Study links rise in flu deaths to cities with pro sports teams

Atlanta United only played two games before the season shut down on March 12 because of coronavirus pandemic. Teams will start arriving in Orlando on June 24.

Researchers say the same could happen with the coronavirus if fans are present for games

New research links a rise in seasonal flu deaths to U.S. cities with professional sports teams.

Analyzing data from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1962 to 2016, West Virginia University economists found that flu deaths increased by between 5% and 24% during the professional football, basketball, hockey and baseball seasons, with the largest increase for NHL games.

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Economics professor Brad Humphreys said sports leagues should not let fans back into games until a vaccine is available or herd immunity exists, considering COVID-19 is believed to be more contagious and deadlier than the flu.

"Opening pro sports games to fans is probably a terrible idea, in terms of public health," Humphreys, one of the authors of the paper "Professional Sporting Events Increase Seasonal Influenza Mortality in U.S. Cities," said in a press release. "You're right on top of people and everybody's yelling, screaming, high-fiving and hugging. And you've got people eating and drinking. You could be putting the virus right into your mouth. The bottom line is we need to be very careful if we're considering opening up games to the fans."

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The WVU team examined cities that introduced a new sports franchise during the 54-year timeframe.

“We found data that reported flu mortality by city by week dating back to the 1960s,” Humphreys said. “We decided the best experiment was to try to look at what happened when a city got a new pro sports team compared to cities that didn’t. As it turned out, after a new professional sports team came into a city, that flu season and every flu season afterward had more people dying of the flu.

“It isn’t one or two people dying. 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.”

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The study also showed that cities reported fewer flu deaths during the 2011 NBA lockout and the 1982 NFL strike, meaning deaths declined when there were no games.

The economists said this timely research will help inform not only sports league reopening policy decisions, but also mass gatherings in general, such as concerts, conferences and conventions.