Hope for What Sports Will Look Like After Covid-19

On Sunday, April 5th 2020 the President of Cosmos Sports & Entertainment, Cary Kaplan and Roger Lajoie of the Fan590 (SportsNet) discussed the impact of Covid-19 on the sports and entertainment world. Drawing from personal experiences and those that are happening around the globe in places like China, South Korea, and Singapore, Cary talks about what to expect once restrictions begin to ease up.

Below is the fully transcribed interview and discussion.

Roger:

Cary Kaplan knows those struggles very well. He’s the president of Cosmos Sports and Entertainment. He’s also the president, General Manager of the Brampton Beast of the East Coast Hockey League and he joins us here on Sportsnet tonight. Cary, hope you’re safe and well how are you sir? 

Cary:

Yes, you to, hope you’re safe and well. It’s hard to find live sports right now. I was looking this morning and saw there was something called marble racing. There are 60 million hits Roger, on something called marble racing and then there’s table tennis in Russia and it’s a pretty crazy world with everything that’s happened in the last bit. So I think it just shows people are looking for sports wherever they can find it.

Roger: 

Well, there’s no doubt. Hey, listen, I’m curious as to your response to our Twitter poll. Cary, we basically asked people their level of interest in these leagues trying to do things. The NBA as you know has done the two things. First, they have this NBA 2k tournament, which is a video game tournament going on featuring their players, trying to make it kind of fun. And there’s a game of HORSE, which is just shooting at a basket where a player will take on another player with video cameras recording from different locations. It’s really stretching it, it really seems like desperation. But you just talked that there’s no sports going, what do you think the level of interest will be in these kind of, and I’ll call them what they are, gimmicks to try to keep people while we twiddle our thumbs waiting for real sports to come back.

Cary:  

Well, I think there’ll be some level of interest because just what you said people are so desperate for content, that these sort of gimmicks, as you say, will have some level of interest. eSports, you know, this is a big opportunity for them, because a lot of people question that. You know, it’s not the same. It’s two NBA players sitting in their pyjamas and flip flops at home playing for their team or whoever plays for that team. I mean, it isn’t the same, but I think difficult times call for unusual measures.

Roger:  

No doubt about it. So Cary, bit of breaking news today, the Daily Mirror in London is reporting that there is a tentative, and it’s only tentative, agreement in place between the Premier League of Britain, the United Kingdom, and the government, that if all goes according to plan, so that’s why I say tentative, that in June, the Premier League under tightly regulated regulations, as story goes will be allowed to explore the possibility of playing games in empty stadiums and resuming their schedule. Your thoughts not just on that one in particular, but on how pro sports when it finally does get around to restarting is even going to restart.  Surely, Cary, and none of us know for sure and we’re not doctors but we’re a long way away from public gatherings obviously right?

Cary:

Well, it is not just sports, entertainment, concerts, anywhere where there’s large gatherings, it’s hard because that’s the industry that I work in, but it’s going to be the last thing to come back full force. You know, it’s one thing coming back with nobody in the stadiums it’s another thing coming back whereas you say there’s actual gatherings of people. You have to get to the point where people can go outside of their house and can go sit on a patio,there’s a lot of steps before you’re going to have people in facilities watching games, but I do think you can look at Asia. I think people are looking for “when’s the date” I think the you know, the best places to look are China, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, where they’re more or less two months ahead of where we are. The sobering news is they’re still really not having any sports or just trying to get events with empty stadiums and a some intramural baseball, and they’re two months ahead. So they started in January. So June is going to be a real stretch. I think what’s more, you know, who knows? Again, as you say, we’re not doctors, I think a realistic timeline for sports in North America, is closer to August or September, you hope earlier, but I think it’ll be tough to pull something off in in June. Because if you do that, Roger, what happens if you start the Premier League, and then a couple players get sick? I mean, do you shut it down again? So it’s tough.

