The unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic has hit everyone hard in some form or another. The concerns stemming from the virus have led to businesses temporarily closing or going out of business altogether and millions of jobs being lost across the entire globe leaving many out of work. Parents have been laid off and become school teachers simultaneously while the rest of the world waits for answers on the next phase of their lives and when it is safe to continue.
A place of solace in times of need has always been sports. One usually forgets about the stresses of their lives when a big game comes on. You can lose yourself in the drama unfolding on the field or court even if it is a fleeting distraction for a few hours.
So, what do people do when the doors close on their favorite sporting events? Especially NBA fans who were in the midst of witnessing a season for the record books. It was already an entertaining beginning to the regular season and it was heating up leading to the home stretch of games before the playoffs were set to begin.
This was a stark reality that everyone is facing this Spring and Summer when some of the world’s biggest sporting events were canceled due to COVID-19 and the uncertainty of the world’s safety.
This article will look back on the overwhelming effect the pandemic has had and continues to have. The sports world stood still in mid-March, and we still seem hesitant to make any sudden moves in the wake of COVID-19. What will sports, and live sporting events for that matter, look like when everything comes back? Are we moving into a new era of how we watch a game? Before we can try to answer those questions, let’s go back to when this all started.
According to the World Health Organization’s timeline, the global pandemic of COVID-19 can be traced back to December of 2019 in China, when there were a cluster of pneumonia cases that raised some concerns. The monitoring of the cases gained steam through January of 2020 when the information on the cases started being looked at closer and by February it had been labeled a “novel coronavirus” and had spread into other countries including most of Europe.
The World Health Organization held a forum in early February that was attended by 300 experts from 48 countries, which was a clear sign that the concerns about the virus had risen across the globe.
As the precautions and safety concerns began ramping up across the world through February, there wasn’t much of a ripple across the major American sports leagues about the postponement or even cancellations of full seasons. There may have been private talks but publicly, it was business as usual.
Cancellations and Postponements: The Beginning of the End
While COVID-19 wasn’t publicly threatening American sports leagues’ until March, athletics across the globe began the process of postponement as early as January, when the Olympic Committee canceled boxing qualifiers that were to take place in Wuhan, China where COVID-19 coincidentally originated. The qualifiers were to take place between March 3-11, which showed a sign that this virus had its own plans to stick around longer than the common cold or flu.
After boxing qualifiers were canceled, the rest of the Olympic qualifier events began falling. And even if events were still scheduled, many were held in quarantine for days before leading up to the matches. The doubt behind whether or not the Olympics would happen at all, being that they were scheduled in less than 5 months in Tokyo, began popping up around circles.
Other than the Olympic trials, most of the events being either postponed or canceled didn’t show up on the radar of American sports fans and the virus was relatively unnoticed in the sports world for weeks to come. Even as late as March 9th was there differing opinions of the severity of the outbreak in very high profile sports leagues around the world. You saw the divide as the UK and Italy had opposite views on whether or not their seasons should continue.
The British government publicly went on record on the 9th stating that they saw no reason to cancel sports within the country whereas Italy’s Prime Minister said the country would be postponing all sporting leagues until April.
Writing On The Wall for the NBA
March 11th would be known in the US as the beginning of the end for the sports world when they were put on notice with the announcement of March Madness, one of the most popular sporting events and college basketball’s gold standard basketball tournament, holding all of their games in closed arenas without spectators. This was reported early in the afternoon, but the real bombshell would come later that evening.
On Wednesday, March 11th at 6:30 pm the NBA made the improbable decision to suspend all gameplay after that evening’s scheduled games were completed. While the NBA insisted the “postponement” of the season was to assess the information and reevaluate a season restart, many fans, players, and experts believed the NBA would be forfeiting the conclusion of their 2019-2020 season.
It was also reported that Utah Jazz Center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19 prior to the Jazz’s game between the Oklahoma City Thunder on the 11th, forcing their game that night to be canceled literally seconds before the teams were to tip-off. You can see the sheer confusion of everyone in one of the eeriest videos I have ever seen moments before the players walked off the court and the announcement was made by the Thunder’s PA announcer.
