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Four Major Sports Leagues Lost Nearly $15B In 2020

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A year ago this time, professional sports began to fall in line with the rest of the country when NBA players started to test positive for COVID-19. The NBA and NHL soon afterwards suspended operations, the XFL ended, baseball canceled traditions with delays to the season, and the NFL faced a state of uncertainty.

Despite inaccurate predictions and calls to cancel the football, hockey, and baseball seasons (one is missing, you may see), all four major leagues were able to start or resume and then finish their seasons. Most outlets won’t tell you this, but that’s incredible. Of course, from a business perspective, all four took substantial hits, as did most businesses in 2020.

As this Forbes chart shows, it got ugly:

The differences between the four leagues depend on factors such as empty seats, missed games, concessions, sponsorships, TV broadcasts, and shortened seasons. The MLB notably held just a 60-game season, compared to its usual 162.

Summing it up: MLB lost $6.5B, the NFL dipped $5B, with the NBA losing $880M, and the NHL “only” dropping by $720M. A total of over $13M combined.

One could focus on the losses. However, the far more interesting story is the expected rebound.

With vaccine rollouts well underway and states reopening, the worst days of COVID are likely over. It’s unclear exactly when sports will return to quote-unquote “normal,” but indications are promising.

The MLB All-Star Game is planning for full capacity in Atlanta on July 13. Presumably, some baseball stadiums could open before that date. Reports suggest herd immunity will be reached well before the football season, indicating a relatively normal NFL year is on the way. The NBA and NHL will have to deal with COVID for the rest of their seasons, yet should expect positive 2021-22 seasons.

While the lost revenue from 2020 is, well, lost, the sports leagues are in good positions moving forward.

The NFL especially is about to cash in with massive, unheard of, make-Goodell-flinch broadcast contracts with Disney, NBC, CBS, Amazon, and NBC. The exact figures are not yet official, but each network is about to pay more. A lot more. Corporation-changing more.

The NHL is close to announcing new TV deals as well, with an expected financial bump from ESPN.

Should the MLB strike a reduced TV deal with ESPN, a new expanded playoff round and more exclusive inventory for RSNs could offset that loss. In 2020, the MLB also reached a new deal with Turner that increased from $325 million to $535 million annually.

The NBA’s broadcast contracts expire after the 2024-25 season. Expect digital players to make a strong push come negotiations time.

Finally, it’s plausible, if not likely, that many sports fans are aching to get back to games this season after missing out over the past 12 months. I’m more excited to go to a baseball game this season than I’ve ever been. Clay Travis has said on Fox Sports Radio that he believes the same.

There was a lack of interest in sports in 2020, with the NFL and MLB seasons dipping and the NBA tanking to all-time lows. With COVID less of a draw to the news networks, Americans can relax more and turn to sports. Donald Trump and the election are also in the rearview mirror for now.

2020 was awful for professional sports, there’s no doubt. Yet that’s the past. The future of all four professional sports leagues looks bright.

Written by Bobby Burack

Bobby Burack covers media, politics, and sports at OutKick.

12 Comments

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  1. the theory to pro sports funding is simple. its a ponzi scheme now. a bit like musical chairs, and noone wants to be without a chair.

    sports leagues are not like other businesses and cannot allow individual teams to go bankrupt or in the red. In the past, teams just moved to create a market and money, but all sports have declined in viewership. and empty stadiums are not a good look for teams and sponsors.

    the amount of money lost in 2020 won’t be helped by 2021. and you have to wonder what will give, because the money doesn’t work unless revenue is coming in from sources we aren’t seeing.

    maybe massive government subsidies and accounting tricks are keeping things afloat?

    how many fans are personally turned off by sjw and covid combined. they won’t come back.

  2. ESPN published a story this morning detailing expected attendance for all 30 MLB teams/stadiums. It sounds like every team will have fans in the stands on opening day except for 1: the Nationals. So, fittingly, American citizens will be well-represented everywhere except in Washington DC.

  3. If you think sports are returning to normal attendance you are mistaken. As early as 2017 Saban was complaining about kids not showing up or leaving at halftime. The 18-25 are raised on watching clips on social media. The good old days are over. It takes a paycheck for a family of 4 to get decent seats at a game

  4. There’s no guarantee that everyone is just going to come back. Habits have been changed/broken. The woke BS turned a lot of people off and many have figured out to do something else with their new spare time. Another generation of new fans isn’t going to magically appear either. These leagues and their sponsors are in trouble and they don’t seem to know it yet.

  5. Hey Bobby…just some commentary after a glass (or two) of $18 cabernet…
    Lots of wiggle room for the masters of the pro sports universe to stay in bidness…
    NBA has no hard cap – $109MIL/team with Luxury Tax kicking in at $132MIL
    NFL has hard cap – $180MIL/team + roll forward $$$ left over from 2019/20 season (i.e. Jerry Jones gets 27MIL roll forward from last season)…proration of Salary Bonuses and kick dead cap $$$ down the road to future years.
    MLB has no salary cap…union wouldn’t agree…Luxury Tax set at $210MIL
    NHL…I LOVE HOCKEY…NYR fan my whole life (3rd behind NYY and G-MEN, of course)…

    The budgeting for pro sports teams takes care of the Revenue & Expenses…and the P&L…and most important is BUDGETING…so the $$$ spent can’t exceed the expected revenues from all the streams, and if they do the caps are in play and/or accounting measures to insure solvency. The cost of the stadiums and the infrastructure is outside the operations of the team itself. If a franchise owner can’t make a go of it the particular league will find a buyer.
    So as much as we would like to see pro sports armageddon, I kinda doubt it…unless we all experience financial armageddon as a nation…and that’s more likely to happen than a pro sports team imploding.

  6. “The NBA and NHL will have to deal with COVID for the rest of their seasons, yet should expect positive 2021-22 seasons.”
    Why would the NBA expect positive results with all-time low all star game ratings and limited to zero attendance in most arenas. Where’s that revenue coming from if most of the 6 million strong that still watch the the NBA can’t even attend games? Highly doubt they even sniff 6 million. The league may cease to exist at some point over the next decade.

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