Coronavirus

Sports leagues really want to play games again. They just can’t figure out how.

The organized sports world in the United States is no closer today than seven weeks ago to determining how and when to resume play.

Jabin Botsford
A growing consensus feels that when live sports do return, they will do so initially with no fans in attendance.

After the novel coronavirus brought athletic competition to a screeching halt in mid-March, the organized sports world in the United States is no closer today than seven weeks ago to determining how and when to resume play.

Amid mounting economic pressure for the sports world to recommence – with everything from eight-figure player salaries to stadium workers’ minimum-wage paychecks hanging in the balance – the American sports leagues have considered a variety of options, but every possibility presents obstacles, many insurmountable.

Interviews with league and union officials across the United States’ major sports reveal that no league is prepared to cancel its suspended season, but with the clock ticking – in a normal year, the NHL and NBA playoffs would be well underway – none is close to announcing definitive return-to-play plans either. League officials have mulled adjusting schedules, realigning divisions, staging games at neutral sites, and sheltering an entire league and isolating players in a single city. But as state restrictions change and the understanding of the virus evolves, no option has risen above the speculative.

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“It’s been a challenge. I would be lying if we were to say we have a good idea,” a top official with one league said. “They’re all degrees of bad.”

There’s a growing consensus that when live sports do return, they will do so with limited spectators or more likely no fans at all. But even as league officials sort out how to execute such a plan, they are struggling to navigate an endless maze of complications. Testing capacity for the coronavirus is still limited, and players will need to agree that return-to-play plans are sufficiently safe and minimize the risk of someone contracting the virus.

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While the appetite for sports is huge, the outlook for the coming months is looking increasingly bleak to many.

“It feels like the end of our season,” Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said this week. “We’re staying in touch with our guys, but it definitely feels like the season is done for us.”

But the desire to start generating revenue continues to drive exploration. Owners are losing money, team and league employees are being furloughed, stadium workers are missing paychecks, sports media companies have resorted to layoffs, and some top executives have accepted pay cuts. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, for example, said he would forgo his salary for the duration of the crisis.

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The temporary measures are largely intended to stem the bleeding until live games can resume, but returning to play has proved to be a moving target. Today’s most promising blueprint could be at the bottom of the trash heap a day later.

“I think it changes all the time,” one prominent team executive said of his league’s plans.

Take baseball, a sport that was supposed to open its season more than a month ago. MLB officials have considered quarantining 30 entire teams in one state but would much prefer to play games in home stadiums, albeit empty ones, relying on charter flights and five-star hotel accommodations for traveling teams. That would allow the sport to stick to its existing schedule, chalking up the missed games as cancellations, and give the country a diversion and generate some revenue.

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It’s perhaps the simplest plan on paper, but as one high-ranking MLB official involved in planning discussions said this week, “We’re not even remotely close to making that call.”

Statues of former Boston Red Sox greats, from left, Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky, wear protective masks outside Fenway Park, Friday, April 17, 2020, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Next week, the NFL plans to unveil a fall schedule that will be constructed in a manner that leaves open the possibility of adjustments, particularly to the early weeks of the season. But as all the leagues and respective players’ unions consider some form of a phased-in approach, they keep bumping into the same inescapable reality: Despite any precautions and safety measures, even barring fans from stadiums won’t ensure players aren’t in danger of contracting the virus.

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“Nothing is risk-free in the environment we live in,” said Bruce Farber, chief of infectious diseases for the Northwell Health hospital system in New York, who has consulted for the NHL during the pandemic. “I think that’s a given. But that being said, the light switch is never going to be turned on and we’re never going to go from a period of time where we’re back to normal in one day, where everyone’s going to be able to pile into stadiums and things are back to where they were three months ago. It’s not going to happen.”

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While UFC aims to stage its first card May 9, NASCAR hopes to stage its first spectator-free race May 17 at Darlington Raceway and the PGA Tour plans to resume its schedule in June without fans, the challenges facing the country’s largest sports leagues, with their teams and players scattered across the country, are more complex, and many have considered plans that involve sequestering players in a metaphorical bubble.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has adopted a public position of maximum caution regarding basketball’s potential return. In his annual conference call following an April Board of Governors meeting, Silver said that the league’s return would be driven by “the data, not the date.”

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The NBA, which suspended its season March 11, will start allowing players to begin working out in team facilities next week – at least those based in cities that don’t face government restrictions – but the league has been reluctant to commit to resuming its season or holding playoffs. Silver has said the NBA has considered bubble proposals – staging the remaining games and postseason in Las Vegas or Orlando are among the most-discussed options – but the league has not yet explored them in any serious way.

“I think there is still too much uncertainty at this point to say precisely how we move forward,” Silver said in an April 17 conference call with reporters.

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Jeffrey Shaman, a Columbia University epidemiologist, says establishing an effective perimeter means limiting travel and any contact with people outside the team- or league-approved bubble; airports, hotels and other public places increase the likelihood of infection.

“The problem, of course, is let’s say a hotel worker has it and has no idea. Will that potentially get one of the players sick? And then he gives it to the rest of the team?” he said. “So everyone has to ask themselves: Is that worth the risk?”

Public health officials say the smaller the circle of people allowed inside the perimeter, the less chance there is of infection, which means leagues would have to decide how many people are essential to staging a game, a list that surely will include players, coaches, umpires and game officials, training and medical staff, television crews and stadium employees.

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They will also need to decide what level of sequestering those essential people will require once they leave the stadium, and whether those restrictions will extend to family members. All it takes is for one person to contract the virus – a bad trip to the grocery store or coming in contact with an infected food delivery driver, for example – to spoil the entire community of protected players and officials.

