Sports are an absolute mess right now. The NFL, desperate to stay on schedule for Super Bowl Sunday despite an explosion of COVID-19 cases nationwide, is keeping every plate spinning in an attempt to maintain its calendar, to the point that the Baltimore Ravens played on Wednesday last week (the second time an NFL game had been played on a Wednesday since 1950) and Tuesday this week — (the first). The league’s urgency to not cancel or postpone games has gotten so extreme that Defector’s Kelsey McKinney noticed that it appears to be staggering the release of positive COVID tests until after its Sunday afternoon games are over. College basketball canceled its much-ballyhooed No. 1 Gonzaga versus No. 2 Baylor matchup Saturday afternoon, just a couple of hours before tipoff, and the top-ranked Bulldogs have nixed the next four games on their schedule. College football games are getting canceled so often that there’s a legitimate worry there won’t be enough qualified teams to play in some conference championship games.
Not that the games, when they’re played, look remotely normal either. Football teams, in particular, are running out of players, and for every happy Sarah Fuller-kicking-for-Vanderbilt story, there are a dozen examples of teams being forced to put fifth-stringers on the field just to get their games completed. COVID protocols have made even basic game-planning difficult to pull off, not to mention drastically slashing practice times. And you can tell: The games — whether they involve college players or professionals, men or women, stars or scrubs — are sloppy, choppy, disorganized, and increasingly random, full of aberrational mental and physical errors across the board. They’re still the familiar sports we’re watching, sure, but they’re a distorted Xerox of a Xerox of what we’re used to. If the way sports look right now were the way they always looked, I’m not sure how many people would ever have watched them in the first place. It’s ugly out there.
Which is to say: Sports needs the vaccine to get here, and fast. The leagues have muddled through 2020, doing what they can to keep the plane in the air. But eventually they need fans in the stands, reliable schedules, and healthy players willing to crash their skulls into the skulls of other healthy players. As we’re seeing with movie theaters, every month that goes by without a vaccine makes it that much more difficult to get back to normalcy. Already, leagues like the XFL and nonaffiliated minor-league baseball have folded, and countless tournaments have been canceled and not rescheduled. If college basketball can’t stage March Madness, it could be in mortal peril.
The pandemic has already dragged on long enough to disrupt multiple seasons in multiple sports, and leagues like the NBA and the NHL are now trying to figure out how to begin new seasons, having just barely figured out how to end the last ones. But leagues cannot just postpone forever; they’re tied to their seasons, perhaps more than we knew before the pandemic. This year’s TV ratings showed that fans are much less likely to tune into events like the NBA Finals or the Masters if they do not take place at their appointed time on the sports calendar. This adds another constraint to an already complex set of choices. As 2020 wraps up, here’s a look at how the major North American professional sports leagues are dealing with their seasons, the pandemic, and a forthcoming vaccine.
The NFL is just trying to power through, and the potential ramifications of its ramrod hardheadedness about finishing this season may take years to unpack. But no league is in a better position for 2021 if it can make it through 2020. Even the most conservative vaccine projections assume we’ll be nearly back to “normal” by next fall, and the NFL season start date of Labor Day weekend seems very well within that comfort zone. Put it this way: If we don’t have a fully deployed vaccine by Labor Day of next year, the NFL is going to be the least of our worries. The NFL, really, just has to make it through the next two months, and really the next one: The playoffs (which, like the end of the last NBA season and the MLB postseason, will likely be bubbled) begin on January 9. If those games start on time, the NFL will have essentially pulled the whole thing off. They may have some issues with spring practice, and April’s NFL Draft might still be virtual, but if the league can just crawl its way through the next few weeks, it’s likely home free.
