Corona hits Israeli pro basketball, soccer

Israel’s top professional sports leagues to play games before empty stands; future of season in doubt.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

Israel’s top professional sports leagues will play their games before empty stands starting Thursday under new coronovirus rules from the health ministry that limit all gatherings in the country to a maximum of 100 people.

“According to the guidelines of the State of Israel, only 100 people, including the staff, players, referees and officials, can be present at all basketball games,” the Israel Basketball Federation said in an official statement.

However, Thursday’s scheduled EuroLeague game between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Baskonia Vitoria was scrapped after the EuroLeague acceded to a demand from the players’ association to “put the players’ health and safety first and thus suspend competition” until safety could be guaranteed.

Maccabi is the Israeli representative in the EuroLeague, comprising the top basketball teams from Europe, Russia and Turkey. Most of the teams, including Maccabi, rely heavily on American players.

EuroLeague issued a statement Thursday saying due to the health crisis, “it has become impossible to maintain the regularity of the competitions” and that it was temporarily suspending  all league games until further notice.

Soccer is Israel’s number one spectator sport, and games are also being played in front of empty stands. Earlier this month a fan was found to be infected with the virus, forcing the soccer league to sterilize the stadium and sending 77 fans sitting near him into quarantine. With health restrictions less severe only a week ago, the health ministry at the time wanted to put all 5,000 people at the game into isolation but rescinded that order under pressure from the league.

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With the future of the seasons in doubt, especially in light of the NBA suspending its play, sports officials say the financial damage is already in the tens of millions of dollars, Ynet reported.

Damage is happening on three levels with immediate losses from ticket sales and merchandise, sponsors who are also hard-hit and won’t have money to invest in sports, and at the club level as the crisis is peaking just before playoffs that were anticipated to have been the best in two decades.

A prime example is the Hapoel Tel Aviv soccer club, whose sponsor, Israel’s Arkia Airlines, invests $300,000 in the team each season. However, Arkia was forced to shut down most of its operations and its financial future appears to be hanging on government assistance.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced $2.8 billion in emergency aid to companies hit by the health crisis, and the soccer federation will be handling the negotiations in a bid to get some of that assistance for its teams.

But the soccer league will be fighting for a piece of those funds with other sectors hard hit by the caronavirus, especially Israel’s tourist industry. Like the NBA, Israeli soccer and basketball leagues will have to process the team losses and requests for compensation, which are complicated by broadcast rights for which broadcasters may also seek government assistance to cover losses.