The Big Questions Sports Leagues Have to Answer Before They Reopen

Roger Goodell’s got his work cut out for him. Photo: Handout/NFL via Getty Images

This weekend, one of the top soccer leagues in the world, the German Bundesliga, will return to action. There are nine games left for each team in the Bundesliga season — here’s a good primer if you’re just tuning in — and none of them will be played in front of fans. A few sports leagues, like the Korean Baseball League and the Ultimate Fighting Championship, have already resumed, but none are at the level of the Bundesliga: This is a world-class league attempting a restart, and it’s returning midstream, as if it never left.

As you might suspect, this has every other sports league in the world salivating. The Premier League in England may have the green light to get going on June 1, and this week, Major League Baseball is expected to present its plan to begin its season to the players union, with a regular season of “approximately 80” games it hopes to begin in early July. The NFL released its schedule last week, with teams playing in their home stadiums, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver said on a call with players last week that the league would like to get going in the next two months. Major college football programs are even proceeding as if they’re going to have fans in the stands in September.

It is certainly possible that all these plans could go up in smoke, particularly if there’s a new outbreak resulting from the relaxed measures as states “reopen” their economies. But leagues are doing everything they can to bring sports back in the next two months. Still, their insistence shouldn’t obscure the fact that there remain many, many unknowns about how this is all going to work. Not all the plans have been released yet, and reality changes the facts on the ground every day, for all of us. But as it looks more and more like sports are indeed returning soon, here are some major questions these leagues are going to have to answer, one way or another.

Will fans be allowed?

Right now, the only sports league that seems to be holding out hope for fans in the stands this year is the NFL. Albert Breer, writing in Sports Illustrated, reported that some NFL executives would rather move back the start of the season two months than begin it without fans. There’s also the split-the-baby idea, whereby fans would be allowed but forced to socially distance; the Miami Dolphins are working on a plan in which only 15,000 fans (at a 65,000-seat venue) are allowed in, and must check into the stadium individually, at an appointed time.

College football is considering this too. At the University of Georgia in Athens, Josh Brooks, the school’s deputy athletic director (who, full disclosure, is a personal friend of mine), told The Athletic last week that the school is looking at various plans for keeping fans away from each other, including going cashless at concessions, potentially eliminating bleacher seating, and taking out “congregation points” like water-refill stations. This still strikes one as a bit of magical thinking. If you can’t get all Georgians to socially distance at the grocery store or the Lowe’s — and I can confirm firsthand that you cannot — it’s difficult to imagine how you make it work at a college football game.

As a general rule, you can tell how much a league depends on television revenue, as opposed to gate receipts, by their willingness to play without fans in attendance. The American Hockey League, the most prominent minor hockey league, has canceled its season, and the baseball minor leagues are expected to do the same. It’s fair to say they might feel differently if there were huge television contracts to fulfill. We do not know what track the virus is going to take — Dr. Anthony Fauci told NBC’s Peter King that he could foresee a scenario where fans could “eventually” be in the stands — but for most leagues, that’s the last thing they’re worrying about right now, not the first.

Will teams play at their home stadiums?

The much-discussed “biodome” plan — including, briefly, the lunatic NFL idea that the league would just play 17 games every Sunday “literally in the middle of nowhere” — appears to have been abandoned by the NFL, MLB, and college sports; the much-debated Arizona-Texas-Florida “hub” idea does not seem to be part of baseball’s strategy. But it’s still on the table for the NBA (which, according to Silver, is looking at Las Vegas and/or Orlando) and the NHL (which is looking at four hub cities, gigs some cities are already lobbying for). Baseball is reportedly being flexible; The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that “teams unable to open in their cities temporarily would relocate, either to their spring training sites or major-league parks in other parts of the country.”

But on the whole, leagues that have full seasons ahead of them (rather than those that are just trying to finish the current one, like the NBA and NHL) are going to try to play in their normal venues. The change has largely been in response to criticisms from players who understandably have little desire to spend an entire season sequestered from their family in a hotel somewhere. MLB’s current proposal reportedly tries to keep the travel limited: Teams in the East divisions would only play other teams in the East divisions, Central against Central, and West against West. This still runs into the obvious problem that certain states are more open for business and gatherings than others — and the fact that California governor Gavin Newsom keeps saying he can’t imagine any sports in his state (which is home 14 teams total in the MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL, and WNBA) until there is a vaccine — but that’s where the spring-training facilities come in for baseball. Leagues are making it clear that as long as there are states that will let them play, they will play in those states, and those states only, if they have to.

If leagues keep fans out of the stadium, how do they prevent them from gathering around it? 

The thing about sporting events is that the activity they rustle up is not exclusively contained within the stadium or arena itself. A game brings out people from all around the neighborhood: vendors, scalpers, food trucks, random fans sitting in parking lots drinking beer without any intention of entering the venue.

This is a particular issue with football, where often more people come out to tailgate around the stadium than actually attend the game itself. People trickle in from all around the state just to be near a college football game while it’s going on, usually watching it on a television from the parking lot. The arena itself might be contained, but how do you maintain outside? (Witness what happened last week in France.)

