When (and How) Sports Are Returning Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Premier League resumed in empty stadiums this week. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

In mid-May, NASCAR became the first major American sport to resume amid the coronavirus pandemic. Others will soon follow, with the NBA and MLB planning to restart in late July and the NHL following on August 1. The NFL, meanwhile, is still two months away from week one, which is both a blessing and a curse. Though commissioner Roger Goodell will get to learn from the other leagues, the NFL season seems likely to run headfirst into a cool-weather-supported second wave. That led Dr. Anthony Fauci to warn last month that “football may not happen this year.”

For now, let’s check in on each major U.S. sport and its progress toward returning to action:


After months of negotiations between MLB owners and the Players Association, the two sides reached an agreement last month on a 60-game season that will start on July 23. Unlike the NBA, MLB is not establishing a “bubble.” Teams will play in their own ballparks with a schedule designed to limit travel. The stadiums will be empty of fans, but teams are expected to experiment with how they can fill the physical and aural void. Some will pump in crowd noise, and others will fill seats with cardboard cutouts.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, teams have adopted a lengthy health-and-safety protocol that lays out a testing regimen, rules for when someone tests positive, and new in-ballpark restrictions, including bans on spitting and fist bumps.


The NBA is coming back on July 30, with 22 teams playing in a fan-free “bubble” at Walt Disney World in Orlando. The plan calls for players and other team employees to isolate themselves in the Disney complex and abide by rules set forth in a 113-page document. Among the stipulations are bans on shared snorkels and golf caddies.

Keeping the NBA bubble intact seems more imperative now than when the plan was written. In recent weeks, Florida has emerged as a COVID-19 hot spot. But NBA commissioner Adam Silver this week reiterated his confidence that, even in a state with surging cases, “it will be safer on this campus than off this campus.”

While the NBA is trying to salvage a season that was already nearing its end, the WNBA is just trying to get started. With its May 15 opening day derailed by the coronavirus, the league has announced plans to trade its 34-game regular season for a 22-game version played at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Players began arriving at the complex this week and immediately found the accommodations unsatisfactory. The league’s season is set to start in late July.

Auto racing

NASCAR returned to action on May 17, when the Real Heroes 400 was run in South Carolina. “I didn’t think it was going to be that much different, [but] then we won the race and it’s dead silent out here,” driver Kevin Harvick said after taking the checkered flag in front of an empty 47,000-seat race track. “We miss the fans.”


The NHL’s return-to-play plan, which will see 24 of the league’s 31 teams taking part in a tournament to determine 16 playoff teams, is commencing in phases. Phase 3 begins next week with teams resuming training camp in their home cities. On July 26, they’ll travel to two hub cities for Phase 4. Eastern Conference teams are headed to Toronto and Western Conference teams to Edmonton ahead of the August 1 restart.

Like the NBA, the league is setting up bubbles in each city. Each team is allowed to bring a maximum of 52 people into the bubbles, including one compliance officer who will be charged with ensuring that “all members of the Club’s Traveling Party remain compliant with all necessary aspects of the Phase 4 Protocol.”


With the pandemic cropping up just as the NFL season ended, the league has had time on its side, but it hasn’t emerged unscathed. Last month, mini-camps were canceled, but training camp is still on track to start on July 22 and the season is still slated to kick off on September 10. On Friday,’s Ian Rapoport wrote that negotiations between the NFL and the NFL Players Association have resolved most issues prior to a restart. There are two big, lingering concerns about the number of preseason games — the league says two, players don’t want any — and the testing protocol.

The main concern for the NFL, which is planning to allows fans when games resume, is a second wave of the coronavirus as the weather cools and flu season arrives. “If there is a second wave, which is certainly a possibility and which would be complicated by the predictable flu season, football may not happen this year,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said last month.


The PGA returned on June 11 with the Charles Schwab Challenge in Texas. It held several more events in June despite positive tests for a handful of players. The LPGA will return to action on July 31 in Ohio.


On May 16, Germany’s Bundesliga became one of the first major sports leagues to return to action. Since then, the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, and Italy’s Serie A have come back. In the U.S., the NWSL returned to action in late June for the 2020 Challenge Cup.

This week, the MLS played its first game in months. Like the NBA, the league has come together at a Disney complex in Orlando. All 26 teams were invited to the MLS Is Back Tournament, but two have dropped out because of the number of positive tests among players and personnel. The MLS is also adopting a bubble concept, and early reviews are positive.


August 3 marks the return of the WTA, which will play a tournament in Italy, a onetime coronavirus hotspot. On August 14, the men will get in on the action. The ATP Tour will resume with the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., and will be followed by back-to-back tournaments in New York City. The first, the Western & Southern Open, is typically held in Cincinnati but is being moved to Queens as an undercard for the U.S. Open. Fans will not be allowed.

When (and How) Sports Are Returning Amid the Pandemic