These 5 Sports Have the Highest COVID Risks

Lena Borrelli
Updated Mar 2, 2021
8 min read

Across the country, millions of parents now face a tug-of-war between protecting their children from Covid-19 and wanting social activity for developmental growth — including team sports. Even the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS)'s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC) "recognizes that it is likely that ALL students will not be able to return to — and sustain — athletic activity at the same time in all schools, regions and states."

Since the novel coronavirus spreads through air droplets, Dan Chojnacki, a health and wellness writer for The Truth About Insurance, says “athletes who participate in sports where they're consistently standing close to their teammates and opponents are more at-risk.”

Medical experts also worry about the consequences of sports. “No human interaction is completely risk-free as human beings are the vectors of this virus and continue to be the reason for sustained transmission,” says Dr. Faiqa Cheema, the Assistant Director of General Infectious Disease at Hartford Hospital. “As cases continue to rise, the safety of playing sports may need to be revisited. We’re still seeing exponential increases in coronavirus cases across the country and need to practice caution and stay vigilant.”

The 5 Sports With the Greatest Covid-19 Infection Risk

If you decide to play sports during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s crucial that you do so with the utmost caution. Chojnacki is a personal trainer and youth sports coach who regularly competes in running, golf, and tennis. He tells us, “No sport has been untouched by the impact of COVID-19, but there are some events that are more dangerous than others when it comes to potential contraction of the virus.”

“High contact team sports seem to be most at risk, simply because of the nature of the sport,” says Andrew Taylor, Director of Net Lawman in the UK.  “I'm talking rugby, American football, some martial arts, hockey and I would even go further to discuss sports where people touch the same equipment a lot as well, as we would be far less aware of the obvious signs and therefore more at risk." 

These are the top 5 sports with the highest risk of COVID.

  • Football
  • Basketball
  • Wrestling
  • Ice Hockey
  • Martial Arts/Boxing

Dr. Giuseppe Aragona, General Practitioner & Family Doctor at Prescription Doctor, also cites roller derby, saying that “while niche, [it] still involves a lot of contact.”

“Sports that have high levels of contact are going to present a high risk of infection,” says Will Shaw, Sport Scientist & Golf Coach for Golf Insider UK. “The scientific understanding, to date, is that activities performed inside show an elevated risk of infection compared to outdoor settings. Consequently, indoor contact sports present a high risk of spreading the infection.”

Sports with the most risk, such as dance, lacrosse and football, also face some unique challenges, says Sarah Johnson, Clinical Therapist & a Health Ambassador at Family Assets. “These sports have a higher risk than others as they are mostly played in teams or on international levels. It includes full competition between teams belonging to different geographic areas, and that is always risky. There are greater chances of carrying the infection or transferring it in such cases. “

“The consistent, close contact that players have over the course of the game is the leading factor that puts them on this list,” says Chojnacki.


“From what I know about contact sports and sports in general, some of them are more dangerous in the current situation than others,” says Dr. Aragona. “Football is a big one, as this requires a lot of contact with the other players, and everyone's hands touch the ball during that game. That could be dangerous if someone has the virus.”

Many stadiums and facilities have taken precautions, says Tony Abate, an expert on the airborne transmission of viruses and Vice President and Chief Technical Officer at AtmosAir Solutions, an indoor air quality technology company.

“To help prevent contracting Covid, several professional sports teams and venues have added bi-polar ionization devices (BPI) to their stadiums, locker rooms and training facilities,” explains Abate. “These high-tech devices, installed in building HVAC systems, neutralize COVID-19 and provide continuous disinfection to air and surfaces in any space. They are 99% effective in stopping coronavirus in the air and on surfaces and preventing sickness. While BPI is not THE answer to ending coronavirus, it is a solution for helping contain its spread in stadium and arena seats, locker rooms and training rooms.”

He cites the San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Cubs, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Pirates, Dallas Cowboys, and Atlanta Braves as “just a few of the professional sports teams that have invested and installed clean BPI indoor air quality technology.”

Plans remain fluid in response to changing COVID trends across the country, so be sure to check in with your favorite team before heading to a game.


