Professional Sports Leagues ponder best practices to return to competition

BY MAKENNA ALLEN

Slowly but surely, one area of life at a time, America is beginning to reopen following the COVID-19 pandemic.  As restaurants open their doors and schools make plans for the fall, professional sports leagues are also meeting to discuss the path forward when it comes to resuming competition.  

Each sport’s season was impacted in a different manner based upon the timing of the nation-wide shutdown.  However, some similarities remain.

National Basketball Association:

The NBA is one league that saw a large portion of its season upended by the coronavirus pandemic.  On March 11, the organization suspended all activity after Utah Jazz player, Rudy Gobert, tested positive for the virus.  

Since then, fans have only been able to predict that competition may resume in late-July.  However, according to ESPN, NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, has released a format for the remainder of the delayed season.  

This format includes a plan for 22 NBA teams to travel to Orlando and Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports during the month of July.  During this time, the teams in attendance will compete in eight regular-season games for seeding in the playoffs.    

To the dismay of some fans, not all 30 teams will attend the tournament.  Only teams within six conference games of playoff spots will be invited.  For the remaining eight teams, plans for summer training camps and fall leagues are in the works.  

If the plan is approved by a three-fourths vote on Thursday, June 4, the season will resume on Jul. 31.  

When it comes to the fans themselves, it is unknown whether or not they will be able to attend the games.  

National Hockey League:

The NHL has also discussed the possibility of fans supporting NHL teams as they return to the ice, although the league feels the probability is low.  

Though this aspect of competition remains unknown, the NHL has created its own plan for the 2020-2021 season.  On March 15, the NHL decided to suspend its season in response to the CDC’s recommendation that groups not exceed 50 individuals.  Shortly after the suspension was announced, several NHL players, including two Colorado Avalanche players tested positive for the virus.  Though both individuals recovered, all NHL players were encouraged to remain in self-quarantine until April 15.  

As of May 26, however, the league has announced a four-phase return to the ice.  According to an article from Forbes, Phase One has been in progress since quarantine began in March.  The NHL is now moving into Phase Two, which includes small training sessions.  Phases Three and Four have yet to be detailed but will involve steps to have players back on the ice.

Even though the 2019-2020 season has officially concluded, next season will be structured around a 24 team format.  The seeding of these teams will be based upon points from the previous season and teams seeded 1-12.  The top seven will automatically enter a draft lottery.  

After the playoffs reduce the remaining teams to 16, the NHL will host the Stanley Cup playoffs at a yet-to-be-determined location.  

As these plans begin to take shape, there has been no official date set for the return to the sport.

Major League Baseball:

Another professional sports league with no set return date is the MLB.  The organization has recently faced conflict between the league and the MLB Players Association (MLBPA), as both sides have proposed differing plans and have yet to reach a satisfying format for the season.

The main conflict between the two sides is the result of economic issues.  According to an article by Yahoo Sports, the MLB is looking to initiate a 50-60 game season.  This format, however, would dramatically reduce the salaries of players to around 31 percent of their original salaries.  

The MLBPA opposes the cut to salaries by suggesting a 114 game season that will run through the end of October. On May 26, the MLB countered with a proposal for a 78 to 82-game season that would include a sliding scale for salaries.  The MLBPA now prepares its counteroffer.

As the two sides negotiate, however, the MLB hopes to begin its season in July. 

National Football League:

The NFL is also working to set a schedule for its season set to begin in September.  As of now, the league is planning to continue with the original season schedule, with the preseason opener on September 10.  

If all goes as planned, the NFL will have a 17 game season with Super Bowl 55 set to take place in Tampa Bay, on February 7, 2021.  However, the NFL emphasizes that during this time, flexibility is key.  Flexibility, in this case, may mean a delay in the season that could ultimately lead to the elimination of bye weeks or a later Super Bowl 55 date of Feb. 28.   

Major League Soccer:

Another league looking to host play in Florida is Major League Soccer.  According to the association’s website, the MLS is planning to bring 26 teams to Orlando to compete at the Disney Sports Complex.  

After a period of conflict similar to the one faced by the MLB, the MLS Players Association has submitted a proposal that will likely be accepted by MLS owners.  According to the LA Times, the package details the 26-team tournament in Florida that will begin in late June.  The plan also includes a 7.5 percent reduction in player salary.   

No formal approval has been given, as the league waits for a vote from the MLS owners.

NASCAR:

While other sports teams merely make plans for their seasons, NASCAR has been the first sport to officially return to competition.  On May 17, the sport returned to competition without spectators present.  There will be a stretch of nine races over 16 days and as the events increase, so does the chance for spectators to attend.  

Indeed, according to an article by Yahoo Sports, there is a growing push for spectators to attend the races as many local speedways are now allowing fans in the stands.  As officials consider this possibility, they must be flexible in their planning.  

This idea of flexibility must indeed be central to all professional sports leagues and teams as they face the uncertainty and changes brought about by COVID-19.  Even the tentative plans made at this time may be subject to change in one manner or another.  One thing is for certain, though: athletes and sports fans alike are ready to take the field, step onto the court, and hit the ice.  America is ready for some sports.

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