Roger:

Well, Cary, that leads to the next question, were friends and I’ve known you a lot of years and I think you’ll know where I’m coming from when I ask this because I’ve asked this of a lot of guests. This isn’t just sports, but it’s how, as a society economically, and you’re a sports marketer, you know, the financial side, and let’s preface it, we both know, we both discuss this. It’s 1,000% correct what’s being done. You’ve got to shut everything down. One life is worth more than any kind of money or economic impact, get it, understood. However, so now that I preface that, I will ask you the question, it’s like so people say, Well, what happens if one person gets sick? My response to that Cary, is an it you know, you’ll take it for what it’s worth, and I think most listeners who have listened to me take it for what it’s worth too. If we’re waiting for nobody to get sick from Coronavirus, and again, I’m not a doctor, all right. But unless a vaccine comes any day, we’re not going to have sports for 18 months to two years because this is just leveling the curve. It’s not curing the disease. So, at some point, not just in sports, but as in society, when we get back to going and you use China, I’m glad you brought it up, China, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, as the examples. Well, life is slowly returning to normal there. But there are still people coming down with the virus, because they have to at some point, start. So I guess my question, is at some point, do we not have to do what we can to mitigate the risk and get going?

Cary:

Yeah probably, I think we’re resilient. I think people forget. September 11th happens, nobody flies. For a lot of people It took a while before they got on a flight after that, and security measures changed forever and I think for the good, but people get back and they fly. Is there a higher risk that there’s going to be terrorism post 9/11? Absolutely. Did people go back to Times Square on New Year’s after 9/11? Absolutely. The other ones the lockout, you know, people were doom and gloom when hockey missed the Stanley Cup and say I’m never going to go back to a leafs game. Well, that wasn’t the case. It didn’t take people long for them to come back in droves and I would argue more so than people did before. So I think we’re resilient. First of all, I think there’s an end to this. There’s a clear light at the end of the tunnel. But I also do agree with you Roger, there’s steps in coming back. I think it’ll be a new normal, they’ll be Purell at every corner and maybe people will be sitting three seats apart at stadiums at first, but I think there’s such a pent up appetite for live events that I don’t think people even realized and appreciated before that millions if not billions of people globally are going to be anxious to get back to sport. So I think you’re right, we cannot get to a point that there’s never going to be another case in the world. But I think there is a gradual coming back process that ultimately is going to happen.

Roger:

Okay, so let’s talk then from the sports, sponsorship, economic, the entire business of sports as to the best way to do that. Generally speaking, whenever an idea like the one that came in Britain today about the Premier League starts, the first response is, well, if one person gets sick, you’re going to shut it all down again. So let’s put that aside for a second. Cary, You’re the person who’s doing it, and again, it depends on the risk factors and percentages, and hopefully, you know, this, hey, look, we get a vaccine and we don’t even have to talk about this. But to sort of start it, what the Premier League and the British government have decided is for the good of the economy, for the good of mental health, and for the good of everybody. We have to try to do something and while June and crowded stadiums cannot happen, this is better than nothing. So my question to you in North America, your professional opinion I highly respect on this question I’ve asked lots of people this but I would really like to know what you think. Is it quote on quote, worthwhile for the NBA and the NHL to come back as soon as possible? in empty stadiums?

Cary:

I think what you do on these, you follow the experts, you follow the health experts, not the business experts and not the finance guys and people that want to make money. As much as you say that the economy is in a position it’s never been in, you still have to follow the health experts. Once the guys at the health organizations give the okay, I don’t think the sports and entertainment industry should be conservative at that point. I think you say okay, we’re gonna go with the as loosening up, and again you can see it happening in Asia as it’s loosening up, I think you follow the lead of the health experts, but then you go right up to the extent that that the medical community says makes sense. You’re going to get sick, some people will choose at that point not to go back. There’ll be people that are high risk. There’ll be people that have symptoms, there’ll be people that just are having anxiety, additional anxiety to not go to a sporting event. I By the way, think it’s the onus on all the teams to respect that. I mean, some teams are better than others. If there’s people that aren’t comfortable going, money should all be refunded. I think there’s some reluctance on some of the bigger teams to have a clear full refund policy, if you’re uncomfortable coming for any reason, because of Corona. I think there’s going to be a group of avid fans that want to get back. And then there’s also going to be some people that just want to be in a group gathering and miss it to that extent. So I guess that’s sort of a long answer to a short question, but basically I’m saying once the medical community says go, then sports and entertainment and events should follow right behind them.

