Sports News

What should the ideal sports calendar look like?

A few tweaks to schedules will allow fans more time to enjoy the Super Bowl during the quiet part of the sports year MATTHEW J. LEE

With COVID-19 shutting down the NHL and NBA in March, the NFL still lingering in its offseason, and Major League Baseball never escaping Florida and Arizona to begin its real season, the sports calendar has been thrown into unprecedented flux.

The urgency among the leagues for the games to return soon is palpable, even if any plans must be considered tentative because of the virus. The NHL and NBA are aiming to resume with games deep into the summer, the NFL charges ahead with its plans for a “normal” season, and MLB … well, let me know if you can make any rational sense of what it is doing beyond clumsily trying to kill any remaining national affection for the sport.

The 2020 sports calendar, however it shapes up from here, is going to be nothing like we’ve ever seen. And while I’d never suggest anything from what we’ve endured over the last three months resembles a blessing, especially when it comes to something as trivial as professional sports, there is no denying that the shakeup in the sports calendar may reveal some worthwhile scheduling changes that we’d never have considered otherwise.

While there are no games going on across the four major sports, it’s easy to reimagine the ideal of what the schedule should look like once they resume.

So here’s that thought in question form: What changes would you like to see to the pro sports calendar? NBA permanently in the summer? A shorter baseball season? (A baseball season, period?) Heck, Wimbledon in the wintertime? What changes would you make?

Before we dig in, here’s what the sports calendar looked like in 2019, from the opening game until a champion was crowned, since that was the last time the specific seasons and major events were played in full from January through December:

NHL: Oct. 3, 2018-June 12, 2019

NBA: Oct. 16, 2018-June 13, 2019

MLB: March 20, 2019-Oct. 30, 2019

NFL: Sept. 5, 2019-Feb. 2, 2020

A couple of other scheduling notes: We’ve got a golf major for four straight months beginning with the Masters in April. Tennis has the Australian Open in January, with the French Open in May, Wimbledon in July, and the US Open commencing in late August. May is usually stacked with events, including golf and tennis majors, the NBA and Stanley Cup playoffs, the Kentucky Derby, and the Indianapolis 500.

So … if I were appointed the Lord of the Sports Calendar, what changes would I make? Actually, probably not that many, though I suppose the power might go to my head. For the most part, the way our sports landscape is laid out in normal times makes a lot of sense, though something like watching the Masters in the fall (it’s rescheduled for Nov. 12-15 this year) might be a fun one-off.

Here’s what I would do: The MLB schedule is shortened to a maximum of 154 regular-season games. Opening Day is no earlier than April 1, and the regular season must be wrapped up by Sept. 30. Day/night doubleheaders become a thing again. At least one World Series game is played in the late afternoon twilight, because that’s what postseason baseball should look like.

The NHL season is shortened to 68 games, and you can call that an homage to Jaromir Jagr if you want. The season begins in early November and must end before May does. It’s fairly ridiculous right now that the NHL season overlaps with two baseball seasons, starting in October when the World Series is underway and ending in June when the next baseball season is headed for the dog days.

The NBA season is also getting shortened, to 70 games, and it gets a later start, too, to right after Thanksgiving. But the schedule will now stretch through the end of June rather than the middle, allowing for a few more offdays and hopefully reducing the number of games star players sit out for “maintenance.” If Bill Russell didn’t need maintenance days running around on cement-hard floors while wearing canvas Converse All-Stars, neither do the current players.

The new collective bargaining agreement permits the NFL to implement a 17-game schedule for the 2021 season. This is a classic case of fixing something that isn’t broken because of pure greed; the 16-game schedule, which had been in place since 1978, was ideal. But the 17-game schedule can work well with this generous concession to the additional toll another game could take on players — there should be not two, but three bye weeks per team.

That way, a 20-week regular season (17 games, three byes) would start in the first week of September and end two weeks into January. With the playoffs now expanded to seven teams in each conference, only the No. 1 seed gets a bye, while the other six teams play on wild-card weekend. Ultimately, there are still three playoff rounds before the Super Bowl, leaving that game to be played in late February after the standard two-week buildup of hype. Lengthening the season, but building in much more rest for the players, has the welcome effect of giving sports fans something to look forward to in February, the only real dead spot on the sports calendar.

Now, I recognize that the leagues will be hesitant at best to shorten their seasons, especially when they’re going to be angling to make every last nickel they can after the chaos of the pandemic. A beer will probably go for no less than $20 at Fenway whenever this is all over and fans are permitted back to the venues. But common sense needs to make a comeback in sports, and stopping seasons from bleeding into months that don’t jibe with their sports (hockey in the summer, baseball in frigid October) is the genesis of this plan.

Sure, we miss sports. What we shouldn’t miss is the opportunity to make the calendar better when they return.

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