodging in place to do so, but you’re asking the players to stay away from their families for months on end and the only thing that they can do is play their games and quarantine back in a hotel the rest of the time. That’s not fair.

Most stick and ball sports are in the same boat.

Racing, well they’re different. They can compete with other competitors and not have to social distance away from the world because they’re not in close contact with other drivers or team members.

The issue for racing is, can they hold events and be profitable without fans? NASCAR for one can.

That’s why their return is imminent next month. The race for NASCAR is, who’s going to host the first race? North Carolina, the place where most teams call home, gave them a gift by making them “essential” last Thursday. They can return to work any day now. In turn, they can have race cars ready. They just need venues to race at.

North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Texas have all said — come, please. That gives NASCAR six tracks at their disposal with more to come. So, with the Coca-Cola 600 being set for May 24, that’s the realistic expectation to return. But, if teams are ready and tracks can open, why not a week earlier? NASCAR is willing and Darlington, Atlanta and Homestead are vying to be the first track back.

Some reports say Darlington will be first up. Others show Atlanta. Another shows Homestead. It’s a fluid situation that no one knows yet which one will be race No. 1. The first thing that needed to happen was NASCAR to move to the essential category and now they have. The second thing is states that are close to proximity to North Carolina to allow NASCAR to visit. The third thing is for NASCAR to come up with a plan on how they can race without spreading this disease.

Check, check, check.

NASCAR’s “new normal” may now be to not practice, to not have live pit stops and to qualify and race in one day. That limits the amount of people needed at a race track now. Plus, the Atlanta and Homestead cars are already prepared since they were set up before we had to take a hiatus. Plus, both tracks could use those cars at Charlotte on May 24. It makes too much sense to make these the first three races (May 17, May 24, May 31).

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IndyCar races at the Texas Motor Speedway a few years ago

Where NASCAR can also return sooner is all due to their TV deal. They signed an $8.2-billion deal back in 2013 with NBC Sports and Fox Sports. That deal was to be spread out for 10 years. If NASCAR can run all 36 races this year, they’d get around $820 million from the TV networks. That $820 million is then spread out among teams and other things including the race tracks. The tracks made multi millions off hosting a NASCAR race without any fans in the stands. That’s why race tracks want NASCAR to come still and why the states that have a NASCAR venue within their borders want NASCAR to come visit for a day as well. Think of the financial impact for the states that host a NASCAR race now. They get millions in return for it. Then, the TV providers get bang for their buck with one of the very few live events on television. That in turn helps sponsors and their money get an ROI which helps NASCAR teams get more sponsorship dollars in turn.

A win-win.

IndyCar doesn’t have this luxury though. They may share some tracks with NASCAR and a TV provider (NBC Sports) but their deal isn’t anywhere close to NASCAR’s. In fact, IndyCar doesn’t share TV money with race tracks. So, if no fans can show up, which they won’t be allowed to any time soon, what incentive does a track have to host an IndyCar race? Short answer for that is, they don’t. But, if IndyCar can team up with NASCAR, it’s a large incentive then.

NASCAR is already bringing millions of dollars with them. The track is open. The IndyCar race can be staged as a double-header because the infrastructure is already in place and the cameras are already rolling. It doesn’t cost a track any money to host an IndyCar race now.

That’s why the June 5-6-7 weekend makes the most sense for NASCAR to go to Texas because IndyCar is supposed to start their 2020 season on June 6 at the Texas Motor Speedway. The NASCAR Truck Series can race still on Friday, June 5 while the NASCAR Cup Series can race on Sunday, June 7. In turn, the NASCAR Xfinity Series can find a spot on one of those dates and make a super weekend which is good for every series, good for the track and great for TV.

That could be where it gets tricky for IndyCar though because their next race is June 21 in Road America. Unless the Xfinity Series moves their visit to the scenic Wisconsin road course up to June, I don’t know how an IndyCar race can run there. After that, it’s to Richmond on June 27 but the state of Virginia is under a stay-at-home order through June 10. Could NASCAR reschedule their postponed spring race on the same track to the end of June and split with IndyCar? It may be the only option to see the open wheel race on the .75-mile Richmond (VA) Raceway in June.

The next race is an already shared weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July, so that can too happen without fans.

That takes us through the Fourth of July weekend which would then be a time to reevaluate where we sit on things.

IndyCar would need NASCAR to start their season up and NASCAR would be wise to help.

For NHRA, I’m not sure what their TV contract but it could be enough to race without fans. It would depend on what the tracks can do without fans. They’re set to return on June 7 for the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida. Remember, Florida is requesting racing without fans. The state will be open for them, will the track be able to host it without fans?

A race in Texas is also on the docket for NHRA in June which too could happen.

That leaves Formula One who right now, won’t be starting any time before July. The Austrian Grand Prix was announced as the new season opener on Monday after the French Grand Prix was announced that they had canceled their race all together in 2020. F1 then announced a new plan for the rest of their schedule which would see them race in Europe in July-August, Asia in September-October, North/South America in November and then Middle East in December.

The problem for F1 is, they race all around the world. Every country is different and some have higher rates than others. It’s going to be a very fluid situation with them but a logistical nightmare in planning this. F1 is going to have the hardest time in returning to action and if they can, doing so with fans in the stands.

So, the sporting world looks to racing as their hope of seeing live sports but in all reality, they look to NASCAR as the leaders in this battle.

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