Roger:

I agree with that Cary. The only thing is, again, none of us are doctors but the medical community is not going to anytime soon again, barring a miracle cure drug say “go everything’s cool”. They’re going to say the risk is vastly reduced, because all we’re doing here is leveling the curve. We’re not curing Coronavirus, 

Cary:  

Right, but There’s a time when the risk is vastly reduced, maybe to clarify, I think that’s when you go say, look, the risk is vastly reduced. You can be conservative to a fault to when there’ll be a point where the medical communities will say, as you say, there’s some risk, but it’s the same with anything. There’s some risk in crossing the road in front of your house, and there’s some risk with getting in a car and driving and there’s risk with most things we do in life. So I think, again, now we’re in a period where the best thing is for the entire country and mostly the entire world to be shut down for 30 to 60 days and I think what everyone’s saying is, if people can hang on for a month or two, which in the big scheme of things is not that much time compared to the seasons and years that sports leagues operate. We might be might be able in June or July or August to begin the first steps back. But we have to get through the darkness to get to the light on this one.

Roger:

No question. That’s true of anything. Cary Kaplin, president of Cosmos Sports and Entertainment. Also the president/GM of the Brampton Beast. I’m Roger Lajoie Sportsnet Tonight, you can put your comment in on Twitter @therog590, vote in the poll, while you’re there, email Roger@Sportsnet590.ca or text 590 as well. Cary, the the Big Four in North America is something I would like to address with you now because you know this and you’ve worked with numerous sports teams. Of course, I’m referring to the NHL, the NBA, the NFL and MLB. I talked about how you get back and the importance of finishing your season, and listen, all the league’s are in the same boat, they want to come back they want to finish their seasons, because they want to make the money. However, they’re not all the same especially I would think if we compare the NFL to say the NHL, the NFL could play games in front of empty stadiums when there’s no Coronavirus because their TV contract is so large, and there are so much, you know, auxiliary things that support it. The NHL, as you well know, is a much more gate driven league, when it comes time to make and put the help aside, the health concerns have been at least alleviated enough to start up, does that change how the leagues look, and how quickly they want to get back? I go back to the same question, is it worthwhile for the NHL to play games in empty arenas? It’s certainly not as worthwhile as it would be for the NFL, is it?

Cary:

Yeah, no, you’re absolutely right. The NFL is a great example there. They could have nobody in any of their stadiums and still be a very profitable league. And I think that allows the argument of saying even if we have empty stadiums the TV audience is huge, unparalleled that I think, the bigger the league the the more propensity that they could be comfortable opening with empty stadiums. I guess the hope is, maybe you can start with empty stadiums or emptier stadiums or that there’s some evolution but I would agree I think for the smaller leagues, a lot of the teams that we work with, it’s even harder. Where groups like the Brampton Beast, cricket events, Toronto Rock, rugby, or things like that. Two things; First of all, you’re very gate driven, dependent on your revenue. But second,the big part of the experience is people being in the stadium and if you lose that, you lose the essence of what you are. So you’re right, the NFL I think would be position almost better than anybody to go back sooner.

Roger:

I have to admit I’m a little bit surprised where leagues like this, and I’ll mention one by name, the American Hockey League has not canceled its season. Still saying that they’re going to wait and maybe pick it up in May, I get the big four. But I’m really having a hard time trying to fathom why the American Hockey League would take so long to do what should be obvious to them and cancel the season. What do you think?

Cary:

Yeah, I don’t disagree with that. I mean, I’m part of the ECHL. And I think we were the first Hockey League actually in North America of consequence to cancel. The challenge with the AHL is the most of the players are on NHL contract. The American Hockey League almost don’t make that decision on their own. They have to do that in conjunction with the NHL. So it’s a bit of dominoes. I think there’s so much overlap on players that they have to be in lockstep with the NHL. To me it feels, I don’t want to burst people’s bubble, but it feels very unrealistic that unless you’re looking to do a playoffs of any kind in the fall, that something’s really going to happen you have so many issues, just the crossing the border issues, it just feels to me that the AHL, and in my opinion, the NHL and the NBA as well are, are just very unlikely that this season is gonna get played.