Can leagues get enough tests without preventing civilians from acquiring them?

A big point of discussion in Fauci’s talk with King involved testing: Fauci was explicit that because of football’s person-to-person physicality, players would need to be tested constantly, or at the very least, the day of each game before they were allowed on the field. (Expect injury reports to start including OUT (positive coronavirus test.) The only way you can do that is have thousands and thousands of tests on hand at all times. This will not be a public-relations disaster only if the country’s testing system ramps up dramatically. There have been improvements in recent weeks, but no league ever wants to be hoarding tests when many of the rest of us don’t have access to them.

How deep will the pay cuts be?

The business of sports may have been booming a few months ago, but no industry is prepared for an unexpected three-plus-month freeze. Silver told players that 40 percent of the league’s revenue comes from having fans in arenas, and that “the collective bargaining agreement was not built for extended pandemics.” Silver is known as the most player-friendly commissioner in North American professional sports, but he’s still presiding during an era of intense labor-management strife — even before the pandemic. Silver is now saying that the NBA salary cap, which was already going to be lower because of the money lost through the big Daryl Morey–China kerfuffle from late last year, could fall dramatically with the loss of revenue. Expect considerable disagreements between management and the union in both the NBA and the NFL, whose owners claim they could lose as much as $100 million this year if there are no fans in seats. They’re going to want to take that directly out of player salaries.

No league faces the pay-cut question more urgently than Major League Baseball. Rosenthal reported that because of the lost games and the likelihood that there will be no fans in the stands, “players would be asked to accept a further reduction in pay, most likely by agreeing to a set percentage of revenues for this season only.” But baseball already had a management-labor fight brewing when the current CBA expires after the 2021 season. Now, it may find itself with another one a year and a half early. A player source told NBC’s Hardball Talk that “there is going to be a war” if the owners insist on pay reductions. The players’ argument is threefold. First, they already made a concession with a deal early in the pandemic that made sure players would be paid their prorated salaries if the season were shortened. Second, the idea that owners would demand money back when revenues fall short is intellectually inconsistent, considering that they weren’t giving away money to players when their revenues came in above expectations. But perhaps most convincing is the simple argument of safety: It will be the players, not the owners, who will be out on the field, not socially distancing, putting their own health at risk. Several at-risk, immune-compromised players voiced their concerns to Rosenthal, and that’s not even accounting for older coaches and support staff inside the stadium. (Nationals closer Sean Doolittle had a much-shared Twitter thread about this Monday.)

The issues seem surmountable, particularly with a public that’s enthusiastic about baseball returning. (Despite its supposedly waning popularity, baseball has been ingrained in the American self-conception for more than a century, so a July 4 return is decades of good PR right there.) One would think a deal could be struck. But it’s incredibly complicated, and there isn’t much time to figure it all out. And it is difficult to imagine a more self-destructive act than baseball, or any sport, getting the green light to be the first American sport to come out of a pandemic, then being unable to get labor and management on the same page to make it happen.

What happens if a player tests positive?

This seems like the most urgent question, and for a long time, the general consensus was that if just one player had a confirmed case of the virus, any league would have to be shut down, like the NBA was when Rudy Gobert tested positive all those thousands of years ago.

It does not seem like this is still the dominant view. There are certainly some number of positive tests that could shut down a team; Fauci answered King’s hypothetical of “four” by saying that an NFL team would have to quarantine for two weeks in the middle of the year. (In that scenario, it’s tough to imagine the season continuing. Do the teams just forfeit?) But there is an undeniable sense, particularly as many athletes have contracted the disease and then recovered, that a few positive tests here or there would not have to shut down a league entirely.

There are legitimate questions about the aftereffects of having the virus, particularly for immunocompromised players, but with the leagues this determined to play games, it sure feels like, at least right now, one or two positive tests aren’t going to stop them.

Is it worth the risk?

This might be the biggest question of all. There is civic value in sports returning, a desire for Americans to regain some sense of normalcy. But then again, isn’t the desire for that sense of normalcy one of the primary reasons everyone’s rushing to reopen when perhaps they should not? Sports could conceivably give Americans a false sense of security. People could falsely believe that with sports up and running, it’s safe to go back to their regular lives. The other major reason for sports returning is of course financial, but that’s a similar instinct as well: The idea that we’d push sports to come back so that billions of dollars aren’t lost, even if it’s not safe, is the same motivation driving the push to reopen nationwide.

It comes down to risk evaluation. Is it worth the risk, not just to the players but the public at large, to push for sports to return? There may be no real answer to that question. Instead, there’s just, as with everything else, a bunch of people lining up in formation across from each other to tell the other side that they’re wrong. Sports may be rushing to return more quickly than it should because of money and consumer demand, but it’s also doing it because sports are running out of time to salvage 2020. If it’s going to happen, it has to start happening right now. Not all of these questions may end up being answered satisfactorily, or even in unison by all the leagues. But the push to return is in full swing. What’s the next step? No one in sports knows. Which makes them just like the rest of us.

The Big Questions Sports Leagues Have to Answer Now