This week there has been more hope about the future of sports in 2020 than at any time since the coronavirus pandemic abruptly shut down the NBA on March 11. Both The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and ESPN’s Jeff Passan — Major League Baseball’s two most plugged-in reporters — used the term “increasingly optimistic” to describe baseball’s thoughts on coming back this year; the NBA is allowing, even encouraging, teams who play in states that have relaxed shelter-in-place orders to open their practice facilities over the next week; the German Bundesliga soccer league is already practicing and wants to restart on May 8. Yes, the push to get back and play probably has more to do with these leagues’ reliance on television money than any positive public-health developments. Nevertheless, it is happening.
Still: It’s not like leagues are flying in the face of every expert’s and leader’s advice here, Dana White style. New York governor Andrew Cuomo, NIAID director Anthony Fauci (who still warns that some leagues might need to take a year off), and, of course, President Trump (who has said he’s bored with watching “14-year-old baseball games,” perhaps specifically this 14-year-old baseball game) have all encouraged the leagues to try to find a way to come back. Heck, golf is already returning, for sure, in mid-June. And various governors easing restrictions in their states has helped as well: It’s tough to keep your team from practicing when freaking Crunch is open.
But is it too soon? Can they find a way to make this work? Let’s take a look at how each major North American sports league is preparing in May, and what they need to see happen.
MLB. Major League Baseball is being the most aggressive of anyone, and for good reason: They have a whole season, or some simulacrum of it, to fit in, and unlike the NBA and the NHL, they haven’t even started it yet. With one month of the baseball year already gone, they’ve got to hustle.
This is perhaps why there is so much “optimism”; MLB might not have any other choice. Rosenthal writes that the most realistic date for Opening Day would be “somewhere between mid-June and July 4,” which is incredibly ambitious, but would still limit the season to only 80 to 100 regular-season games. (Which, of course, seems like an endless, bountiful harvest at this point.) As Passan notes, “Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Colorado, and Minnesota are among the states slated to have stay-at-home restrictions lifted. That means more than a quarter of MLB teams could theoretically host games without fans right now.” That’s not what’ll happen, of course, but each restriction lifted gives baseball more options. According to Rosenthal, the league could play games in empty stadiums in states without restrictions, and move them around as needed. (Think of the empty stadiums less as home fields and more like “hubs.”)
The public-health issues here would seem to be plentiful — and the plan relies almost entirely on testing being more readily available and abundant than it is now. And that’s even before you account for the issues it brings up with the players’ union. (Eireann Doran, a well-respected broadcaster and writer who is also the wife of Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle, has been particularly eloquent about the toll that rushing back would take on players and their families.) This is why May is so important. Theoretically, players would have a week to report to spring training, three weeks to train (half the length of a usual spring training), and then the season would start, somewhere … If baseball is going to get going by, say, July 4, MLB will have to hash out a plan with the players, get a tentative schedule with various “hubs,” and start getting players to camp … within the next three weeks. There was a USA Today report on Tuesday that even floated the idea of teams playing in their own parks (in front of no fans, at least to start), with one-year-only reorganized divisions. Can they pull something like that off? They are certainly trying.
NBA. Well, Stephen A. Smith says there’s “going to be a season in June or July,” and doggone it, he said it so emphatically that I feel like I have to believe him. But if you’re one of those unfortunate souls who does not base your worldview solely on Stephen A.’s level of enthusiasm, it’s a bit shadier. Perhaps because the NBA was the league most at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been the most cautious about looking as if it is in any hurry to get back. It also helps that the regular season was about a month away from completion, with many of the playoff chases already nearly locked into place. (The league could, if it absolutely had to, skip straight to the playoffs, but many league observers find that unlikely; most contenders would want warmup games first.)
Caution aside, the NBA is now allowing teams to get back to practicing if they’re in states where it’s legal to do so is a sign that the league is at least tentatively looking forward. Many of the NBA’s scenarios, including a much-discussed super-tournament in Las Vegas, still seem rather implausible at the moment, particularly for a sport that is so high-contact and has had so many players come down with the virus. Still, given the league’s caution up to now, the fact that they’re sniffing around possibilities at all is notable. And remember: They still have plenty of time. The NBA simply needs things not to get worse over the next month. (Which, of course, is always possible.)
