The empty Amway Center in Orlando, home of the NBA's Orlando Magic. The NBA has suspended the season due to the coronavirus
The empty Amway Center in Orlando, home of the NBA's Orlando Magic. Image Credit: AP

American professional sports leagues plotting their path back from the coronavirus shutdown are preparing for a future played out behind closed doors or to sparsely populated arenas, scenarios that analysts say are likely to carry a heavy financial burden and could lead to profound changes.

Although plans to resume action have yet to be finalised, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League are reportedly mulling proposals that include playing games in empty stadium or in clusters of large, confined fan-free zones.

Basketball and ice hockey, who were both approaching the business end of their respective seasons before the leagues shut down in March, are likely to enjoy a television ratings bonanza if and when competition resumes.

“The NBA and the NHL were about to conclude their season and to go into the postseason, which is the more lucrative period for them primarily because of the television contracts,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

“And if they were to resume and play their postseason, they would get very good television ratings and that would be a positive for them.”

But given their economic model, do all the championships have a financial interest in playing without spectators?

Of the four major leagues, the NHL has the most to lose in any future played behind closed doors, Zimbalist said. “It wouldn’t work very well for the NHL because they get most of their revenues from arenas,” he said.

In the case of smaller leagues, the equation could be even more problematic, Zimbalist warned.