How close are major sports leagues to returning?
The major sports leagues are wrestling with how to return to operations in the age of COVID. Here’s where the major leagues stand right now.
By Will Pankey
Like so many things in society right now, sports are about to get weird. It has been a few months since sports in the U.S. stopped dead in their tracks. Now, we are finally getting close to resuming action, and the continuation of sports has forced some leagues to entertain various playoff options and tournaments that would be unthinkable at any other time. Check out the latest from the top four sports leagues below.
The NHL seems like the most obvious place to start as it is the league that has actually outlined a concrete plan to bring the league back. On Tuesday (May 26) the league unveiled its “Return to Play Plan.”
Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the measures in a 15-minute video where he went over how the league will handle a suspended season that was nearly complete. His answer? To just call it. The NHL’s plan effectively concludes the 2019-2020 season, declaring it over through March 11. The league will then roll into a unique postseason format where 24 teams will vie for Stanley Cup glory. Yes, that’s right, 24 teams or about 77% of the league will play in the playoffs which throws lifelines to teams who probably wouldn’t have made the playoffs in the first place (shoutout to the Canadiens, Blackhawks, and Rangers!)
The playoffs will take place in two “hub cities,” a shortlist that includes Chicago, IL, Los Angeles, CA, Las Vegas, NV, Columbus, OH, Dallas, TX, Edmonton, AB, Pittsburgh, PA, Toronto, ON, Vancouver, BC, and Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN. 12 teams will compete in each hub city and each team will be permitted only 50 staff members and personnel at each location. The top four teams in each conference play a round-robin tournament to determine seeding. The other eight teams will play best-of-five series to play into the first round. From there, something resembling a “normal” playoff will occur with a first and second round, conference finals and then the Stanley Cup Finals.
It’s a wacky system that still has a long way to go (which hub cities, when training camps will resume, testing capabilities) but it is a plan. But the change could be good. With teams entering into the playoffs rested and healthy, hockey fans could see some of the best hockey they’ve seen in a while. The Return to Play Plan is a proposal with its complexities but could also deliver some excellent hockey.
The other league that is circling around a return is the NBA. Of course, though, the return of basketball is not without its complexities. The league made headlines when it announced that the NBA was in talks to resume play at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex at the Disneyworld Resort in Orlando, FL. On paper, the move to Orlando makes sense. The Disneyworld Resort measures 39 square miles and with plenty of accommodations for teams and James Harden’s beard, the resort seems to have facilities that solve a lot of the NBA’s problems. As of today (May 29), Disney and the NBA were still in discussions about staging the rest of the season in Orlando.
The other details, like the conclusion of the season and what the playoffs will look like, are more up in the air. A lot depends on if the league decides to enter into the playoffs right away or to finish some part of the regular-season games. The idea of entering the playoffs right away has raised skepticism for some players while returning to play a few meaningless games also isn’t ideal for players.
“I feel like a play-in tournament would be perfect, just because we actually were in striking distance and also had enough games to get in the playoffs,” said Portland Trailblazers point guard Damian Lillard. “But to that point, if they did decide that we’re just gonna go straight to the playoffs, obviously, we would all be disappointed.”
As of today, according to Shams Charania, the NBA discussed four restart scenarios with the Board of Governors which included a 16-team playoff, a 20-team group/stage play, a 22-team play-in tournament, and a 30-team conclusion to the season, with teams completing 72 games followed by a play-in tourney. Shams also reported that commissioner Adam Silver is targeting a July 31 return date.
At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, MLB found itself in a tough place. With only a few weeks before opening day, the league was forced to postpone the season but while the other leagues, specifically the NBA and NHL were trying to figure out how to finish their seasons, the MLB quickly entered into a salary imbroglio and stalemate between the MLBPA and the league.
Earlier this month, league owners approved a proposal to restart the league in July. Those discussions included an 82-game regional schedule with prorated salaries, a 14-team postseason, and a 50/50 revenue split for players and owners. Since that initial proposal, the league has put forward even steeper pay cuts which many of the players balked at, including Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer.
“After discussing the latest developments with the rest of the players there’s no reason to engage with MLB in any further compensation reductions,” said the player in a tweet. “We have previously negotiated a pay cut in the version of prorated salaries, and there’s no justification to accept a 2nd pay cut based upon the current information the union has received.”
Well, OK. Of course, the statement is easy to roll your eyes at. It’s a tale as old as time: Rich people and athletes fighting over money. At the end of the day, however, the players are assuming the bulk of the responsibility and danger of playing games. The explicit and sometimes implicit stance that many leagues have trotted out is that players and games should resume only if it is completely safe for everyone to participate. Coronavirus presents a host of precarious and profound considerations when returning to the workplace, even for professional athletes. It is their health, bodies, and careers on the line. It’s not a decision to be made lightly. MLB still remains in a state of suspension. How the league will resolve its impasse is anyone’s guess.
The big boy, the NFL. In many ways, the NFL has refrained from announcing any drastic plans or updates about the upcoming season. In fact, they are almost too calm. The league released the schedule for the 2020-2021 season and to everyone’s surprised, declared that games will resume as normal in September. Of course, there is a lot of time between now and September, but you can’t help but feel that the proposed kick-off is somewhat overly optimistic. Either way, the NFL has the benefit of waiting and seeing what other leagues do well before they reveal any type of safety protocols or stadium plans.