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From iRacing To Czech Table Tennis, Athletes And Fans Seek Sports Fix During COVID-19 Shutdown

NASCAR Cup Series driver Michael McDowell
Frankie Graziano
Connecticut Public/NPR
NASCAR Cup Series driver Michael McDowell jumped into a racing simulator shortly after NASCAR suspended its season due to the COVID-19 outbreak. It's one way McDowell and his fans are consuming sports content during the pandemic.

The impact of the coronaviruson sports is stark -- from golf’s Masters Tournament being postponed to the cancellation of the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournament. The COVID-19 pandemic has athletes scrambling to find competition and the fans who watch them struggling to find their fix.

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For NASCAR Cup Series driver Michael McDowell, it means trading in his Ford Mustang for a racing simulator.

“You’re used to driving off the seat of your pants,” McDowell said. “You feel the car going through the bumps and moving around.

“Now you just have a screen and you’ve got to tell your brain what to do based off of those visual cues.”

NASCAR postponed seven Cup Series races in response to the coronavirus, beginning with the March 15 Atlanta race. By the next weekend, McDowell was already back racing -- iRacing from his home in North Carolina.

“I didn’t have [a racing simulator] at my house, so that first week I had to borrow one from [former NASCAR Cup Series driver] David Gilliland and went to his shop and used his,” McDowell said.

But for his second iRacing event -- with COVID-19 forcing many retailers to scale back operations -- his options were limited.

“The guys at the shop on the 34 car, they welded me up a chassis and we borrowed some parts and pieces and we just made it work,” McDowell said.

He finished 14th out of 35 drivers in an eNASCAR race watched by 1.3 million people.

NASCAR plans to put drivers back in their stock cars in May. For now, the only racing Americans may get to see in person is at two racetracks in South Dakota. South Dakota Public Radio reports that the Park Jefferson International Speedway and The New Raceway Park plan to have spectators this weekend, even though the state’s governor has asked residents not to go.

Other athletes are taking to eSports during their suspended pro sports seasons.

NBA players are in the middle of an NBA 2K20 tournament on Xbox, which began with 2014 NBA MVP Kevin Durant taking on Miami Heat forward Derrick Jones Jr. in a matchup televised by ESPN.

“Sports fans and the NBA fans are hungry for sports and entertainment, and we hope this helps fill the void,” said Matt Holt, the NBA’s senior vice president of global partnerships.

The loss of most sports also created a void for those who take bets on the games -- the sportsbooks. Johnny Avello, DraftKings director of race and sports operations, said the cancellations left DraftKings the task of replacing what he estimates was 80% to 90% of its traditional business.

“No NCAA basketball tournament,” Avello said. “NBA, NHL all canceled. Baseball never got started, so we had to look for content and we found it.”

They did, in Czech table tennis. A DraftKings spokesman told NPR that more than half of the total dollars people put down on the sportsbook at one point was on what most Americans call pingpong.

The pandemic has consumers looking in the unlikeliest of places for action -- DraftKings is offering free pools where users can pick what they think will happen on the next episode of “Top Chef” or “Jeopardy.”

Whether it’s Czech table tennis -- or baseball out of Taiwan -- with traditional sports on the sidelines, bettors will take what they can get.

Frankie Graziano is the host of 'The Wheelhouse,' focusing on how local and national politics impact the people of Connecticut.

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