How Desperate Are Sports Leagues Right Now? This Desperate.

This used to be an innocuous street name. Photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images

Sports fan update: Yesterday I caught myself staring at two wasps in my backyard, mesmerized by the fierce competition of who could make it across the driveway faster, absolutely convinced that the one on the left was saving up a finishing kick that would take home the victory. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure they were actually just mating. It’s rough out there.

With the landscape this barren, it is perhaps natural that sports leagues are starting to go a bit cuckoo-banana-pants. In their desperation to get sports back going again — and an impatience for shelter-in-place policies that echoes football owners’ friend in the White House — executives have started floating a few pretty crazy ideas. And when crazy ideas are in the mix, talk invariably turns to … the biodome. The only surprise, I suppose, is that it took this long.

The fanciful notion of sequestering players away from the rest of the world was initially floated by England’s Premier League, which was only a few weeks away from completing its season when it froze in place like the rest of us this month. To wrap up the season — and, more importantly, to salvage some last bits of television money they’ve lost during the break — league executives are flirting with the notion of playing games in a “World Cup–like” isolated camp this summer. The league would ferry players to an as-yet-undisclosed area far from densely populated urban centers, have them play a bunch of games in a row, and give us all something to watch other than our terrifying social-media feeds. Tellingly, this is not being sold as an event meant to make the end of the season fairer for a franchise still competing for a championship; as John Oliver will tell you, Liverpool had that wrapped up already. Instead, it’s being billed as a “TV mega-event.”

As out-there as all this is, The Independent reports that it has some government backing: British lawmakers apparently “like the idea of the population engrossed in the national sport, especially in the event that lockdown measures are tightened or extended.” And it’s a measure of how worried American sports leagues are that they embraced the idea within hours.

Via Mike Florio at Pro Football Talk, a plan “floated” to an NFL general manager would involve the league finding a location “literally in the middle of nowhere” (Chris Traeger alert) and have every NFL team both live and play there for however long takes to complete a season. You gotta read this quote:

The NFL takes all teams to a location free from coronavirus, tests everyone on the way in, and then sequesters the entire league for the full duration of the season. … [you would have to] build enough fields to play the various games on a given Sunday (and Saturday, if college football doesn’t happen in 2020) and enough rooms to house the players, coaches, trainers, broadcasters, etc. for 17 weeks of football and four weeks of the postseason. Another possibility would be to add to the football facility at the Greenbrier in West Virginia, which currently has 710 rooms.

More rooms would have to be built, and built quickly. More fields would have to be built, and built quickly. Still, if/when the NFL decides that a normal season is an impossibility, this is the kind of approach that could preserve the TV money — and potentially add to it, if college football can’t be played and if the NFL takes over each and every weekend from the weekend after Labor Day through the Super Bowl.

So, to make certain the seasonless NFL does not lose out on the television money that runs the entire sports industry, the league would have to … build an entire city. This city would be quarantined off from the rest of the world — helpfully, it is literally in the middle of nowhere — and no visitors would be allowed in or out. Players could not visit their families, and they could not exit the premises under threat of banishment from the league. Everyone involved — players, coaches, broadcasters, executives, camerapeople, caterers, hoteliers, media, security, health-care professionals (whose help could presumably be better used elsewhere in the world) dentists, lawn mowers, the entirety of this whole new society — would have to be locked into the biodome for five months. This massively expensive construction project, which would require not just places for everyone to live but also enough space for 15 huge football fields, would have to be constructed essentially from scratch — that is, unless the NFL tried to dramatically expand its “luxury camp” in the hills of West Virginia (and there is nowhere NFL players would love to live without their families for five months than in the hills of West Virginia). Oh, and it would have to be constructed in the span of four months … in the middle of a global pandemic.

For what it’s worth: If the NFL is able to actually build this thing, could it maybe make a couple more for the rest of us? Because we could use some.

Biodome fever isn’t restricted to football (either kind); it has also been broached as a strategy for the NBA. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that possibilities include “a sprawling casino property in Las Vegas, where everything could be held under one roof … the Bahamas, where a ballroom could be converted into a playing court specifically for broadcast … there has even been talk of taking over a college campus in the Midwest, where reported cases of COVID-19 are lower for the moment.” But don’t think that the most empowered players in all of North American professional sports are going to go for that either; LeBron James said on a podcast this week, “I ain’t going for that shit. I’m not going for that.”

All of these incredibly expensive concepts would, of course, be dropped in a second if there were as much as one positive test for anyone inside their little biodomes; imagine spending all this money and having it all fall apart because the Mavericks’ social-media coordinator snuck out to see his girlfriend one night.

Look, I get why this is appealing. It would be wonderful if we could just construct a bubble and have all sports take place under it; at the very least, it would be a salve for those of us stuck in our house watching wasps hump each other. But the concept is impossible. It is born out of the increasing panic of sports leagues realizing that they’re stuck inside another bubble: the televised sports bubble, which is to say the incredible (and anachronistic) amount of money networks pay leagues for live sports. Without the money leagues get from networks and streaming services, pro sports are not a viable business anymore. They’re so desperate to retain some of this money that they’re imagining fake, COVID-19-free cities where all Sports People could live to produce the programming lifeblood they’ll all die without. The world of sports, like the president, is looking for a quick fix. But there is no quick fix. The leagues — and we — just have to wait this out like everybody else. The wasps are going to have to keep us entertained.

How Desperate Are Sports Leagues Right Now? This Desperate.