NHL. ESPN’s terrific NHL reporters Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski have been giving weekly updates on hockey’s pause, even when there haven’t been a lot of, uh, updates. There are all sorts of rumors that some teams have been told to report to training facilities on May 15, or June 1, but there’s still the pesky problem of the U.S.-Canada border being closed to nonessential travel, a rule that is in place through May 10 and which could be extended. The NHL, like the NBA, had already finished most of its season, which buys it some time. The league has also shown more willingness to push forward than the NBA. But to get going, it needs some loosening of transnational policy over the next month, and it’s unclear whether that’ll happen.
WNBA. The league just had a very successful draft, its highest-rated in 16 years. And it has two big advantages the NBA doesn’t: First, it only plays 34 regular-season games, with the longest offseason in all major North American sports. Second, its schedule already had a month off built into this year for the Tokyo Olympics, which are now not happening. The WNBA is in no hurry, and it doesn’t need to be. When other leagues are ready, it can just follow suit, and still have plenty of time to work with.
NFL. As mentioned last week, the NFL is releasing its schedule in two weeks, and it is fully expected to look completely normal, albeit with some potential wiggle room if need be. But the league is feeling strong, even a little cocky, after an undeniably entertaining draft last week. (It went so well that Roger Goodell seemed briefly, fleetingly likable.) The NFL’s television contracts are so massive that no league will be more desperate to provide the networks with programming. And there still isn’t any sense of an alternative plan if teams are unable to play in their home stadiums, a possibility that sure seems likely in states like California and New York. The NFL either needs more states to loosen their restrictions in the mold of Georgia, or a more concrete plan to somehow play games in places with stricter restrictions. It has more time to play with, but not that much more; training camp begins in mid-July. The big advantage the NFL possesses over its competitors remains the same: It can wait to see if MLB, the NBA, and other leagues fail first. If what they do works, the NFL can try that. If what they try doesn’t, it can try something else. But as always: The clock is ticking.
MLS. The MLS season has already started, and it has a long, expansive schedule with many international competition breaks built in. That’s the good news. The bad news is that FIFA’s top medical expert said Tuesday that games “should not be played before September.” We’ll see if the Bundesliga and other leagues go ahead anyway, but if they don’t, it’s tough to see how the MLS could either.
College sports. Here is where you will find your existential peril.
No group of administrators and executives are more desperate for sports to return than those at the college level. Not only are they entirely reliant on television contracts for their primary income, most college football programs are the economic drivers for their entire athletic programs, and sometimes even the entire university. College sports were already becoming increasingly threatened by the growing sense that when there are billions of dollars of television money coming in, perhaps some of it should be given to, you know, the actual players. Losing a slate of games, or even an entire season, to a pandemic, combined with those overarching issues lurking above the sport, could foretell a potential extinction-level event.
Adding to the mess: There is no one entity in fact in charge of college sports. The NCAA is openly mocked by the schools and conferences it ostensibly governs, and college football is inherently regional and thus dependent on what individual state statutes allow. The sport is also heavily reliant on what university presidents do, and as we might have learned from Liberty’s Jerry Falwell Jr., that is, uh, inconsistent. While conference commissioners have said they won’t play if students aren’t in session this fall, “students in session” has begun to take on a slightly different definition over the last week. Here in Athens, the University of Georgia is hopeful it means “football players on campus on July 1.” Tellingly, the athletic director at the University of Mississippi says “momentum is building” for a July 1 return to practice, not noting that the “momentum” is coming from football fans and administrators, not actual medical experts. That’s the level of desperation here.
Could we reach a point where schools in Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama are playing football, while schools in New York and California are not? Is that even possible? College sports, more than any other, represents American government-style federalism in action, but eventually, teams from different states will actually need to play each other. All of the professional sports ultimately have one person in charge, a commissioner, who can decide one way or another on whether, and when, the league is ready to play again. But college sports just have individuals figuring it out on their own. This could very well result in total chaos.
What’s most telling about all these plans, and all the optimism about them, is that they have all pushed forward in large part because of aggressive moves from some governors to begin the reopening of their state’s economies. Those moves have obviously been hotly debated themselves — and your opinion of them may be at odds with your understandable desire to just watch a baseball game again. It is very possible, even likely, that governors like Brian Kemp of Georgia and Jared Polis of Colorado are wrong in trying to open their states so early. But if you want sports this year? You best cheer for them being right.