By Mike Mitchell
For sports fans, the NFL Draft, that just concluded, was a saving grace. It gave fans the sense that everything was back to normal, at least for only a few days. The reality is that the sports world, as we know it, is going to have a difficult time getting back to the way things were. At least for a little while.
COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world. Getting back to normal may not be a reality for quite some time. In terms of sports and the world, a new normal may be the best we can hope. The question is in what fashion will sports leagues exist in a COVID-19 world.
Listed below is a snapshot from Sports Business Journal of some major sports leagues and where they currently stand about the resumption of play. Not listed is the CFL, which has delayed their training camps and regular season. Their regular season is typically slated for June but may not begin until later in the calendar year.
Doctor Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the lead member of the nation’s coronavirus taskforce, recently laid out a scenario where sports could return in the future.
“There’s a way of doing that,” Fauci told Snapchat’s Peter Hamby as part of a weeklong interview series. “Nobody comes to the stadium. Put [the players] in big hotels, wherever you want to play, keep them very well surveilled. … Have them tested every single week and make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their family and just let them play the season out.”
The Sports Bubble Plan
Empty stadiums with no fans in attendance. Regular testing for all athletes. All sports teams quarantined for the duration of their entire season—the players and coaches shuttling between team locations and their respective stadiums.
The ‘sports bubble’ plan will have its share of difficulties. The most significant hurdle is ensuring the long term health of the players involved.
During NFL Draft coverage, ESPN’s Adam Schefter discussed the importance of having a backup quarterback. On the surface, that’s not groundbreaking insight, but the reason that he stated that was because of the reality of players getting the coronavirus during a season.
Many other factors are working against having a sports bubble league. One of them is that you’d have to separate players, coaches, and key personnel from their families for an extended period, primarily if teams operate in a fashion where they are in a specific location for an extended period.
Sports leagues have to wait for cities to re-open for business. Florida and other locations like Arizona may be creating a pathway towards games happening again. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said his state would be willing to host all 30 MLB teams if conditions allow for it.
One of the plans being discussed for the return of Major League Baseball is operating the entire league from centralized locations. The spring training model would see all MLB teams and games play out at spring training locations like Florida, Dallas, and Arizona. The long-term goal will be to allow fans to games later in the season if it becomes a realistic possibility.
NFL Schedule-makers are in the process of designing several versions of their 2020 slate, one of the possibilities includes a Super Bowl on Feb. 28, the regular season starting as late as Thursday, Oct. 15, and a season without bye weeks or a Pro Bowl, according to Sports Business Daily.
The NFL will be releasing a full standard regular-season schedule as early as May 7th. The state of the pandemic may lead to other contingencies. Every scenario is on the table. From a delayed season to empty stadiums to even limiting the locations. The NFL has international games that may need to be changed as well. State regulations will help determine if all NFL teams can play their regular amount of balanced home/away games.
Is it realistic to expect all sports leagues to operate this way? Especially football leagues?
The crazy thing is that the XFL may have unintentionally provided the template for how sports leagues will have to proceed if games are going to be played again.
Back in January of this year, The XFL held its league-wide training camp in the state of Houston. All eight XFL teams had a centralized training camp at eight different locations within close proximity.
XFL Training Camp locations in Houston was as follows:
- Houston Roughnecks – TDECU Stadium
- Dallas Renegades – Tully Stadium
- DC Defenders – Rice Stadium
- Los Angeles Wildcats – Durley Stadium
- New York Guardians – Husky Stadium
- St. Louis Battlehawks – Thorne Stadium
- Seattle Dragons – Delmar Stadium
- Tampa Bay Vipers – Turner Stadium
The players and coaches all lived in the same hotels where team headquarters resided. The XFL held its practices and live team scrimmages in empty stadiums throughout the entire month of January. In theory, the XFL could have played their complete season schedule in Houston.
The XFL played their final scrimmages at the same location (TDECU Stadium) in front of no fans. The scrimmages were full games with full contact, and with league rules in play. The entire league played its opening week schedule. The XFL’s broadcast partners, Fox and ESPN, were on hand to film and be a part of this dress rehearsal.
The one advantage that the XFL had in operating this way. Is that they had only eight teams in the entire league. The NFL has 32, but if some select states are willing to allow sports leagues to operate under strict guidelines. The NFL can make it work for a season until the world is ready to go back (hopefully) to live public attendance. Of course, the XFL wasn’t operating under a pandemic, but the teams and players were all stationed in one specific location.
Under this type of setup, regardless of the eventual locations that the NFL would choose to play in. Gone would be any home-field advantage. The NFL would be doing so as a neutral site league. Not ideal, but it may be the only option. Lets’s hope that it is just one season.
I don’t have an answer for College Football yet.
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