US cities saw influenza mortality rates increase between 5% and 24% during the professional football (NFL), basketball (NBA), hockey (NHL), and baseball (MLB) seasons, according to research coming from West Virginia University (WVU).
Of the 4 professional leagues, the largest increase was seen for NHL games.
The findings could harbor implications for the impact of coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) on leagues currently seeking means to resume play in the coming weeks and months.
WVU economists reviewed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over a 50 year period from 1962-2016. One of the more interesting facts from the study showed that for every city that introduced a new professional sports team, the death rate for influenza increased.
The results of the study were published here.
"It isn't one or two people dying,” co-author WVU Economics Professor Brad Humphreys stated. “This is closer to 30 or 40 additional flu deaths over the course of flu season. When you blow it up to a virus that's more fatal like COVID-19, we could be talking about hundreds of additional deaths because of these games."
Conversely, the WVU study showed a decline in influenza mortality in US cities where there were season stoppages. They noted the 2011 NBA lockout and the 1982 NFL players’ strike.
The WVU research started this past March when professional sports leagues originally suspended their seasons due to COVID-19.
Humphreys noted his interest in a soccer game in Italy this past winter, which is suspected to have led to a number of additional cases.
The soccer match was in Bergamo, Italy between Atalanta and Valencia.
On the day of the match, which was February 19, the entire country had just 3 confirmed cases of COVID-19. In Bergamo alone, the number of cases skyrocketed to 997 in 2 weeks after the game.
“That game served as a super-spreader event," Humphreys stated.
All professional sports in the US are exploring ways to either resume their seasons (NHL, NBA), or begin their seasons (MLB, NFL).
In Europe, soccer is being played in the absence of fans altogether. In the case of the NBA, which is looking to be the first of the professional sports leagues to come back they are looking to play without fans, and put safeguards in place for the players, which include playing all games in Orlando, Fl., temperature checks, and quarantining players.
Still it has been undecided how the rest of the sports leagues will begin again.
“Our results reveal that bringing fans back to games would be a huge mistake," Humphreys said. "Imagine someone going to a game and sitting in the stands and then they go see grandma at the nursing home. Let's wait until we have a vaccine or reach herd immunity."
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