Gobert became a semi-blemish in the whole story for a few weeks due to his blatant disregard for the severity of the virus but his reactions and antics closely mirrored what the majority of the American people felt when it came to COVID-19 back in March of 2020. More stories came out just after Gobert tested positive that he was overtly hugging and touching players as a form of mockery towards the disease. His teammate and NBA All-Star Donovan Mitchell actually caught it from Gobert causing a significant rift between the two for months.
The Dominoes Begin To Fall
The NBA was a leader in the decision to suspend their season and on the following day, several sporting events followed suit, including some of the top conferences in the NCAA. They shut down their postseason tournaments as it was difficult to justify the games in front of fans after the NBA made such a bold statement.
The professional sports world took notice too as the NHL “paused” their season, and Major League Baseball suspended Spring Training for all teams ultimately pushing their season back in hopes that they could proceed with caution once more information was released about the virus. NASCAR also decided to hold its upcoming races without spectators.
Following the initial decision to hold March Madness without spectators, the NCAA, in an unprecedented move, canceled the NCAA Basketball Tournament leaving the season without a crowned champion for the first time in its existence. In congruence with this decision, the NCAA canceled the rest of its sports calendar for the 2019-2020 season.
The rest of March saw such marquee events like the Master’s golf tournament, the NFL and NHL drafts, and the Tokyo Olympics being either postponed or moved to a virtual setting. Both the Master’s and Olympics postponed their events in hopes that we would learn more later in the year and be given the chance to reschedule, in the Fall for the Master’s and in 2021 for the Olympics.
Glimmer of Hope
Between April and May, the sports world waited impatiently for any nuggets of hope from their favorite sports leagues. On May 6th, fans caught a glimpse of what sporting events may look like post-COVID-19 with the announcement that European soccer leagues were moving forward with their plan of restarting their club seasons under strict safety regulations and without spectators at the games.
Teams in the Spanish Premier League began training in early May and the German Bundesliga Soccer League announced that it would restart its season, without spectators, on May 16th. COVID-19 began earlier before America and they were ahead of the big 4 US professional sports leagues in getting their information about the virus in places like Europe. The US was in its infancy stages of gathering information and evaluating the next steps.
NBA Commissioner David Silver, star players like LeBron James and Chris Paul were driving forces for never giving up hope for the restart of the NBA season in some form or fashion. The league had been saying since early March when they made the decision to postpone that they could see a timeline where the season starts back up by mid-June.
Another driving force behind the restart conversations was the looming possibility of a pay cut among players and coaches. During talks between the NBA and NBPA in April, they agreed that pay cuts would start on May 15th. This was announced on April 17th and raised eyebrows around the league. Teams began opening their facilities the following week but the players, still unsure of the severity of this virus, decided against it and that plan was scrapped.
Through all of this, however, the NBA and the Players Association continued to communicate and keep their eye on the prize: finishing the 2019-2020 season somehow.
May 23rd: We’re Going to Disney World!
On May 23rd news outlets began reporting that the NBA was in talks to use Disney World’s resort and facilities in Orlando to restart the NBA season in late July. As the news spread, there were feelings of excitement but had many wondered how the heck they were going to pull this off. If everyone agreed, this plan would see NBA players sent to Orlando for up to three months to live in a secluded bubble without any physical contact with their friends and family.
Now, what would the restart look like from a structure and scheduling standpoint?
The first format that gained steam was a group stage World Cup-style that would see teams grouped together in round robin-style play before entering into a 16-team tournament. One of David Silver’s best qualities as NBA Commissioner is his willingness to listen to and consider any option no matter how far it landed from league tradition. This format consideration added more evidence to this claim from Silver’s fans.
While the World Cup-style format was ultimately scrapped for the 22-team restart, the idea was welcomed by those who covered the league. However, on June 3rd the NBA finally had an idea of exactly what the rest of the season would look like:
NBA Restart Details:
- The league’s top 22 teams would be invited to Disney
- Each team would play 8 “regular season” games between July 30th and August 14th
- If 8 and 9-seeds are within 4 games of each other a play-in game(s) would happen. If 8-seed won, they would advance. If 9-seed won, they would have to win another game to advance.
- Training Camp – Begins July 9th – Teams would arrive at Disney and go through quarantine and COVID-19 testing
- 2019-2020 season would end no later than October 12th
- NBA Draft Lottery – August 25th
- NBA Draft – October 15th
- 2020-21 NBA Season would start on December 1st
Restart In Jeopardy?
