• Jonathan Brannan

LESSONS LEARNED FROM THE SPANISH FLU

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

This article was originally published on May 13th, 2020.


Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down sports across the world (except Belarus), most people have been coming to grips with the new reality of our lives and trying to envision what life will look like in a post-pandemic world.


Looking into what the world of sports may look like in 6, 12, 24 months, or even longer, is made easier when using real-life reference points. For the COVID-19 pandemic, the reference point to focus on would be the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918, and the years following.

Sports may not have been the multi-billion dollar industries they are now. However, diving into the events of 100 years ago will offer some information on how to think in the coming months and years.

Germany's Bundesliga was one of a number of sports leagues that stopped due to the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: aljazeera.com

1918


At the tail end of World War I, the deadliest influenza pandemic in human history spread around the world. The disease infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide, or about a third of the population, and claimed between 50 and 100 million lives, including 675,000 in the U.S.

It is believed that the virus originated in at a military base in Kansas, before spreading to British and French troops when the U.S. joined World War I. The virus would spread further, exacerbated due to troop movements and trade


The virus would gain the name Spanish Flu along the way due to the countries neutrality during the war. Meaning the country's media was freely able to report about the outbreak, unlike media in other countries fighting in the war. Spain's high profile infected included King Alfonso XIII, which would also increase the country's connection with the virus.


“The disease is characterized by a sudden onset,” stated U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue in September 1918. “People are stricken on the streets or while at work. First there is a chill, then fever with temperatures from 101 to 103, headache, backache, reddening and running of the eyes, pains and aches all over the body, and general prostration. Persons so attacked should go to their homes at once, get into bed without delay and immediately call a physician.”

In the U.S. the outbreak was so bad that bodies were literally being collected on street corners. An article from The Philadelphia Inquirer cites 12,191 residents, of the city, died in a four-week span.

An article in the Smithsonian Magazine recorded the feelings of a North Carolina resident, about the 1918 outbreak:

“We were actually almost afraid to breathe … You were afraid even to go out … The fear was so great people were actually afraid to leave their homes … afraid to talk to one another."

U.S. school gymnasium converted into an flu ward with patients' beds separated by screens. Credit: bbc.com

Sports Response


In Europe, most sports had been stopped due to the ongoing World War. However, the U.S. who had yet to be affected by the European conflict, saw sports continue as normal. The Chicago White Sox would win the 1917 World Series, while the Seattle Metropolitans defeated defending champions the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final.


In January 1918, the first U.S. case of the Spanish Flu was reported, however, it wouldn't be for months that the country would see an explosion in cases.


MLB would start its 16th season as normal, however, a month into the season the government issued the "Work or Fight" rule, which stated that by July 1, all men with "non-essential" jobs must enlist, make themselves draft-eligible or apply for work directly related to the war.

This means that hundreds of baseball players began to join the military or took up jobs at mills and shipyards. The government would later allow baseball to delay the "Work or Fight" deadline by two months, to allow for the MLB to complete the regular season.


As baseball's regular season began to wind down, soldiers unknowingly infected with a new, far deadlier strain of influenza began arriving in port cities around the world. One of those cities being Boston.


Johnny Smith (@SportsHistProf), co-author of 'War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War' explained "On August 27, when the Red Sox are wrapping up their final homestand at Fenway Park, there are reports from Commonwealth Pier in Boston that sailors are sick with influenza.


"And this isn't your ordinary flu. It's killing guys, their lungs are filling up with this foam, they're turning purple — it's something doctors have never seen before. Within a week, the disease had spread and sick civilians were overwhelming Boston hospitals."


The regular season ended on September 1st and the World Series started four days later, with Boston’s Babe Ruth pitching a six-hit shutout against the Chicago Cubs. On Sept. 11, the Red Sox won Game 6 in Boston to clinch what would be their last title for 86 years.


“Literally on the day the series starts is when the leading health official in Boston sends out a report to his superiors saying that we’ve got a problem,” said Randy Roberts (@RrobertsSport), a history professor at Purdue University. “But people are unprepared, because it isn’t in most of America at this time, and most Bostonians don’t even know about it.”

Skip Desjardin (@SkipDesjardin), author of 'September 1918: War, Plague, and the World Series,' describes the atmosphere after the Red Sox victory."It was as anticlimactic as a game could be. No celebration in the stands. No celebration on the field. It was almost as if everyone was happy just to get it over with. Little did Red Sox fans know there would be another 86 years before they'd win another World Series."

