UPDATED: 2:03 p.m.
PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) -- After spending several months of the COVID-19 pandemic with little to no live sporting events, professional leagues have been back in action since summer with several modifications to their standard operations.
The NBA and NHL successfully completed their 2019-20 seasons in “bubble” environments, while Major League Baseball has made it to its postseason despite some coronavirus outbreaks at the outset of their shortened 60-game schedule. The NFL is currently trying to navigate their own outbreaks, notably among members of the Tennessee Titans.
“I think (the medical world) learned several things (from these pro sports leagues that resumed),” KYW Medical Editor Dr. Brian McDonough said in an interview earlier this month. “First of all, if you’re organized, if you have a plan, and you get people to buy in, you can make a big difference. We also learned that perfection is very difficult to achieve unless you create a bubble, but sometimes you say perfect is the enemy of good. If we can get most people protected and cut those numbers down, that’s the game we’re playing.”
Bubbles that didn't burst
The National Basketball Association, Women’s National Basketball Association and National Hockey League were able to crown champions in 2020.
Who knew if that would be possible in the early days of the pandemic?
After a couple of players tested positive in mid-July upon arriving at the NBA’s Disney World campus, everything else through the conclusion of the Finals on Oct. 11 was nearly flawless. The league’s very expensive endeavor worked. After the initial positive cases, the NBA kept informing the public of no further positive results, and then eventually stopped the updates altogether.
“Honestly, I think they stopped because we had no new news to report,” NBC Commissioner Adam Silver said prior to Game 1 of the Finals on Sept. 30.
And through the six-game series, which saw the Los Angeles Lakers win the NBA Championship in by far the longest season in league history, there was nothing further to report.
“I think it just demonstrates that these protocols we’re all following are working,” Silver said. “The fact that somebody could test positive, be isolated, get treated and haven’t infected others.”
Silver admitted that, while the league was getting the results it wanted regarding its players, coaches, staff, and others, the 6,500 people who helped maintain the campus — many of whom would leave and come back — were not tested regularly, and some did test positive.
He said luck played a factor as well — and that held firm until the end.
“I think we’re learning that it can be done, that you can strike a balance between public health and economic necessity.”
In the meantime, miles and miles beyond the U.S.-Canada border, the NHL used Toronto and Edmonton to hold its postseason.
The NHL conducted over 30,000 COVID-19 tests during Phase 4 of its restart and came back with zero positives through the point where the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup.
“The key element of the protocols was the daily testing regimen of all who were admitted to our bubbles,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said on Sept. 19 as the Stanley Cup Final was beginning.
McDonough says he was happy to see how successful these bubbles were.
“I am surprised and pleased (the NBA and NHL) did as well as they did,” McDonough said. “I really was cynical. My fear had been: 'Would people stay in the bubble? Would there be the chance of people getting in? visiting? all those other things.' ... And they actually did extremely well.”
McDonough has an assessment similar to that of Silver and Bettman: “They were so tight on controlling even leaving the bubble, I think that created an artificial world, and in that world they were able to do quite well.”
McDonough says testing regularly, as these leagues did, helps prevent spreading COVID-19, but the fact that masks were frequently and consistently being worn was important as well.
“It gives us an example of how much better we could do as a country if we did some of these things. We wouldn’t get the perfection of a bubble, but we’d do well.”
Not as smooth for baseball and football
MLB and the NFL chose not to hold 100% of their competitions in bubbles during the pandemic — and thus have had a much bumpier ride that the indoor leagues.
MLB has since moved to neutral sites for the postseason. That helps limit travel, which it was doing regionally through the season. In some respects, MLB is operating in a bubble of sorts. Most of its postseason has been played in front of no fans — until Monday, when a limited number of spectators were allowed at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, for Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. Tickets for the NLCS and World Series — also being held in Arlington — are on sale.
Knock on wood — we haven’t heard about a positive test in baseball for a while. However, the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals had outbreaks early in the regular season, and there were other isolated cases in other franchises. The Phillies had their own outbreak, stemming from their Clearwater facility, prior to Summer Camp.
“I think that all of us — not just the players — at the outset were thinking that testing was the key,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told RADIO.COM’s Big Time Baseball Podcast in late September before the postseason began.
“Testing is a very important part of the overall program, but I think after the first couple of outbreaks, everyone — us, the players, everyone — really focused in on the fact that the masks, the social distancing, what you were doing away from the ballpark, really, really mattered in terms of preventing outbreaks, and that focus — hats off particularly to the players — that focus helped us manage this much more effectively the rest of the way through the season," Manfred said.
“It didn’t work as a well as it did in the bubble, because they were more in the real world,” McDonough said, "but they were kinda in a controlled setting where they followed the rules."
MLB was able to weather the storm, and four teams are left with the hopes of finishing the season at the end of the month.
Will the NFL be able to do the same as it tries to calm down the Titans outbreak and prevent spreading on other teams.
McDonough thinks because there is more contact in football, the chance of spreading is greater.
“The key here is going to be testing,” McDonough said. “They’ve got to consistently test to know who’s positive.”
While the NFL has been testing regularly, according to reports — that hasn’t included Game Day — until now. NFL Network reported that the league sent out a memo Monday night announcing there will be Game Day PCR testing.
When can you see games?
The NBA’s and NHL’s bubbles were without doubt successes, but you’re kidding yourself if you think Silver and Bettman — and most importantly, the players — want to do this again. They may not have a choice, but for many reasons, both leagues would like to hold next season — whenever they begin — in home arenas and with fans present.
Silver believes the advancement of testing is important. He said having a vaccine is not a prerequisite for whether any number of fans can be in attendance. When asked on Sept. 30, he didn’t have a locked-in date for the start of the next season.
Bettman has since announced the focus for the NHL is Jan. 1 (https://media.nhl.com/news/14475), but again — that’s not set in stone.
Normally these leagues’ seasons have either started at this time of year, or are about to. It seems crazy that they just ended.
And as for fans, more and more venues are beginning to fill to limited capacity. The Philadelphia Union welcomed some fans into Subaru Park on Sunday. The Pittsburgh Steelers had a small number at their win over the Eagles. Other NFL teams are doing the same.
“I understand what they’re trying to do, but I worry about the combination of people getting within six feet and screaming and yelling and staying in a situation where they’re close together for a long period of time,” McDonough said.
Eagles head coach Doug Pederson is hoping his team can join the group of franchises playing in front of their faithful — if the city of Philadelphia allows it.
“It’d be great to see fans at The Linc, hopefully,” Pederson told SportsRadio 94WIP on Monday morning. “We got these next, what, three games I think we’re playing here, so hopefully this next month of football we can get some fans at The Linc. It’d be great.”
At the city's coronavirus briefing Tuesday afternoon, Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley confirmed what Pederson has been waiting to hear: Fans will be allowed inside the stadium, starting Sunday, at a limited capacity of 7,500 total people.