The reality of the COVID-19 pandemic set in immediately for many Americans when the NBA pulled the plug on its season in early March after a player tested positive for the virus. At that moment, a pandemic that had seemed like a theoretical, foreign problem suddenly became a very real part of their lives — presaging the dramatic shifts that were coming their way. But finally, pro sports look set for a return.
That’s good news, because of all of the things people have missed during the shutdown, many sports fans have suffered especially acutely. Some have even turned to strange alternatives to fill the hole left while their favorite teams were benched for the season. Fox Sports announcer Joe Buck spent the pandemic offering play-by-play commentary on Twitter about fans doing day-to-day activities within their homes.
And eSports have seen their audiences expand exponentially and are now moving mainstream. And people have gone on social media and attempted to make their pets partake in athletic competitions — usually resulting in minimal success, but adorable videos of failure.
Fortunately, sports fans have only a few weeks to wait before having some real games to watch. Here’s where things stand as of now:
The NBA Will Soon Play In A ‘Disney Bubble’
It almost sounds like the setup to an early 1990s advertisement for Disney World: “Your league has just survived a black swan health crisis that shut down the entire American economy. It’s time to reopen — what are you going to do? We’re going to Disney World!!!”
But it’s no ad; it’s the NBA’s actual plan to get players back out on the court. The league is literally going to Disney World to play out the rest of its season in the ESPN Sports Center located at Disney.
League officials will keep players and staff in a “bubble,” quarantined away from the rest of society. “While the COVID-19 pandemic presents formidable challenges, we are hopeful of finishing the season in a safe and responsible manner based on strict protocols now being finalized with public-health officials and medical experts,” the NBA recently said in a statement.
The league is inviting 22 of its 30 teams to finish the season. To snag an invite, a team had to be within six games of a playoff berth as of March 11, when regular play stopped.
Thus, the season is already over for Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Golden State, Minnesota and New York. Those teams won’t see the court again until the 2020-21 season opens, which the NBA has said could start on Dec. 1 rather than the usual October.
The 22 remaining NBA teams will play televised “seeding games” in an arena with no fans present. That will help several teams satisfy their local TV contracts, lessening some of the league’s revenue losses for the season. Players will begin reporting the 220-acre ESPN complex in early July, with games set to begin by July 31.
The seeding game will determine which teams get playoff berths. After that happens, the NBA plans to hold four best-of-seven playoff rounds with seeds one through eight in the East and West.
The NHL’s Phased Reopening
The National Hockey League (NHL) is committed to returning to play, but its plan for full reopening remains fluid. As of Monday (June 8) players have been returning to their practice facilities as the league continues to monitor the situation to determine when league play can resume.
“If we can go back early, we will. If we have to wait, we will. And next year will be determined by when we finish,” one unnamed source told ESPN.
The current favored plan reportedly would have the NHL potentially wait until September or October to finish the 2019-20 season. The hope is that by then, officials will have lifted restrictions on mass gatherings and implemented safety protocols for fans attending games. That would allow the league to recapture lost gate revenue from this season.
However, some note that the NHL might not want to put all of its eggs into one basket of waiting for autumn, as the possibility of a coronavirus resurgence remains unknown. Instead, the NHL and its players’ union are currently negotiated about a plan that would see training camps open in mid-July for up to three weeks. That would lead to an early August start of competition, which might only take place in certain “hub cities” where infection rates are low.
“I think it’s great to have the ability to get back playing,” New York Islanders General Manager Lou Lamoriello said on Friday. “I’m totally supportive of the decisions that have been made.”
NFL Plans A Regular Fall Season (For Now)
With football season not set to begin until September, the National Football League (NFL) currently plans to run normal operations.
Preseason games are set to start in August, with the regular season kicking off about a month later.
MLB Remains The Big Question Mark
While basketball fans are cheering the return of their favorite sport, baseball fans are still waiting to see if Major League Baseball (MLB) will have a 2020 season or not. While there’s wide agreement that the summer’s official sport should come back, getting an agreement about how exactly that should happen has turned into something of a staring contest between MLB and its players’ union.
The league wants an 82-game season, or perhaps even a 50-game mini-season (team owners’ most recent proposal). On the other hand, the players’ union has been advocating for more than 100 games, both to protect the postseason’s “integrity” and to protect members’ paychecks.
But ESPN recently reported that owners “told the union it had no interest in extending the season into November, when it fears a second wave of COVID-19 could disrupt the postseason and jeopardize $787 million in broadcast revenue.”
With no compromise yet in sight, the 2020 baseball seasons remains in jeopardy.
The Bottom Line
Many experts think the NBA and NHL will find a way to make a shortened season work, while the NFL could stick to its normal calendar. But as for baseball, it’s possible that no one will get taken out to a ballgame and bought some peanuts and Cracker Jacks this year.
Instead, this might be the year that baseball fans have to find a way to love the faster-paced world of basketball or hockey. In the end, the 2020 MLB season could wind up being one of COVID-19’s highest-profile casualties.