A screenshot from a copy of the Wilmington Morning News in 1918 shows a headline announcing disruptions from the Spanish flu. Credit: delawareonline.com

College Response


College football would continue in 1918 as President Woodrow Wilson felt that it would add to the overall morale of the country. As a result, football teams were created at various military posts around the country and played against established college teams.


“It would be difficult to overestimate the value of football experience as a part of the soldier’s training,” President Wilson wrote in a letter that was eventually published in 1919.


Many schools were not able to play until late October or early November. The annual Army-Navy game was not played. Many schools played only three or four games. One of the teams that played almost a complete schedule in 1918 was Georgia Tech, coached by the legendary John Heisman. The Golden Tornadoes, as they were known then, played a seven-game schedule with six of those games played at home at Grant Field. Georgia Tech, which had won the national championship the year before, outscored its first five opponents 425-0. The biggest game of the season came when Georgia Tech, 5-0 and on a 33-game winning streak, went to Pittsburgh to play the Panthers of Pop Warner, who had a 30-game winning streak. Pittsburgh won 32-0 at Forbes Field before a crowd of 30,000. The game was played to benefit military charities. As for how the season played out, Michigan and Pitt were ultimately regarded as the nation’s top teams. Though no formal poll existed, the Wolverines and Panthers were retroactively selected national champs by multiple ranking services, including the National Championship Foundation, which went with both. In the NHL the playoff series between the Seattle Metropolitans and the Montreal Canadiens was reaching its conclusion only to be called off abruptly before the decisive sixth game when some of the Canadiens players fell ill. Canadiens' defenceman Joe Hall would collapse on the ice, succumbing to the virus four days later. The Seattle Metropolitans didn’t accept the Canadiens’ forfeit, leaving the Stanley Cup without a champion. The only other time that's occurred was in 2005 with the season lost due to a labor dispute.

The Return

In 1919, with the war and the worst of the Spanish Flu behind them, sports began to return. In Europe soccer restarted, with new countries including France founding their national governing bodies, for the sport. In the U.S., baseball would return with a full season with the Reds going on to win the World Series. In 1920, the U.S. would see the birth of the NFL. In Baseball Babe Ruth move from the Red Sox to the Yankees, while the Cleveland Indians won the first of their two World Series. Furthermore, the world descended on a war-ravaged Antwerp, as Belgium hosted a successful 1920 Olympic Games. The following year sports began to see an increase in investment, while technology opened up sports to new audiences. The first radio broadcast of college football took place, and the first million-dollar boxing fight was held in New Jersey between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier.

Babe Ruth's transfer contract from Red Sox to Yankees. Credit: cbssports.com

The Lessons

Looking back the 100 years to the Spanish Flu is helping the sports industry take some educated guesses on how to approach the coming weeks, months, and years. After the Spanish Flu world, much of the public was unsure of the outside world. They were unconvinced that people would gather again in large groups. When sports restart attending games will look slightly different from what we had experienced before. We can already see these changes when looking at the Chinese Professional Baseball League, which started last week, stadiums had left every second row was empty and there was a minimum of three seats between groups. More changes that should be expected include improving the logistics of fans enter and exiting the stadium. This may see the need to give up a little personal freedom to let this happen, such as using our face or biometric thumbprint as a ticket. However, once this has been introduced, it may be unlikely that fans would want to return to the archaic methods. Furthermore, fans will be expecting a more efficient concession experience, and at lower prices. This can already be seen with the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United lowering prices on certain menu items that will become a trend, along with automated food ordering and pickup. Fans will expect more convenience, not less, which will become a priority for teams as they risk losing fans. Inside stadiums, fans should also be able to notice the team's focus on hygiene. Moving to the business side of the industry there is likely going to be mass upheaval in the sports ownership landscape. New entrants will buy teams and young entrepreneurs will invent new ways to showcase games. In some ways, this is just another macro trend sped up. The popularity increase behind Sevens Rugby and T10 cricket are good examples of traditional games augmenting rules and gameplay to attract new audiences. Upheaval creates change naturally, and this may manifest itself in a number of ways. Rule changes may produce a more attractive form of sports that we once viewed as untouchable. Seven-inning baseball games may be fun and more enjoyable, or they could stink. Having five substitutions and the ability to bring a player back into a soccer match may make the game more exciting as more speed builds up at the end of a match. Furthermore, investors are watching the sports industry and new entrants will come in and try to change specific sports or leagues if given a window of opportunity. Chaos often breeds opportunistic entrepreneurship.