The sports world, like much of the rest of the US, was brought to a virtual standstill amid the coronavirus pandemic this week. The NBA proved to be the flashpoint, setting the precedent for other leagues after two Utah Jazz star players reported feeling unwell and later tested positive.
The deluge of postponements and cancellations followed shortly thereafter, most understandably scant on details for future plans while a public health crisis is dealt with first. Those concerns are paramount, but in the meantime there are many practical questions to consider.
Here’s a look at how each league handled the shutdown, and how they might attempt to navigate the hiatus and chart out their eventual return:
The league's first order of business is to decide whether to continue its season, and what that might look like if it does. Obviously it cannot make that decision now without knowing how the pandemic will play out, and on what timeline. If play does in fact resume in spring or summer, the NBA will have to decide whether to resume the regular season, or just jump straight to the playoffs, presumably based on the current standings.
Commissioner Adam Silver said the league-wide suspension would last at least 30 days. Mavs owner Mark Cuban might have provided the first glimpse into the thinking of the league’s owners when he suggested the season should resume where it left off, with the playoffs finishing up in July or August if necessary.
Former NBA general manager Ryan McDonaugh, appearing on “Scal and Pals,” broke down the potential financial impact of the disruption and what it might mean from the perspective of owners, players and fans.
Like the NBA, the NHL suspended its season on Thursday. Parsing the phrasing, the league called it merely a “pause,” suggesting a desire to resume the regular season. But, also as with the NBA, the NHL opted initially for a no-fans policy before tacking. Clearly their thinking changed.
Commissioner Gary Bettman mentioned how the NBA was a factor in the NHL’s decision, owing to the fact that many of the leagues’ teams shares facilities. His observation underscores the complicated nature of the problem, and how it will require a coordinated response from not only the leagues but also with public officials across the country and indeed society as a whole.
In an odd bit of history, there’s precedent for the NHL and pandemics. The league canceled the Stanley Cup Finals in 1919 due to an outbreak of the Spanish Flu.
MLB canceled the balance of Spring Training games and pushed back Opening Day, originally scheduled for March 26, by at least two weeks. The league had virtually no choice after several states and cities issued orders curbing large public gatherings that would have applied to MLB teams.
It seems likely there will be further delays and ultimately a shortened season in terms of number of games played, but baseball’s overall situation feels less fraught since it’s merely a matter of delaying the start of the season—rather than stopping, resuming and dealing with the postseason like the NBA and NHL.
In the interim, the trickiest part for MLB will be deciding what to do with the thousands of players and team personnel who are assembled in Florida and Arizona with virtually nothing to do.
The NFL may have emerged in the best shape among the major athletic institutions, though that’s not to say there aren’t obvious complications regarding its busy and highly visible offseason calendar.
The league has already given thought to delaying its free agency period, which was scheduled to begin March 18, the first day of the new year on the league calendar. It is also reportedly mulling whether to conduct the annual draft by phone call. Meanwhile, most teams have pulled scouts and other team representatives off the road, putting a crimp in the usual pre-draft and free-agency scouting.
If the pandemic is still a major issue by the time NFL training camps open in the summer, we’ll have far bigger problems than the sports calendar.
The NCAA is technically not a pro league, I know, but close enough. A punch to the gut of March Madness fanatics and bracketologists in Dunder-Mifflins across the land, there will be no NCAA Tournaments for the first time since 1938. The NCAA initially declared a no-fans policy and held out until the bitter end even while many conferences canceled their respective league tourneys, signaling its desire to carry on with the flagship event on the college sports calendar.
The NCAA’s eventual decision to cancel rather than postpone the tournaments, despite the objections of some prominent coaches and other associated figures, speaks to the essential difficulty of rescheduling such an event, involving countless colleges, universities and arenas from around the country, each subject to the policy edicts of various other institutions.
The NCAA hasn’t said yet whether it will crown champions in basketball or any of the other many sports whose seasons were called off, though it seems unlikely. Why bother?