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As sports return to TV, ratings are up. But at what cost with COVID-19 infections surging? | COMMENTARY

Healthcare worker Dante Hills, left, passes paperwork to a woman in a vehicle at a COVID-19 testing site outside of Marlins Park, Monday, July 27, 2020, in Miami. The Marlins home opener against the Baltimore Orioles on Monday night has been postponed as the Marlins deal with a coronavirus outbreak that stranded them in Philadelphia.
Healthcare worker Dante Hills, left, passes paperwork to a woman in a vehicle at a COVID-19 testing site outside of Marlins Park, Monday, July 27, 2020, in Miami. The Marlins home opener against the Baltimore Orioles on Monday night has been postponed as the Marlins deal with a coronavirus outbreak that stranded them in Philadelphia. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

As professional sports return to television, the early results are that ratings are up virtually across the board. But that good news for broadcast companies and team owners is being overshadowed this week by surging COVID-19 infections of several Miami Marlins players and staff that forced postponement of all Miami games through Sunday including four against the Orioles and three against the Washington Nationals.

ESPN reported Tuesday that as many as 17 Miami players and staff had tested positive for the highly infectious coronavirus.

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Major League Baseball, which started its shortened 60-game schedule last Thursday for some teams, saw TV ratings increases of more than 200% in some cases. Thursday’s opening night game between the World Series champion Washington Nationals and New York Yankees averaged about 4 million viewers nationwide on ESPN. That was the biggest game audience for opening play ever on ESPN. It was also the largest audience for any regular-season game on any network since 2011. The big-market matchup was up 232% from last year’s opening night game between the Boston Red Sox and Seattle Mariners.

The ratings roll continued on ESPN Thursday night with the late game between the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers drawing an audience of 2.8 million viewers, the biggest ESPN audience ever for a regular season late-night game. Ratings remained well above average over the weekend.

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The ratings bonanza was felt in Baltimore too. The Orioles had a big TV opener on MASN Friday night, almost doubling the audience for last year’s opening telecast with a 3.24 rating this year versus 1.67 in 2019. The average for the three-game series with the Boston Red Sox was up 52% versus the full season average for telecasts in 2019, according to John J. McGuinness, MASN senior vice president.

Baseball is not the only sport where viewer numbers are showing an eagerness for a return to watch something other than old replays of games.

Professional golf, which has been back on TV with tournament play this summer, was met with the same kind of viewer enthusiasm when it returned with the Charles Schwab Challenge in June. The final round on CBS averaged 3.1 million viewers, an increase of 50% over 2019.

The GOLF Channel’s four-day coverage did record ratings for that cable outlet up 78% from 2019, though they flattened a bit in recent weeks. The final round of The Memorial tournament in Dublin, Ohio on July 19 drew an audience of 3.2 million for CBS, the largest audience in five years for that tournament. That was up 9% from last year.

It seems reasonable to expect big ratings for other sports as well, such as the NBA which is scheduled to resume its 2019-2020 COVID-interrupted season Thursday with games on TNT.

But there are big questions, too, that demand to be asked about the cost to individual athletes and society in general of bringing these televised games to an audience hungry for entertainment and the sustaining rhythms of American life in the midst of the worst public health crisis in a century. Those questions are part of the larger discussion about trying to restart the economy and life as we knew it at the expense of what health officials say will certainly be more infections and possible deaths.

Major League Baseball is at a moment where the season could come unraveled if there are more infections. But even before news of the Marlins-Orioles cancellation broke this week there were questions that weren’t being asked loudly enough.

Take the case of Eduardo Rodriguez, a former Oriole and now one of the best pitchers in baseball for the Boston Red Sox at the age of 27. He tested positive for COVID-19 before summer camp started in preparation for the shortened season, but recovered and was cleared to resume working out on July 18.

He has remained virus free, but an MRI has since discovered an issue with his heart, which has been diagnosed as myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that is usually caused by a viral infection. It can lead to heart failure or arrhythmia, when the heart can beat too fast, too slowly, or irregularly. An Associated Press story says Mr. Rodriguez’s doctors told him 10% to 20% of persons who have COVID-19 also have been diagnosed with myocarditis.

At this point, the medical community simply does not know enough about COVID-19 to say what the long-term effects of the virus are. The argument that athletes are young and strong and will recover from the virus does not seem so solid when you think about myocarditis and other side effects. How do you define “recover” anyway?

I love sports on TV, but cases like that of Mr. Rodriquez and the explosion of infections in the Marlins’ clubhouse make me hope the owners will look past their pocketbooks and the money from TV contracts and think long and hard this week about where they go from here with their shortened seasons.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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