As quickly as the restart plans began motioning towards reality, some of the NBA’s leading players had a different opinion based on the unraveling social climate in the United States. Unfortunately, racism and police violence was nothing new to our culture and after the horrendous murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the ugly side of American culture, along with the nearly nine-minute video of the murder was seen everywhere.
George Floyd and Social Justice in the NBA
The world was already under enough pressure before the eight-minute and forty-six-second video of George Floyd’s murder under police custody was seen by millions. The ongoing spread of coronavirus and all – unemployment, children at home and learning online, and the pending threat of getting sick – that accompanied it has everyone feeling the effects, and now this.
The murder of Geroge Floyd seemed to have burst the dam of anger and the need to seek out justice for minorities who were obviously unsafe when dealing with police officers, and the American people began protesting across the nation. Most of it was peaceful, but there were several instances that put somewhat of a blemish on the message of peace and equality that the protests were supposed to represent.
The NBA was closely related to this situation directly and indirectly. J.R. Smith, the current LA Laker, beat up a rioter that was vandalizing his car in the affluent LA neighborhood Smith resides. Stephen Jackson, former NBA player and good friend of Floyd’s, was a key component in the protests around the country and helped Floyd’s family in the wake of his death.
But even if they didn’t personally know Geroge Floyd or anyone killed by the police, the league is three-fourths black and these types of situations with the police or the general public have haunted young black males for generations. As a black NBA player, you don’t have to know the victims to have it hit close to home and many questioned whether or not the season restart would be a distraction towards the larger goal of racial justice and equality.
In early June, there was an NBPA conference call with over 100 players and team representatives on the line, and the question about sitting out the restart due to the larger picture of the country was brought up by Kyrie Irving. Several others on the call, including Dwight Howard, agreed that now may not be the best time to restart, and sitting out in order to be a focal voice of justice within their communities was a better use of their time.
Irving, someone who as no issue speaking his mind and clashing with the establishment, is injured but still had questions about a number of different concerns about the restart on top of the idea of pursuing social justice during this time. While much of it was filed under the guise that this was just “Kyrie being Kyrie,” many players took his opinions to heart and the restart was again under the microscope. Was getting this season completed really that important?
Eventually, the consensus opinion was that because of the spotlight being put on the league being at the forefront of starting live sports again for the country to enjoy, the players and the league agreed tat this time in Disney could be a positive way to have their voices be heard even louder among the nation. The league and players even devised a list of social causes and phrases to be put on their jerseys instead of their last names in a show of solidarity.
While the drama the NBA has been facing continued to boil, other sports leagues had their own specific issues to deal with. Every league is different and has to be evaluated as such. Each league is a completely different sport with specific physical requirements. They are also played different times of the year which brings up its own set of issues. There are no real similarities between any of the professional sports leagues and that makes each league’s situation unique.
The divide between Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and the teams couldn’t be bigger. Below is the timeline of the league since the outbreak hit the US. There were times when all involved thought the return of baseball was impossible. It looks like there will be baseball this year, even if the league and players still can’t agree on the specifics:
March 9: All 30 teams agree the season is still going to happen six days after the US confirmed their first COVID-19 related death.
March 11: The Seattle Mariners begin working with the MLB to consider playing their games in another state as Washington state Governor Jay Inslee banned large group gatherings. Washington state was hit hardest in the early stages of COVID in the US.
March 13: Major League Baseball announces spring training was canceled.
March 16: Major League Baseball pushes season start back until mid-May.
May 9: After several attempts at potential season start ideas, the MLB decides to push back their season until at least mid-July.
June 10-11: MLB holds their Draft remotely and cut draft from ten to five rounds.
June 23: Commissioner Rob Manfred imposes 60-game regular season to start July 23rd.
July 3: MLB cancels All-Star Game for the first time since 1945.
Just like the NBA, the NHL was in the swing of things preparing for the playoff push when their season was halted in March. While it looks like the end of the season will be international, there is a big ray of hope that we see hockey again this year.
March 12: The NHL officially suspended the 2019-20 season. Entered Phase 1 of NHL suspension after COVID concerns.
Rest of March: Several players and people closely related to the league begin getting coronavirus and self-quarantining is mandatory for all teams.
April 13: Commissioner Gary Bettman says the league is “exploring all options” in terms of a season restart.
