This weekend, team sports reached a couple of noteworthy milestones. In Germany, the Bundesliga, one of the top soccer leagues in the world, completed its 2019–20 season, which had been suspended in early March, with Bayern Munich winning its eighth consecutive title. And here in the United States, the National Women’s Soccer League became the first major North American sports league to begin play with its Challenge Cup, a tournament in Utah that has replaced the regular season and will last through July 26.
Simply finishing up a season was once a routine accomplishment in pro sports. Now it’s a major achievement. And while it’s an open question as to whether major sports should even be happening right now — there’s a contingent of people who think it’s immoral to be playing — every league is either under way or plotting a return regardless. So what did the ones who have returned successfully do so well? Here’s a look at ten lessons from the Bundesliga and the NWSL — as well as other leagues still playing, like the Premier League — that the NFL, NBA, and others could learn from.
1. No fans. Seriously, no fans. One of the more alarming aspects of the pending returns of Major League Baseball and college football is that many people involved are actively exploring playing with fans in attendance. (This is particularly galling because the entire labor-management dispute that delayed the MLB season by a month was specifically about how to finance a sport without spectators.) Many college football programs are looking at partial capacity this fall or even no restrictions whatsoever, while Texas governor Greg Abbott has said fans could be allowed at Rangers and Astros baseball games (though that was before Texas’s recent surge in COVID-19 cases). But one of the primary reasons the Bundesliga’s season worked out so well was that there was never any debate over this issue. From the beginning, it was clear no fans would be allowed.
It felt strange sometimes — there is something almost haunting about the sound a kicked soccer ball makes ricocheting around an empty stadium — but teams made it work. During the first game back, players from league runners-up Borussia Dortmund actually waved to the vacant section of the stadium usually known as the Yellow Wall, home to one of the most famous fan groups in all of sports. It was a way to acknowledge the absence of a vital aspect of the game and was actually quite moving.
The point is: Don’t get cute. Keep the stadiums empty. If you pull this season off, trust me, we will all come back.
2. Try to keep fans from gathering outside the stadium. The Bundesliga made a concerted effort to stop supporters from doing their usual tailgating and partying outside stadiums, with teams, players, and league officials all actively begging them to stay home. The PR battle worked. On the whole, fans kept their distance, and the results were unobstructed entrances and exits for players and officials, no spikes on game days, and record television ratings. But discouraging tailgating will be a serious challenge for American sports, specifically college football, and will require a sustained persuasion campaign. And considering there are still leagues toying with letting fans inside the stadium, it’s fair to say things aren’t off to the best start.
3. Pump in fake crowd noise. The Bundesliga was originally hesitant to include artificial crowd sounds emanating from the stadium loudspeakers, but it changed course quickly after all the empty-building echoing of the first few games. And it sounded great! At this point, the televised sports experience has evolved so much that fans in the stands are basically just ambience anyway. Why not create your own? When you’re watching at home, if you’re only slightly paying attention, you won’t notice a difference. A Danish soccer league had fans cheering over Zoom — the Premier League in England tried this too — and there was, of course, the Korean baseball league’s silent but incredible experiment in filling the stands:
For the games in its Orlando bubble, the NBA is going to try to include noise from both its NBA 2K video game (already built to simulate an NBA crowd) and an experimental app that allows fans watching at home to press a button to “cheer,” approximating the rise and fall of noise from the stands. It may sound cheesy and artificial, but honestly, imagine how weird it would be to watch Friends without the laugh track after years of watching it with one. The noise helps.
4. Test test test test test test test test test test test test. This is undeniably the most important aspect of the whole enterprise. The Korean baseball league, KBO, tested its players several times a week, whether they were showing symptoms or not, and the Bundesliga reported it had 25,000 tests to be regularly administered on players before practices and games. No top-level players in the Bundesliga tested positive, but if one had, he would have been immediately quarantined. Major League Baseball is reportedly going to follow the KBO’s system nearly to the letter. At this moment, it doesn’t look as though the leagues will find themselves short of tests or have special access to tests while the rest of the public cannot get them, as happened at the beginning of the pandemic. But that could, of course, change with circumstances mostly out of the leagues’ control.