Major League Baseball
Of all the leagues, perhaps none draws a greater percentage of its revenue from butts in the seats than Major League Baseball, which plays a hefty 162 games a year. It’s a very fair bet that, unlike in 2020, MLB will want as many fans in their stadiums as is legally possible next year. At first, the spread-out seating we saw in Texas for the World Series will be the model. (Fans weren’t allowed in the seats for the truncated regular season, but teams like the Atlanta Braves found little ways around that, like letting in some people to the Chop House restaurant located beyond the right field wall.) And the second any local municipality gives the green light for anything resembling a full house, the doors will be wide open.
The issue for baseball is that the vaccine might arrive just too late to totally save the season. MLB may have to be constantly adjusting its vaccine and fan policies throughout the season, with perhaps staggered maximum attendances at various stadiums across the country, depending on the rate that particular state is deploying the vaccines. The target date for something resembling “2019 baseball,” I’d bet, is likely the All-Star Break in the second week of July. Is it possible stadiums will be at full capacity after that? If so, MLB will enjoy four months of normalcy, before their looming labor Armageddon surely eradicates all the good feeling.
The NHL, which had the advantage of running a bubbled postseason in a country that’s not the United States, will be playing in home stadiums during its upcoming season, though likely realigned. ESPN says it’ll have an all-Canada division, for example. The league will be allowing fans in when they can, and is willing to get creative: ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski reported that teams like the Los Angeles Kings and Boston Bruins may play games outdoors if it means they can charge attendance fees. The hope is, at the very least, Americans will be allowed to travel to Canada at some point. Playoffs will likely be over the summer, so it seems likely that this next season will be makeshift, with the hope is that when the 2021-22 season begins, everything will be in the clear.
The NBA and WNBA
The WNBA, the only North American sports league to play an entire season and playoffs in a bubble, doesn’t start until this summer, giving it more time to navigate all the choppy waters. The NBA, though, has no such slack: Its preseason games begin this week — that’s right, you can watch the Knicks on Friday! — and the regular season just before Christmas. Another bubble isn’t realistic: The NBA needs gate revenue. But it needs its players to be mentally healthy and willing to play even more, and it was obvious by the end of last season the toll the bubble was taking on the league’s rosters. So the players will be playing in actual arenas, and, in states that allow it, in front of actual fans. Three teams are putting tickets on sale next week.
But the NBA is being smartly flexible, too. When its 2020-21 schedule was released last week, it only featured the first half of the season. The league will be putting out a second-half schedule when it’s clear how vaccine deployment is going. If things aren’t totally back to normal by March, it wouldn’t be surprising if the NBA tries out a pseudo-bubble for the June finals — this time with fans.
There is no one actually in charge of college sports, which means they are essentially the Wild West: Whatever schools and conferences can get away with, they will. (I’ve already been to two Georgia basketball games personally, sitting in seats I paid for. I’ve found it safe but undeniably, almost irredeemably weird.) A vaccine would certainly come in handy and allow more fans in the stands, but it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see college football stands full come September, whether there’s a vaccine or not. College basketball has already decided to bubble its whole tournament in Indianapolis this March and April. (Men’s basketball, anyway; they’re still figuring out what they’re doing with women’s hoops.) But nothing in sports, perhaps anywhere in the world, is more COVID lawless than college sports right now.
One thing we should already prepare for, no matter when vaccines are ready: Athletes are likely to get them early. There has been some criticism for athletes hogging tests, particularly early in the pandemic, but a smart story in the Wall Street Journal argued that moving up athletes in the vaccination queues could have public-health benefits by showing many vaccine-skeptical members of the public that there’s nothing to fear. A backlash about that early access seems inevitable — I guarantee you LeBron James will get the vaccine before some nurse, somewhere — but then again, there wasn’t really that much outrage about teams and leagues getting access to so much testing (perhaps because there was so much else to be outraged about). But sports leagues aren’t so much worried about their athletes getting the shots as they are about the rest of us getting ours. We, after all, are the paying customers they desperately need to get back to normalcy. No matter how much you may dream of enjoying a beer and a hot dog at a game like it was 2019 all over again, leagues are dreaming of you doing that even more.