June 8: NHL enters into Phase 2 of return, with a dozen teams opening up their training camps. Several teams are still short-handed as many have either tested positive for the virus or are in quarantine as a safety protocol.
July 11: NHL plans to restart with 24 teams but moves all operations to Canada and leave the US for the remainder of the season. The Eastern Conference teams will reside in Toronto and the Western Conference teams will compete in Edmonton.
While the NFL timeline has avoided most of the uncertainty revolving around restarting a season in the midst of a pandemic, their preseason should be right around the corner and it was only a matter of time before they became directly affected by the virus. They did have to hold their draft virtually back in April, which was a bit unsettled but was more or less a success considering the circumstances.
The big story, other than the crazy offseason moves, has been trying to project all of the questions marks that could arise during the upcoming season. As of today training camp for all teams will begin on July 28th as planned. The Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, scheduled for August 6th has been canceled but otherwise, the plan rolls on for the 2020-21 season as scheduled being aware that postponements and cancellations could be imminent.
Even if the season is to continue as expected, there is a high chance that no fans will be in the stands and the financial implications will be steep for the entire league. A decrease in revenue for each team is a key discussion point of negotiations. They are also adding a player opt-out option for those with pre-existing conditions or family members at risk. If a player decides this route, they would have to notify the league in writing by August 1st.
No matter the concessions being made by the league for this season, they are dead set on continuing plans under the guise that the NFL is full steam ahead to play, and complete, the 2020-21 NFL season. Like the NBA, MLB, and NHL, the NFL wants to crown a champion and will make any adjustments necessary without risking the health of their players, coaches, or staff members.
The NBA Bubble, Who Won’t Be There, and Looking Ahead
NBA players, staff, and a small group of media members all reported to Orlando and entered the Disney World bubble to begin preparations for the NBA season restart the weekend of July 7-9 on a staggered schedule. While a clear cut COVID testing schedule hasn’t been made, all people on-site in the bubble are subject to daily testing and monitoring.
We discussed rough details of the restart earlier, but the important dates within the bubble are as follows:
July 9-21: Training camp for all teams.
July 22-29: All teams will participate in scrimmages to tune-up for 8-game regular season.
July 30-August 14: Each of the 22 teams will play 8 regular-season games to determine playoff spots and seeds.
August 15-16: If necessary (see play-in details above), a play-in tournament will be held to determine the 8th seeds for each conference.
August 17: Playoffs begin.
August 30: Team family members/guests arrive in the bubble.
September 15: Conference Finals begin.
September 30: NBA Finals begin.
October 12: Game 7 of Finals (if necessary)
After the end of the season in the bubble, the turnaround time is quick for the league. After the end of the Finals, the league is planning on completing the entire offseason – Draft, Free Agency, Training Camp – in just 49 days before the 2021-22 season begins on December 1st. A tall task, indeed, but the NBA is excited to pave the way for other sports leagues on their trek to normalcy of which the world hasn’t felt in what will be the better part of a year.
How sports leagues continue to push forward during these unprecedented times will be remembered for years, possibly decades, to come. We have seen how important leadership among our politicians has really driven the effectiveness of flattening the curve of positive testing and helped our healthcare facilities ensure enough space and resources for all that are in need. Some have done an amazing job and it shows in the numbers, and others have not.
While professional sports are determined to begin again, they are doing so with a high level of caution. They know how poorly it will look as the faces of their respective leagues if they see a spike in cases or even witness potential death rates increase. Most league commissioners, David Silver in particular, genuinely care about the well-being of their players and team staff and would never want to hold any responsibility for a disastrous COVID related outcome.
Overall, I couldn’t be happier with the prospect of all four major sports leagues returning in some form or fashion by the end of 2020. The year couldn’t have begun on a worse note, with the passing of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, and fans need basketball back to help them recover from that loss and the near loss of an entire season.
As I write this article, COVID-19 is still affecting every US citizen’s life on a daily basis. Sports returning doesn’t end the threat of COVID but it is one step closer to life returning again, even if it is in a bubble with no fans. Yes, COVID is a threat, but sports are a distraction and sign of hope at the end of a very long tunnel that is 2020. Fingers crossed, sports help us heal. I can’t wait to crown champions for 2020.
What are your expectations for sports when they fully return? Let us know your thoughts below!
This article was originally published on July 28, 2020.