Roger:

It’s hard to dispute that logic and not even just the border, international travel. Like even if you can cross the border. I mean, how many people are going to be doing the NHL, it has players throughout the world, for heaven’s sakes, that’s a tough one. But that leads me, Cary, because I like the way you started. You know, people are resilient. We will find a way,  we will do it. So we put that aside. And you talked about other leagues and other opportunities. I look at teams and leagues and again, it’s a bit further down the road, but like the Toronto Rock, or the Toronto Arrows, teams that are local leagues, would they not be in a position to start earlier and easier than a lot of other leagues because they don’t have the border, the international travel restrictions. 

Cary: 

considering the ones that are in Canada, I think groups like the Canadian Football League, or Canadian Premier League Soccer, and then some of those other leagues that you talk about are even looking at creatively having Canadian only events, which is definitely a possibility too. So I think there’s ways to be creative for those other leagues to have a chance to step up.

Roger:

Do you see a time Cary, those leagues that are all in Canada, the CFL was a good example. And I talked about that with a guest last weekend. He said, “Yeah but still, at least half the league is American and so there’s still that travel restriction”. But do you think some of the leagues, and Paul used the National Lacrosse League, even maybe as an example, or because I know there’s American and Canadian franchises, but if it’s just the Canadian teams, Canadian players, do you think it would come to that, that some leagues might say, because I’m convinced even though there’s international travel involved in the Premier League, that’s one of the reasons the government is talking so closely with them. I think where President Trump the other day talking about the NFL, because all the franchises are located in one country, that should make a big difference. No?

Cary:

It can. I mean, well, you said it earlier. The question is, do you come back in a simulated version of what the normal you come back in something watered down? Do you come back with less players do you come back with certain games not played in certain markets do you come back with a tournament for the playoffs? I think you can do that but but usually what most of these leagues will ultimately come to the conclusion that it may devalue your playoffs or devalue your league or devalue your championship. So I think what’s tricky is the summer sports because the summer sports have a bigger window potentially, to come back they could start later and still have a shortened season, like MLB I think for instance, is talking about some creative solutions. I think the leagues that have already started or are midway through it’s very hard to do something, regardless of what the level is because if you come back as you say there’s so many question marks associated with it that people don’t want to hear it but there’s a real argumen.  I think as the ECHL or some other leagues have done, the rugby league as well, to say, look, we’re going to look at having a great season next year, this is a chance to build this up and get our fans re-engaged and continue to communicate with them. But it’ll be hard for those guys to to have something modified.

Roger:

Cary, let’s talk about your experiences as president/governor of the Brampton Beast and the decision to close league at the East Coast Hockey League. I had Dave Branch on with me yesterday and we talked about how it all came down in the Canadian Hockey League and the semantics of it. I think the listeners would be very interested in finding how the decisions made the timeline and how that all went with us. What can you share with us on that?

Cary:

Yeah, that’s a great question. Thanks, Roger. I mean, I’ve been a governor of the Brampton team for the seven years that the team has been there and it was the most emotional call, I guess it was two phone calls, two conference calls that we had amongst all the governors and you’re talking 26 teams in the ECHL. There’s two teams in Canada, Brampton and Newfoundland. And then there are 24 teams in the US. And it was a very, very emotional discussion. So you realize how quickly everything happened. We played a game in Brampton on March 10 and then we had another game on March 13. And by the time of March 13, the games were postponed at that time, and it started where one of the first states, Cincinnati and Toledo in Ohio are both in our league and they were the first state, at least that was relevant to us, was ordered to have empty stadiums and a closed facility. So first part is it happened quickly, but it was very emotional. I mean, there were a lot of people that wanted to wait, they felt the staffs and the players and the coaches have put so much energy and emotion into the season and wanted to go forward but, ultimately it was the health of people, as you said in the very beginning, people are fathers and sons and husbands and obviously, wives and daughters and mothers as well, but our hockey players are fathers and sons and brothers. One of the things I remember just real quick, just before our last game that we did play, I talked to the players about things that may have been coming and everything was status quo at that point. You could see a couple of our players had fear in their eyes and they wanted to get home, they are from other cities, some of them from other countries and they wanted to get home. I think what you realize in those moments is that the human aspect has to carry the day, as I said, it was very emotional but it was unanimous. You know, in the end after all that emotion, in two and a half hours of phone calls it was unanimous that that the ECHL should suspend the season.

