The sports headlines Thursday had a decidedly common theme: Leagues in the United States and beyond making at least provisional plays to start up again after what has been nearly a two-month pause as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The following is an attempt to get at the heart of a lot of questions that are looming:
So, what’s the latest news? The biggest headline from my perspective is that MLB is working on finalizing a return-to-play proposal, per an ESPN report, that would be submitted to players within the next week. That would allow for negotiation and continued monitoring and align with leaked plans that have the stated goal of starting spring training (part two) in early-to-mid-June and starting games in early July. Until now, everything has been speculative. The report of a plan being put in motion feels more concrete, even if (like everything) it’s still subject to change.
The second-biggest news is that the German soccer Bundesliga is returning to action on May 16. That’s, um, two Saturdays from now – and this is one of the top soccer leagues in the world.
It was also notable that the NFL is putting together protocols for opening team facilities next week and downplaying any potential contingencies in conjunction with its schedule release Thursday night. Plus, the NBA is slated to have a call with all its players on Friday.
Is there a difference in approach across sports and leagues? It sure seems that way. The NFL is operating in as close to a “business as usual” model as any league – owing perhaps to the nature of its owners and fans combined with the fact that it has four months still until regular-season games are scheduled to be played and doesn’t yet need to make some of the decisions facing other leagues.
Of the U.S. leagues that would be either playing or gearing up to play under normal circumstances, MLB seems furthest along with its idea to return to action based on Thursday’s report. Major League Soccer players were back in training on Wednesday for voluntary workouts, but MLS matches are suspended until at least June 8. The NBA and WNBA could return in tandem in Las Vegas! But any such proposals feel quite exploratory at this point. Similarly, the NHL hasn’t put any deadlines on any sort of return.
What about fans? Basically every proposition involves a return without fans in the stands in an attempt to maintain social distancing guidelines and adhere to bans on mass gatherings. One notable exception emerged Wednesday: the local St. Paul Saints devised a way to allow some fans into the stands – at about 25% of capacity at CHS Field.
Is anything happening already? Yes. Perhaps most notably, the Korean Baseball Organization resumed play earlier in the week. ESPN has picked up remote broadcasts of the games from the 10-team league in an attempt to fill the void for sports-starved fans. The level of play is pretty good, and there’s even a team called the Twins if you want to pick a new favorite while waiting for MLB to start again.
Professional golf mini-tours are also in full swing, including something called the West Florida Golf Tour that I didn’t know existed until about 30 minutes ago.
Are we ready for this? That is still the million – strike that billion – dollar question. Fans are clearly starved for sports content. Many players are itching to play. Owners would love to capture some sort of revenue, even if it primarily comes in the form of TV contracts.
But wanting something and doing it safely are two different things. As health care guru Andy Slavitt recently pointed out in one of his excellent nightly Twitter threads, the U.S. is not exactly doing a great job of managing the curve of this disease relative to other countries.
Even as leagues brainstorm ways to have bizarro, fan-less seasons, there are still caveats about having the necessary widespread testing protocols in place. And there are many questions that remain unanswered. What would a season in quarantine look like? What if players, coaches or support staff become infected? What if players object to return-to-play plans – could they voluntarily sit out? If players aren’t sequestered in the same city, will they be able to travel safely to play games — particularly in the WNBA, where commercial flights are still used by teams?
What seems clearest in all this is that while it’s smart to have plans and contingencies, the target and news tend to evolve rapidly. What we think we know now – and what seems possible now – might prove to be far more difficult or far easier a month from now.
To drive that home: From right now on May 7, we’re about the same number of days in the past away from MLB teams shutting down spring training as we are days in the future away from the reported start of games again.
Between the past and the future, which seems more strange right now?