One of the most difficult aspects of figuring out when everything is going to get back to normal in the sports world — and there is no part of the world clinging tighter to the illusion that there will be a “back to normal” after all this than the sports world — is deciding how long a delay is too long. Because almost every sport runs on a cyclical annual calendar, there inevitably hits a point when a lag is so lengthy that it makes sense to give up on the current season and gear up for the next one. That’s the dilemma every major sports league is dealing with right now.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) finally announced on Tuesday that the Summer Olympics in Tokyo would be postponed until 2021, but that was a relatively easy call. The Olympics, after all, are only every four years, thus making it much simpler to simply restart next summer without losing anything. And as a public-health initiative, putting off an event in which people come from all over the world to one city for two weeks seems staggeringly obvious. Still, the Japanese government dragged its feet at every possible moment until the IOC — not exactly the exemplar of good government — finally forced its hand after more and more countries announced they wouldn’t be sending athletes to Tokyo this year.
But what about America’s non-quadrennial pastimes? The question of when to restart is complicated by the fact that the 11-day shutdown the NBA, NHL, and MLS already instituted haven’t actually gotten us any closer to sports starting up again. The pause they put on their seasons may have helped slow the spread of the virus — though perhaps only a little, considering how inconsistent different parts of the country have been with their social distancing statutes — but they don’t get credit for time served. The time they’ve missed is gone. The Olympics will be delayed a year, but the only major change denoted in the record book will be the listing of “2021” rather than “2020.” (Or maybe not.) But other sports leagues could lose their entire season if this doesn’t get figured out soon — something President Trump’s increasingly worrisome perspective on social distancing is likely to make more difficult than less.
There will be economic ramifications across the board. The leagues are all but certain to lose programming, and therefore network dollars, the lifeblood of most sports, whether they give up a full season or not. But it is obviously going to be worse if they can’t come back to complete, or even begin, their current seasons at all.
With the caveat that uncertainty is the name of the game right now, here’s a look at the possible timelines for each major sports league:
The NFL, more than any other league in the world, has proceeded as if everything is just fine. The NFL Draft next month will be held without fans, but other than that, the league is mostly staying the course. In some ways, this has been a relief. In the absence of actual sports, NFL free agency has provided the illusion of sports activity; Tom Brady leaving the Patriots was basically a sports talk-radio stimulus package. But eventually, the league has to start actually planning for next season. Training camps are scheduled to begin in mid-July — two weeks before the Olympics were to begin, for what it’s worth — and any delay past then starts to eat into preseason games and then regular season games, vital revenue by any measure. The NFL is betting that we’ll all be ready to get back to some semblance of normal by mid-July. Everyone hopes they’re right, but of course they don’t know any better than we do. Either way, no North American professional sports enterprise is better positioned to hang onto its current schedule, less because of any brilliance on the part of the league and more because of the virus’s timing.
College basketball has been hit the hardest so far by the pandemic. Given COVID-19’s spread in February and March, there was no way to salvage the NCAA Tournament, the sport’s signature event. (Allow me to pour one out one last time for my Illini.) And the NCAA went much further than that by canceling all spring sports, ending the baseball, softball, swimming, and tennis seasons (among others) just as they were getting started. The fall sports, including the behemoth that is football, are all still on schedule, though recruiting has been put on hold. Spring practices have been canceled, but those have long been overblown in importance anyway. The major questions involve: (a) just how under control the virus will be by September — especially important for a sport that routinely features 100,000 people from all over the vast geographic area cramming next to one another for three hours; and (b) how smaller schools with tighter economic margins will survive, not just in the realm of sports, but amid a likely recession for higher education. Alabama, Michigan, and Georgia will be fine, but they will eventually need some other schools to play.
The NBA helped kick off a more serious national reaction to the coronavirus when it suspended its season after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert contracted the disease. (Many other players have tested positive since, including All-Stars Kevin Durant and Marcus Smart.) The economic effects of the shutdown, magnified by the league’s close relationship with China, have already been substantial, and will become significantly worse if the whole season is canceled. The season had about a month and a half left when it was paused, which means it could conceivably slide straight into the playoffs whenever things resume. The Athletic’s John Hollinger noted this morning that there are 99 days between June 1 (an optimistic restart date) and Labor Day, the latest conceivable day the NBA Finals could end. This could lead to a complicated (and sort of exciting!) play-in tournament, meaning that every team could make the playoffs … even the Knicks! It could be sort of a blast — though is complicated by the fact that many players’ contracts run out on June 30. But that wrinkle could be figured out, couldn’t it? Also: Go Knicks!
Outside of the NFL, the WNBA is in the best shape, schedule-wise. The season was not scheduled to begin until May 15, and the league was already taking a month off for the now-postponed Olympics. There are still obvious economic considerations to consider, though it does help that players just signed a new CBA in January, an agreement many other leagues wish they had in place right now. If the pandemic doesn’t last into September or October — though it very much might! — the WNBA should be fine.
The Major League Soccer season had just begun when the outbreak hit. It has currently targeted a May 10 return date, but that is widely considered unrealistic.
The NHL also plans on returning in May, and had been more outwardly hopeful about the notion until several Ottawa Senators players were diagnosed with the coronavirus. Now? The concern seems more about making sure everyone knows the 2020–21 season will go on as planned.
Ah, baseball. The regular season was supposed to start this Thursday, but spring training was halted 11 days ago, and most team executives agree that there will have to be a four-week ramp-up before play resumes. The advantage baseball has is that it can shorten its long season if it has to, and even push into November or even December for its postseason, if it must. Fangraphs’ Craig Edwards speculated on a timeline that might make sense — depending on the turn the coronavirus infection curve might make — and came up with an inventive idea on how to adjust the playoffs to make them more fair in a shortened season. Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy mentioned last week that MLB would be up for playing games in front of no fans if need be, but then again, last week was a long, long time ago. One bright note: If you’re looking for baseball with no fans, Japan is giving that to us right now. You can even watch old Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka!
Everything in sports, like everything else on the planet, is up in the air at this point. The Olympics had a clear decision in front of them, but the calculations for American sports leagues are much more complicated. And they’re running out of time.