Roger:

Well, that’s quite a story. It shows the semantics and the difficulty of making a decision like that. So from the sponsorship, side of it Cary, there’s a lot of money at stake here. We’re only guessing but I’m going to give you two scenarios. So I would assume that both the NBA, the NHL, and all the major leagues want to get games in to satisfy the television requirements. But if this is all shut down, and nothing happens until September, and the NHL and the NBA cannot resume their seasons, maybe just talk about some of the possible scenarios that happen sponsorship wise, TV rights deals, and all those complex issues.

Cary:  

Well, you know, what I’m a believer in on this, and it can be very convoluted and there’s a lot of different ways to do that. The world or at least the world that we’re in is deferred for, let’s say, it’s six months. I think what you do wherever you can is you try and defer those relationships. So defer the fan relationships, defer the sponsor relationships and defer really all stakeholders. It’s just like the Olympics, the Olympics is in all likelihood going to happen in 2021. So will it give a sponsor an out to walk away for any team or give fans an opportunity to get their money back but one thing I can tell you Roger, because we have dealt with four or five different teams that we’re working with, York Nine is another one in the in the CPL.What we’ve been really pleasantly surprised is when you talk to people, very few people want refunds of any kind, they want the option for that, but really, they want to do what they originally intended to do, which is, come out when there’s a game or, you know, everybody can understand this situation. So I think my general answer is the more you know, things can be deferred. It’s like the government talking about deferred mortgages and deferred bills, that gives people light at the end of the tunnel, as opposed to saying, This is canceled or we’ll never come back or there’s never going to be another season. I think conversations with people are in terms of everybody appreciates the situation and let’s just, push everything back, it’ll be three months or six months. That’s the it’s not always gonna work. But I think that’s what we’re telling our partners and our teams and the corporate partners we work with. We’re going to come back and at some point, it’ll be better than ever. But we’ve got to go through this first.

Roger:

Cary, I guess the optimist in me looks at it this way, ultimately and I think we saw it, and you already alluded to, it’s not nearly the same circumstance but it is worth talking about. When the NHL missed the Stanley Cup, when baseball strike canceled the World Series, it felt that people would never return to this again, habits would change. Even though that was man made, not like this virus that has just come on us, and it is very different. When things are really really dark people tend to think the worst case scenario. The best case scenario is maybe it comes back and Cary, maybe sports and concerts are even bigger than they ever were because of the time that was missed. 

Cary:

Well I think we can use all kinds of examples, but I think the best example is in 1918, 102 years ago, there was a Spanish Flu and the Spanish Flu affected the NHL. If people look it up after this discussion here, it affected the NHL and affected the Stanley Cup Finals and in essence it was a second year of the NHL. So imagine a league just starting there were four teams in the league. So it was an NHL much like some of these smaller leagues today; if it’s rugby, cricket, ultimate frisbee, or lacrosse. That’s what the NHL was in 1918. The Spanish Flu took hold of both teams in the finals and one player, Joe Hall, died of the flu. The Spanish Flu actually had much higher fatality rates than then Corona does. They stopped the season and the NHL was canceled and there was no finals in 1918. As we all know, the NHL came roaring back. Again, as you say, there’s lots of cases of Wimbledon stopping in the world wars. And but I think that was a pandemic and it was. But the optimism in me says, this is a moment in time, and it’s very stressful and we’re in it and most of us have not had the misfortune to live through World Wars. We’ve seen it one way or another, or maybe the Kennedy Assassination or certain moments in time. This is one of those moments in time, and I think it’s very scary when you’re in it but on the other side, there’s a lot of hope.

Roger:

Well said, and we’ll conclude with that. Cary Kaplan is the president of Cosmo Sports also the president and gm of the Brampton Beast joining us to talk about this Coronavirus situation and how it will affect sports moving forward. Cary great conversation. We’ll do it again soon. Stay well. Stay safe and thanks so much

Cary: 

You too. Take care Roger

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