“Wrestling is a high contact sport,” says Dr. Aragona, “and would be very dangerous in this situation.”

Indeed, COVID has run rampant throughout the WWE since it returned to the ring after being declared an essential service by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. It claimed the life of former WWE wrestler Kamala, and positive tests have come back for ex-WWE Superstar Rusev, as well as other popular WWE personalities, such as Renee Young and Kayla Braxton. 

Additionally, announcers, refs, and other crew have all become infected. Wrestler Observer Radio announced 38 coronavirus cases in WWE by September, with the outbreak reaching talent and crew at AEW. 

“There's simply no way to maintain proper social distancing during wrestling matches and martial arts competitions,” says John Fawkes, an NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, Precision Nutrition-certified nutritional counselor and Managing Editor of The Unwinder.

To help, USA Wrestling has published its Return to the Mat Guidelines, which provides guidance and incorporates information from Return to Sport recommendations by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee.


“Another sport in the same vein would be basketball,” says Dr. Aragona. “While there is less contact, it is still a small area with everyone touching the same ball.”

The COVID-19 Medical Advisory Group is a new group created by the NCAA to oversee coronavirus measures. It has established the Core Principles of Resocialization of Collegiate Basketball to address the latest updates on testing, travel, and facility access.

“This basketball resocialization guidance is based on the best information available in a rapidly changing COVID-19 environment,” says Mark Emmert, NCAA President. “It is predicated on the assumption that rapid testing capabilities will be readily available later this year. We will constantly assess emerging information as we prepare for the start of the basketball season at the end of November.”

The NCAA has suspended all collegiate recruiting in an effort to prevent added transmission, and testing is recommended three times a week for the entirety of the season. It also addresses security and distancing protocols for officials and Tier 1 individuals, who are student-athletes and their regular essential personnel.

With weeks to go until the start of the season, fans still await word on final plans for the 32 Division I teams. Meanwhile, the NBA wrapped up the 2019-2020 season, after earlier hiccups that resulted in a seven-month suspension of play. 

Ice Hockey

USA Hockey states that “medical experts have confirmed that with taking appropriate precautions, it is indeed safe to play hockey today.” Despite this, New Hampshire state officials suspended play for two weeks in October due to several hockey-related outbreaks. 

According to the CDC, “ice hockey involves vigorous physical exertion accompanied by deep, heavy respiration, and during the game, players frequently move from the ice surface to the bench while still breathing heavily.”

“Ice hockey would also be classed as a high contact sport,” says Dr. Aragona, “and with the areas usually being cold, it is a breeding ground for viruses and could be very dangerous.”

“The indoor space and close contact between players during a hockey game increase infection risk for players and create potential for a superspreader event, especially with ongoing community COVID-19 transmission,” says a CDC report. “Superspreader events, in which one infectious person infects many others, can lead to explosive growth at the beginning of an outbreak and facilitate sustained transmission later in an outbreak.”

It is why the NHL shut down the season in March before returning in August. The second part of the NHL season concluded without any positive COVID tests within the NHL bubble. 

Martial Arts/Boxing

Martial arts and boxing have both been hard-hit by the pandemic. For example, emergency regulations from the California State Athletic Commission mandate that promoters are responsible for all costs associated with required coronavirus safety measures. This can include everything from plexiglass barriers for judges to COVID-19 testing and  even extended lodging for both talent and the broadcast production teams. The CSAC estimates that this cost an average of $36,860 for each show.

This comes at a time when the boxing and MMA industry is already suffering terribly. At the beginning of the year, California planned for over 160 boxing and MMA events between 2020 and 2021. Instead, it only expects about thirty, with losses to the tune of an estimated $2.75 million.

That means over an 80% decrease in global MMA shows in just one year and over 67% decrease for boxing.

Interruptions have not only impacted scheduled fights around the country. COVID has closed down gyms and fitness centers across the country, affecting boxers and their ability to train. There have also been severe interruptions to fighter schedules, and matches that do take place do so without the benefits of a live audience.

