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NASCAR Will Test-Drive Return for Live U.S. Sports on Television

Without live sports on television, programming and audiences have looked a bit different. This we know, and it also has us waiting anxiously for a return to “normal” — even if that just comes in the form of watching something interesting, new and competitive on TV again.

As some states around the country — and especially in the South — start to reopen to some extent, it makes sense that NASCAR will be the first to test drive the concept of what live sports will look like in the U.S. under social distancing guidelines.

NASCAR announced on Thursday that it would return to the track on May 17, with a 400-mile Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway in Darlington, S.C. That race would be followed by six more through May 27, spanning the Cup Series, Xfinity Series and Gander Trucks Series. All of those races will take place at either Darlington (first three events) or Charlotte, N.C. (last four), and will all air on either FOX or Fox Sports 1.

While NASCAR usually welcomes over 60,000 fans in seats at races, there will be none in attendance at these events later in May. Since all of racing’s athletes are in cars alone the whole time, it’s potentially the simplest sport to bring back — however, that doesn’t necessarily account for pit crews and various team staff required to get cars on and off the track before, during and after races. NASCAR has said that it will be testing all involved, and ensuring safety protocols are followed for races.

One could make the case that without fans in attendance, golf is potentially the sport best equipped to return in terms of keeping as much distance as possible. The sport is solitary, does not require contact with others and has no additional support staff assuming you remove caddies from the equation. Golf’s primary drawback is likely that it wouldn’t have a couple “central” locations for tournaments, events last four days and conceivably, you’re not going to play the same course over and over. Racing’s repetition can be mitigated by the nature of the sport. Golf, where half of the game is understanding how to play a given course yourself, could grow monotonous pretty quickly.

Still, if you’re looking for what could pave the way for sports’ return, those seem like the most likely right now — both from the logistics of playing the games/matches/races themselves, and televising them in the safest way possible. Sports audiences are clamoring for anything “new” at this point (see record viewership for the NFL Draft and the ESPN’s strong numbers for The Last Dance). Whether you’re a diehard NASCAR fan or not, these races ARE that. So it’ll be interesting to see how the truncated schedule received from a viewership standpoint, with most of the races appearing during the week in primetime.

As the NBA, NHL and MLB play chicken with one another on which team sport returns first, this at least takes some of the pressure off. None of those leagues want to be the first to come back, even without fans and even with “bubble” approaches to keep every team in a controlled environment. The NBA is — perhaps hesitantly — the most likely to jump back in, and has already floated a return to training facilities as soon as a week or so from now. The league has quite a few issues to sort out about the when, where and how of games actually taking place. Still, there appears to be more pressure for the NBA (and its large playoff TV audiences) to come back than there is for either of its aforementioned counterparts.

Ultimately, the matter could get taken out of leagues’ hands if moves to loosen stay-at-home and social distancing guidelines wind up plunging the U.S. back into a growing rate of coronavirus infections. But given how little is truly known about the disease, and how that information continues to change the longer the country and the world deal with this, that will likely be the case until there’s an actual approved vaccine in the hands of doctors.

So eventually the leagues will take measured risks, in the hopes of recouping at least a fraction of what’s been lost in TV revenues and gate receipts. How NASCAR comes back successfully won’t solve all of the problems that team sports will face. But breaking the ice a bit could be enough to help inspire the safest return for the NBA — and the one that yields the top TV product too.