As major league sports franchises wrestle with Covid-19 and suspended seasons, some lack a proper game plan

It was such an easy PR win, but the owner of the NHL's Winnipeg Jets ended up scoring an own goal.

Editor’s Note: An update to this story has been included at the end.

The Covid-19 pandemic got serious in North America last week when big events started to be called off to prevent person-to-person transmission of the virus. The NBA was the first of the major sports leagues to suspend the season after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for Covid-19 on Wednesday night, minutes before tipoff between the Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder. The NHL followed about 15 hours later, announcing Thursday morning that the NHL season would go on “pause”. Then it snowballed: the MLS, Major League Baseball, Broadway, NASCAR, and other events were all suspended with some, like the NCAA “March Madness” basketball tournament, canceled outright.

Even though sports executives have known about the coronavirus since January, nobody expected sports leagues to suspend their seasons. It’s a drastic step that brings huge consequences both financially and logistically. In a way, the leagues had no choice, as they relied on information from health officials and had to do whatever it takes to stop Covid-19 from spreading further. Stopping the regular gathering of 20,000 people in arenas across the continent seems to be rather obvious!

A crisis like this can provide excellent public relations case studies. Some organizations have come forward with clear and compassionate communications with their season ticket holders, fans, and employees, while others — ahem, Mark Chipman — have badly missed the mark.

Pain for owners, more pain for staff

Billionaire owners of major league sports franchises will undoubtedly take a big hit from canceled games, but it’s not like they’ll be wondering where their next meal will come from. Ditto the players, and even full-time team staff. The biggest concern is with the legions of part-time workers who help out on game days — everyone from the team bus drivers to those working in concession stands, as ushers, as ticket collectors, and many other roles critical to holding a big-league sports event.

The NBA has traditionally been the gold standard for PR among the big four professional US sports leagues, and the response to the season suspension was a great reminder of how it’s done. Team owners and players got out front of the issue by promising to look after part-time staff who might find themselves struggling to pay bills. Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers donated $100,000 within hours of the suspension being announced, while New Orleans Pelicans phenom Zion Williamson may have made the largest pledge yet. The majority of teams – either ownership, the players, or both – have stepped up. (There are some great articles tracking how teams are handling the situation in Sports Illustrated and the Daily Hive)

Then there’s the owner of the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets, Mark Chipman. He was asked what the team’s plans were for part-time staff, and this is what he said:

“Those people are on part-time agreements. They work when we work. So, regrettably, to the extent that we’re not putting on shows and games, those people obviously would not have a call to work.”

Not smart.

One friend of mine, who used to work in an NHL front office, said his communications advice during the Covid-19 outbreak would be this: if you don’t have something positive to say to media, don’t say anything.

It’s simple advice, but he’s absolutely right.

Chipman to the penalty box

Chipman’s comments are tone-deaf for a few reasons. First, as documented above, other teams are stepping up to help their staff, making the Jets’ decision look even worse by comparison. Nobody knows how long this ‘suspension’ will last, but surely an ownership group that has personal wealth upwards of $34 billion could find a few extra dollars for people who work night in and night out to ensure home games go smoothly.

Second, it’s not often that organizations are handed an easy PR win; a non-complicated, straightforward path to getting some good publicity. But this is it: a chance for billionaire owners to show some compassion and support for those less fortunate during an unprecedented time, without risking their fortune in any way. The goodwill earned alone would make it worthwhile.

The last point is subtle but important. It’s how Chipman refers to his part-timers as “those people”. I doubt this was intentional, but it was careless. Chipman drew a line between himself and the many people beneath him, basically equating his own struggles to theirs. “They work when we work” is Chipman saying everybody is losing out, and everyone will have to find their own way through it. Except not everyone is missing out to the same degree: Chipman could indeed lose millions if games are canceled and potentially a lot more if the playoffs are scrapped (though it’s questionable whether his team would’ve made them anyway). But those millions won’t alter his life day-to-day in the least. For some, the loss of $100 could be just enough to fall short of paying rent or the electricity bill.

Hopefully, Chipman was tired, stressed, and simply not as articulate as he usually is, because using words like “those people” is tone-deaf, callous, and self-defeating.

If we zoom out, it’s clear that the growing wealth gap is among the biggest, potentially most dangerous issues we face globally. Inequality pervades nearly every issue and is often the prism through which people see the world. The cumulation and acceleration of wealth among the 1% has fueled populist movements worldwide, heightening sensitivities and putting more pressure on the haves to do more to help the have-nots.

Logically, Mark Chipman is right: nobody is getting paid when there are no games, and arena workers will get paid once the games resume just like everyone else. But this was an easy one for Chipman to stickhandle; a few words and some financial help would have been a nominal cost to him but a big help to his part-time employees and his image as a billionaire sports franchise owner.

It’s too bad he bungled it.

Update on March 21, 2020: The Winnipeg Jets along with all other sports teams in the NHL and NBA have now decided to pay their part-time staff in full or have launched a program designed to provide financial relief. Some did this proactively, while others, like the Jets were shamed into it. There is only one NHL team that has withstood any pressure and still has offered no solution for part-time staff: Jeremy Jacobs and the Boston Bruins.

Cam Macmurchy

Hi! My name is Cam MacMurchy. I was born and raised in Canada and worked as a journalist before moving to China in 2004.

Today I work in Hong Kong as the Vice President of Corporate Communications of a listed company. I write about marketing, communications, and journalism, as well as technology and productivity, and anything else on my mind! I also occasionally contribute to 9to5Mac, one of the top Apple websites in the world, and run Executive Productivity. Contact me anytime.