“It’s a bubble,” Farber said. “You’re going to be in sports jail, in essence. If this is going to work and it’s going to work well, you’re going to be severely limiting people in what you can do.”

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MLB has considered quarantining all 30 teams in Arizona, where some businesses can reopen next week and a stay-at-home order expires May 15.

While an MLB executive said the Arizona plan is still under consideration, it has faced heavy skepticism and would surely require formidable discussions with the MLB Players Association. Mike Trout, one of the game’s biggest stars, told NBC Sports Network that any return-to-play plan “has to be realistic.”

“It can’t be sitting in our hotel rooms and just going from the field to the hotel room and not being able to do anything,” he said. “I think that’s pretty crazy.”

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One staple to every return-to-play plan is also the biggest hurdle: testing. Public health officials and league executives agree that even playing in empty stadiums or arenas will require regular coronavirus testing for all players and anyone else deemed essential to playing games.

The sheer number of tests required could be an issue for any league trying to begin play. Testing might be required three to four times per week – as often as every other day, medical experts say – especially if travel is involved and mobility is not restricted. For a single team, that will mean hundreds of tests each week. For an entire league, it will mean thousands.

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“One concern in sports teams using diagnostics in this way is whether it’s pulling testing supplies and resources away from health-care settings,” said Claire Standley, an infectious disease researcher at Georgetown’s Center for Global Health Science and Security. “In many areas, there’s limited supplies like swabs or tests, and we’d want to be careful about sports teams potentially taking those away from front-line health-care workers or others in the community who need to be tested because they’re experiencing symptoms.”

For much of April, the country has seen between 130,00 and 160,000 coronavirus tests most days. Medical experts repeatedly have called for more tests across the board, and procuring enough to sustain a sports league could be a challenge in the immediate future.

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But Farber says the number required by sports teams and leagues might not be a significant percentage “in the total scheme of things. . . . Yeah, it’s going to be thousands and maybe a couple tens of thousands. But we need millions of tests in this country on a regular basis to get us up and running.”

Sports officials have expressed a reluctance to enact any plan while testing is limited and don’t want league needs to stress the nationwide supply.

“I just think as I sit here today, there’s too much unknown to set a timeline, even too much unknown to say, ‘Here are the precise variables,'” Silver told reporters last month. “We know we need large-scale testing. … It goes without doubt that we have to ensure that front-line health-care workers are taken care of before we begin talking about NBA players or sports.”

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Germany’s Bundesliga had hoped to start playing games in empty stadiums May 9, but on Thursday, the German government delayed a decision on the league’s return until next week, taking that target off the table. Plans called for players to undergo regular testing, and for the number of personnel allowed in and around the stadiums to be capped at a few hundred. League officials say testing won’t stress the country’s health system and will account for 0.4 percent of the country’s weekly testing capacity.

Even still, Standley points out there are also limits to testing. Private labs typically take 24 to 48 hours to turn around results, and there have also been false negatives on some tests.

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“Even with rigorous testing, it’s not possible to completely eliminate the risk of transmission whenever people are gathering closely,” she said.

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While some states have begun to relax restrictions, reopen businesses and allow groups of people to gather, starting games in front of fans right now is a non-starter for many. Even if local governments give teams a green light, leagues could step in and unions could put their foot down.

“It’s just begging for something to go wrong,” Shaman said. “It’s begging for a super-spreader event.”

The NHL’s planning process highlights the key role geography plays in any return-to-play scenarios. The league has explored staging its games in a handful of carefully selected cities and venues where exposure to the virus might be minimal, according to one team executive familiar with the discussions. After first considering rinks typically used by minor league and college teams, officials since have shifted their thinking, according to the executive, and prefer to use NHL facilities, which would keep operations close to major hospital systems. The league could play in a half-dozen cities in the United States and Canada, quarantining teams in a hotel and staging two or three games per day in empty arenas.

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The NHL’s Return to Play committee, jointly run by the league and its union, issued a statement Wednesday saying they “have not made any decisions or set a timeline for possible return to play scenarios.”

The National Women’s Soccer League could be positioning itself to be the first American sports league to stage games. It told teams this week they can reopen training camps May 16 and possibly play games in empty stadiums starting June 27.

Major League Soccer, meanwhile, is still exploring ways to resume its suspended season, though a full 34-game schedule is looking increasingly doubtful. The regular season, which began Feb. 29 and was suspended March 12, is supposed to end Oct. 4, but MLS officials do have calendar flexibility and could stage matches into the winter, holding the MLS Cup at a neutral site in January or even February.

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NFL officials, whose regular season wouldn’t begin until September under normal circumstances, have been closely monitoring the other sports leagues. Staging a football game will be far more complicated and problematic than other sports because of the number of people involved and the proximity required of players on the field. Even without fans in the stands, games could not be played without at least a couple hundred essential people on site.

The NFL’s contingency planning will probably intensify between now and mid-May, according to a person familiar with the league’s planning. That planning has included consideration of playing games in empty or partially filled stadiums if needed, several people close to the deliberations have said, although some within the sport are holding out hope that stadiums can be filled with fans by the fall. No specific return-to-play scenarios have been presented to owners.

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For now, league officials and public health experts don’t know when games can be played safely in front of large crowds, though some suggest it could be a year or longer. To ensure the well-being of everyone in attendance, they say a vaccination or herd immunity would be ideal, but neither is likely until mid-2021 or later.

“The reality is it’s going to be a while,” Farber said. “Forget being able to – I don’t see people wanting to go into a stadium with 50,000 people in close proximity to one another, realizing that they could get a fatal disease, and certainly not in a closed arena where people [are] screaming and shouting and potentially spewing virus. I mean, it’s the worst possible scenario for spreading virus.”

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