The Least Risky Sports

The situation isn’t all bleak. 

Chojnacki has found creative ways to still enjoy physical activity despite the pandemic. “For those who want to be involved in sport, for exercise or competition purposes in general, there are safer options,” he says. “Running, tennis, golf, skiing, or weight lifting are all sports that are based more on individual performance than team, making them safer.”

Dr. Aragona agrees. “Some safe[r] sports would be soccer and tennis,” he says.

Still, one must always be careful. As a health expert, Johnson warns you to enforce CDC-recommended precautions at all times. “If you want to minimize the risk, it needs to be made sure that a 6 ft distance is maintained. Moreover, there shouldn't be any kind of physical contact,” she advises. “If nothing else, you can also avoid having a full competition between teams belonging to different geographic locations (i.e., states or countries). Instead, have within team matches in your home country or state.”

She recommends sticking to individual sports as the lowest-risk activity. 

Many experts recommend golf. “Golf is widely seen as a sport that has a lower risk of Covid-19 infection. This is because it is easier to maintain social distancing, is played in small groups and is also a non-contact sport,” says Shaw as a golf pro. “As a result of this, golf-playing figures during 2020 have soared to record levels and are expected to exceed 2019's levels of 441 million rounds during the year.”

Still, you must follow the proper protocols. Golf expert Jon Tabbernor of ReachPar tells us this includes things like “requiring golfers to use their own golf clubs, keeping the flag in whilst putting and washing golf carts comprehensively after each use.”

“Golf, cycling and outdoor running are three sports that present lower risk alternatives, albeit none are risk-free,” he warns.

That’s why it is crucial to know what to look for and how to assess your personal risk for coronavirus when playing sports.

How to Assess Your COVID Risk for Sports

These are items to consider when determining whether it is safe for you or your children to play sports:

  • How much physical contact or closeness is required between players 
  • Whether there is shared equipment or gear
  • Whether you can maintain social distancing during play
  • The age of the player
  • Whether you are at increased risk for coronavirus
  • The size of the team
  • How many spectators will attend
  • Whether travel is necessary

Always consult with state and local health officials for the best directions for your region or area.

To stay safe, the CDC recommends these extra precautions:

  • Temperature checks before games and practices.
  • Smaller teams.
  • Staggered practice schedules to avoid overlap of teams
  • Limited spectators.
  • Limited or suspended travel competition.
  • Waivers stating you understand team sports can increase your family’s risk of COVID-19

“There will always be risk involved when choosing to play these sports, but these risks can be reduced in a few ways,” says Chojnacki. “Avoiding high-fives, maintaining distance from teammates while on the bench, and wearing facial coverings when on the bench can all help.”

“Mitigating the risk of contraction also falls on the shoulders of the athletes outside of the game,” he continues. “Keeping the virus outside their home by avoiding going out in public places, where they may contract the virus, can help athletes ensure they are not spreading the virus to teammates, coaches, or opponents.”

Dr. Cheema of Hartford Healthcare urges athletes to be proactive about their health. “Ask officials if there is a plan for cleaning shared equipment like bats and helmets, if players will maintain six feet distance when possible and if there will be a way to wash or sanitize player hands regularly,” Dr. Cheema said.

Dr. Cheema gives a final word of advice.  “Outdoor sports are still preferred at this time,” she says.

The Bottom Line

“At an elite level, regular testing of players appears to be an effective measure,” says Shaw. “However, high-risk sports may have to re-think how rules can be adapted at a lower level to allow the safe participation of the games until the risk level of COVID reduces.”

“After playing, have your child wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or clean them with hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol,” advises Dr. Cheema. “Then, clean and disinfect all equipment you bring home and wash uniforms as soon as possible.”

With a little extra caution and some careful decision-making, it’s possible for you to safely enjoy your favorite sports during coronavirus, especially when you follow these tips. 

Photo by blackCAT / Gettyimages

Contributing Writer

Lena Borrelli

Lena Borrelli is a freelance journalist who has covered home security, safety, and other topics for, TIME, Microsoft News, ADT, and Home Advisor.

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