Are The North American Professional Sports Seasons Worth Salvaging?
Updated: Jun 20, 2020
The Bundesliga (Germany) returned May 16th. The Premier League (England) returned yesterday, June 17th. It begs the question: Should North America follow suit and re-open their professional sports leagues?
There are a number of factors to consider. Firstly let’s look at Europe and how they’re handling their attempt.
The question that first crossed my mind was goal celebrations. The Bundesliga initially asked players to celebrate from a distance, and Erling Haland showed early on that players were willing to cooperate, with his first goal since the restart for Borussia Dortmund. But later that week, players were touching and jumping on each other. They were warned about taking distancing measures seriously. But a month on, celebrations look pretty normal, and no warnings are being handed out anymore.
It’s one thing to celebrate from a distance, but what is happening behind closed doors, and who is going to police it? There were murmurs about players being told to keep their distance in the dressing room. But all sports fans understand that it’s unlikely that players are going to be a meter apart at all times.
Does no fans mean no money? The Bundesliga consistently has some of the highest attendance numbers in all professional sports leagues. 200 people are currently allowed inside the stadiums during a game. Who is taking the hit on the loss of revenue? All indications point to the individual clubs taking the estimated $72 million USD losses on the chin (although some Bayern Munich players have taken a 20% or more pay cut to help their club). It is expected that the losses will bleed into next season as well.
Home field advantage seems to be a thing of the past. This was to be expected but it is still noteworthy. If and when the NHL and NBA return, this means that the Orlando Magic and whichever hub city the NHL chooses shouldn’t expect better results from being at home.
What happens if a player tests positive in the Bundesliga? There are a few answers to this. Firstly, players are tested twice a week. Secondly, decisions are made in concert with local health authorities. But in general, players with a positive test are to quarantine for 14 days (similar to a minor injury). In addition, players who have not yet tested positive but are feeling symptoms are to self-isolate until they are tested.
We can assume the Premier League has kept a close eye on the Bundesliga for the past month and will be using their guidelines to restart their league.
But here in North America, we have few examples of sports leagues that are ready to re-open. One, of note, is the PGA tour. This is an obvious choice due to the lack of physical contact. They recently held the Charles Schwab Challenge in Texas, and there were some interesting quirks.
Testing was extensive; every player, caddie, and official was tested prior to the tournament’s opening tee shot. Players and caddies were also tested prior to their chartered flight to their next stop: The RBC Heritage in South Carolina. A positive test would have them unable to compete, and more questions about protocol would have to be answered. With no positive tests, the players were at ease in their own bubble.
But on the course, social distancing measures were a thing of the past. Players standing side by side on the tee box, fist bumps after finishing a round, and caddies in close contact with their golfers. The only oddity was the silence after Sun Kang stuffed a hole in one at the par 3 13th (shown above). Some players noted that the silence relieved their nerves after a long layoff. If a crowd had been there, surely the pressure would have been ratcheted up a notch.
So what are the shortcomings in the other professional sports leagues across North America? We can avoid discussing the MLB at this point due to their current labour dispute, and the NFL is a few months away so it is harder to predict. For now, let's and focus on the NBA and NHL, each of which have a plan to return to action.
Contact. There’s no question that there is more contact in these two sports. Although hockey is a contact sport, the argument can be made that basketball players have closer contact with each other. But as we’ve seen in the Bundesliga, contact isn’t an issue. This could pose huge problems in the event of a positive test, though.
Again, what happens in the event of a positive test? They could follow the Bundesliga’s lead and quarantine for 14 days, but especially in basketball, one could imagine the sheer number of players that touch Lebron James every game, or a free throw fiend like James Harden. It’s the NBA finals and Lebron tests positive, what do you do? There are likely uncomfortable conversations ahead.
In Canada, Covid-19 seems to be slowing down. But the US has been the most affected nation in the world (by reported numbers). There are ways to bubble the athletes in the cities they are in, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are safe. Regardless of players disregarding protocols, there are other issues at hand. For example, if a player gets seriously injured and needs to be rushed to the hospital, do they take a bed that someone else needs? What about surgeries and other possible complications? US hospitals may not be at capacity but there are some legitimate concerns about space and who should get precedence. And we’ve seen athletes get special treatment in the past. Would we be okay if our own mother was the one waiting for a bed?
What are the long term health effects of Covid-19? It’s not completely understood what happens after someone tests positive. If an athlete gets coronavirus and is hospitalized, there may be lung issues that linger. The science isn’t out yet.
The same revenue issues come up for these sports leagues as well. Major losses are inevitable, but does finishing this season soon make sense financially? Or would scrapping the season and planning for the next one make more sense? NBA players and NHL league employees agreed to a pay cut, but it doesn’t seem like NHL players are prepared to take a pay cut.
On the other hand, there is a very human element to consider. Veteran players, like Patrick Marleau of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins are seeking their first Stanley Cup ring and are fully entrenched in the twilight of their careers. This could be their last shot at the championship, and you’d have to feel for them losing their chance after being part of a championship contender. Players like Dwight Howard of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers are in a similar position.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and countless other instances of racism across North America, some NBA players have mentioned a need to put the season on hold until further notice (most notably, Kyrie Irving). Some players, like Austin Rivers, have disagreed, noting that playing would give another opportunity to protest and have their voice heard. Other players-- like everyone’s favourite thorn in their side, Patrick Beverley-- have stated publicly that if Lebron plays, everyone should play. Although it seems like a lot of weight to put on Lebron’s shoulders, it seems appropriate, as he has always been an amazing man and the leader of the league since joining in 2003. If the players decide not to return, they would forfeit salaries and the NBA could rip up the CBA in their faces.
Lastly, if the season is abandoned, there is no timetable for a return next season. It’s not obvious that things will be back to normal in September, so assuming that we will have similar issues, there’s an argument to be made to just get the show on the road, and not hide away in our houses.
Whether the North American sports leagues resume or not, is still up in the air. NHL training camps are set to begin on July 10th, and NBA training camps are not set yet. I for one, would be excited to see some playoff action, but at whose expense?
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