Iconic sports cities turn eerie during coronavirus shutdown

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Augusta National Golf Club is shown on what would’ve been the first practice round for the Masters, Monday, April 6, 2020, in Augusta, Ga. They are cities defined by their signature sporting events. When you hear Augusta, you instantly think of the Masters. When Omaha comes up, it’s often in the same breath with the College World Series. For these cities and others, the shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic is an especially tough blow.(Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

They are cities defined by iconic sporting events.

When Augusta comes up, one instantly thinks of the Masters. If Omaha is mentioned, it’s often in the same breath with the College World Series. It’s hard to imagine Louisville without the Kentucky Derby.

In the coming weeks, The Associated Press will look at those cities and others like them — from Williamsport to Oklahoma City to Cheyenne — to examine how the shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic is an especially wrenching blow.

“This is who we are,” said Jason Fink, the chamber of commerce president in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, which has been synonymous with the Little League World Series since it was founded in 1947.

They can certainly relate to that sentiment in Augusta.

The Masters got its start in 1934 on the grounds of a former nursery and the golf tournament is usually held the first full week of April.

This week, the city looks like a ghost town.

Augusta National Golf Club is all locked up. Washington Road, which should’ve been teeming with cars and commerce and humanity, is desolate instead.

A tradition unlike any other has become a year unlike any since the end of World II.

No ticket brokers offering to buy and sell the coveted badges. No long lines trying to land a table at TBonz steakhouse.

“It’s a big hiccup,” said Mark Cumins, who co-founded TBonz in 1985 and serves up a who’s who of golfers, athletes and celebrities during Masters week. “It’s not going to destroy us, but it hurts.”

While the Masters has been rescheduled for November, it won’t be quite the same.
Another event seeping in tradition, the Kentucky Derby is headed for quite a shakeup — assuming it actually gets to the starting gate.

The Run For The Roses is usually held on the first Saturday of May. Because of the pandemic, hold those mint juleps until Labor Day weekend, when the first leg of the Triple Crown is crammed into a slot that also marks the start of college football season.

Not so fortunate: the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska and the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City, both of which have already been wiped from the 2020 calendar.

The NCAA Division I baseball championship has been decided in Omaha for the past 70 years. The eight-team tournament is such a part of the city’s identity that $100 million TD Ameritrade Park was constructed a decade ago in exchange for a 25-year promise not to move the event.

Rich Tokheim’s sports apparel shop is right across the street from the 24,000-seat stadium, which is dark most of the year other than the occasional local college game played before sparse crowds. More than half Tokheim’s annual revenue comes from those 11 or 12 days when the CWS is held each June.

“We’re here because of the College World Series,” he said. “It’s just so many people.”

Oklahoma City will feel a similar blow in late May and early June, when it was supposed to host the Division I softball tournament for the 30th time.

To accommodate what were expected to be record crowds, USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium underwent a 4,000-seat expansion that raised its capacity to about 13,000.
All the new seats were already sold out.

Turns out, they won’t be needed this year.

Other prominent events are still clinging to the hope of being held.

But each day of mounting deaths tolls and millions of people locked down in their homes makes it increasingly unlikely that either the Little League World Series — actually played in South Williamsport — or the Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming’s capital city will carry on as planned in 2020.

“If we were going to play the world series, traditionally like we have done for many, many years, we need to be playing and picking teams by the middle of June,” said Little League President Stephen Keener, who has yet to set a drop-dead date for deciding whether the season-ending tournament will be held in its usual August slot.

Cheyenne Frontier Days, billed as the “Daddy of ’em all,” has celebrated the cowboy way of life for 123 consecutive years. In 2019, it drew more than a quarter-million people to what is essentially a supersized county fair, a mix of rodeo events, musical acts, artery-busting food and carnival rides stretching over 10 days in July.

For now, Frontier Days remains on the calendar.

But the countdown clock on the festival’s web site is a stark reminder that time is running out on a festival that generated nearly $28 million for the county a year ago.

“Through all the wars, through the depression, we’ve never missed a year,” lamented CEO Tom Hirsig, whose event is scheduled from July 17-26. “It certainly wouldn’t be the end of Cheyenne Frontier Days, but it could change the face of it to miss a year.”

Augusta National, which includes some of the world’s wealthiest and most influential people among its members, can weather the pandemic’s financial impact better than most sports institutions.

But it’s going to be a much tougher blow for those outside the gates, who rely on the Masters to provide a huge boost to their bottom lines. It remains to be seen how many will still be around in November to reap the benefits of a rescheduled tournament.

The Masters is even more intertwined with the local community because of all the private homes that are rented out to handle the huge influx of tournament spectators, sponsors and media who descend on Augusta each year — far more than can be handled by the limited hotel space.

This is usually a week when thousands of locals head for the beach or take a cruise.
Now, most everyone is stuck at home.

Sports — and some of its most iconic cities — have gone dark.