5. Don’t overreact to positive tests. Every positive test is a big deal and brings us back to the debate about whether these leagues should be playing at all. But when the NBA ran its players through its “first wave” of testing last week and 16 out of 302 tested positive (roughly 5 percent), it did not go unnoticed that both commissioner Adam Silver and NBA Players Association head Michele Roberts were publicly thankful. “God forgive me, I’m somewhat relieved that the number was not higher,” Roberts said. “One is too many, but 150 would have been devastating.” The point: The league can deal with a small number of positive tests, particularly at this early stage, without having to shut down. We’re already seeing a smattering of positives this week in MLB, which is starting to conduct widespread testing as players arrive at their “summer camps” (particularly in Arizona). But if the league’s plan works, those players will be isolated (and put on the “COVID Injured List”) and the rest of the players will keep practicing and preparing.
The NWSL proved you could actually have an outbreak on a whole team and continue. The Orlando Pride skipped the Challenge Cup because several younger players had tested positive, yet the cup is still on with games continuing all this week. This sort of thing is obviously harder in a league like MLB or the NBA, which would be attempting to complete a set schedule, but it’s a sign of how resilient these leagues can be. It has been widely assumed that a team outbreak in the middle of the NBA playoffs would shut the whole league down. That’s still possible — but the team could also just be dropped from the tournament as the Pride were, even temporarily, and everyone else could forge forward. It wouldn’t be easy, but the NWSL showed it can be done.
6. Shame players who break the rules. Few athletes have had a tougher week than men’s tennis No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who hosted an exhibition tournament he had actively been advised against — and that predictably resulted in a lot of players getting COVID, including Djokovic himself. Rudy Gobert of the NBA’s Utah Jazz may never live down his early, blasé attitude about the virus. And a big takeaway from the Orlando Pride outbreak was how it probably went down: young players on the team sneaking away for a visit to a bar in Orlando. Those players were reportedly dressed down by the team’s veterans, which is a bigger deal than it may seem; sports teams and their locker rooms are notorious for being run top-down by seniority. If LeBron James tells his teammates to keep their ass in the bubble, you can count on them to listen.
7. Prepare for many non-COVID injuries. If you’ve watched any soccer games during this pandemic, you’ve seen even more people rolling around on the ground than usual. The quick restart of these leagues, particularly after players spent months locked in their houses for quarantine, has led to more injuries, major and minor. The combination of poor training, compressed schedules, and the unusual nature of this whole circumstance is going to wreak havoc on these athletes’ finely tuned instruments. Just so you know, your fantasy team is going to fall apart by week three.
8. Don’t overreact to bad polling about your return. At first, the German public was against soccer’s coming back, with one public-health official actively campaigning against it. But as we have seen year after year in nearly every other possible context, the best public-relations tactic sports leagues have is simply to play the games. By the time the season ended, the ratings were at record highs. Stay the course. Fans and the public always come back.
9. Embrace all statements of social change. One of the many frustrating aspects of sports since Colin Kaepernick began his protest years ago has been the paucity of white athletes standing (or kneeling) alongside their Black teammates. But the most memorable moment from the first weekend of NWSL play came when a white teammate and a Black teammate knelt and wept together:
For all the sometimes empty talk about how sports can “unite” us, this feels like something sports can actually do: show people from different backgrounds coming together for a shared goal with athletes making their voices heard on a wide stage. It was moving to watch the NWSL players all kneeling as one before each game, just as it was to watch the Premier League players wearing their Black Lives Matter jerseys during their first game. (I just wish I could buy one.) A lot of this is symbolic, yes, but symbolism matters in sports. The world of American politics has changed dramatically since the last professional team-sports event was held. (Witness.) These games are going to reflect that. It could be a change even more apparent than having no fans in the stands.
10. Live in a country with a competent national government. American leagues are unfortunately out of luck on this score. But it helps a lot. It really does.