National sports are back, sort of, and what unfolds over the next several months will look both familiar and like nothing we’ve ever seen.
NASCAR gave us a taste of socially distant sports with its return to the track at Darlington over the weekend, an event marked by masks, extensive health protocols and a speedway without fans. Winner Kevin Harvick said it seemed like a normal race while he was on the track, but when he took the checkered flag and emerged from his car to mostly silence, he couldn’t help but notice. “We miss the fans,” Harvick said.
Still, the race worked, it was entertaining and for a population desperate for signs of normalcy, live sports is a major step forward.
The fact is that most of us watch games on television, so no change there. Not seeing anyone else at the games will be the strange thing. The reality check is that it will be this way for a while. We don’t know everything about coronavirus, but we do know it’s going to be a factor in how we live for the foreseeable future, until either a vaccine is approved or the case numbers drop to the point that we feel like it’s under control.
That’s a long way off. So with other major sports leagues planning to resume over the next several months, here’s a look at where each sport stands, listed in order of planned return.
- Auto racing (underway) – NASCAR is back and its first race, considering the circumstances, was a resounding success. The controlled environment was not all that noticeable once the racing started. The quiet stands at the end was weird but for now, who cares?
IndyCar returns on June 6 in Texas. No reason to think it can’t work just as well.
- Major League Soccer (mid-June) – MLS has cleared individual player workouts as long as teams meet all local laws to prevent the spread of the virus. Matches have been suspended until at least June 8, but there is no definite date on a return to play.
MLS had a lot of momentum before the pandemic and in terms of popularity was the fastest-growing professional sport in the United States. Commissioner Don Garber said the league is looking at creative ways to make broadcasts more interesting for fans if they cannot yet attend matches.
- PGA TOUR (mid-June) – Golf has a lot of inherent advantages in this environment. It was one of the few forms of recreation many states allowed as the coronavirus lockdown began in March because it is not difficult to play it and also maintain social distancing. I played over the weekend. No problem.
TOUR officials like to say their sport offers fans “two miles of front-row seats” and golf being played in the open air helps a lot. The TOUR plans to return in mid-June with no fans allowed for at least the first four events, so we’ll see how it all works. The fact that golf fans generally are quiet while players hit their shots will help the sport seem the same, but there will be no handshakes, high fives or roars from the crowd. Yet of all the sports, a golf tournament is one I can imagine attending safely, especially if the TOUR limits ticket sales to keep crowds from being, well, crowds.
There also will be extensive testing and temperature checks of players, caddies and tournament workers. Indeed, that’s a theme for every sport and the enormity of that task should not be underestimated. Nasal swabs to test for coronavirus are highly uncomfortable and athletes in every sport will quickly tire of that protocol.
The other major golf tours will watch and learn, with both the LPGA and Champions tours targeting mid-July to restart.
- Major League Baseball (July) — MLB is set to get players into camp in June with games scheduled for July. It’s going to be an elaborate production to keep it safe. A limited number of stadiums to host games. No spitting, no showers after games, players must use hand sanitizer every half-inning, only players in the lineup allowed in the main dugout. Extensive and ongoing testing. No fans and no certain time frame to bring them back.
It will be strange, even for television viewers, but you can bet we’ll be watching. The season will be shorter and there’s no guarantee MLB will even get those games in if the virus spikes or players test positive.
The big win will be if it all works and MLB can progress to letting a limited number of fans into stadiums — this season. Fans will want to see how it all unfolds first. Would I take my family to a game? Would love to, but probably not this season.
- NBA/NHL – (possibly July) Both leagues are focused on finishing last season as neither made it to post-season play before the shutdown. Professional basketball and hockey are played in arenas so there won’t be any fans until who knows when, and we don’t know a restart date or which sites will be used. Players in both leagues are in favor of finishing the season even if it delays the start of next season.
Could easily see the NBA and NHL using this summer to finish up the 2019-20 campaigns and then delaying or shortening the 2020-21 seasons. To me, that won’t matter at all. Both leagues, like MLB, play too many regular-season games anyway and I doubt many fans would care if shorter seasons are the new normal.
- NFL/College football (September/TBA ) – Ah, football, still the king of all sports in the United States. The lockdown hit during the offseason, though there is no offseason in the NFL these days. The league so far has navigated the crisis as well as can be expected, with a successful virtual draft, players working out on their own and Commissioner Roger Goodell sticking to plans to start the season on time. That’s going to require a lot of changes as teams head to camp, but it can be done. The NFL also has the advantage of seeing what happens as other sports restart before football season. It also has the advantage of each team only playing once per week.
If the NFL is No. 1 in popularity, college football may be 1A, but its return is more challenging. NFL franchises are private companies that control their own operations, but college players are students who also play football. If the students are not back on campus, will university presidents support football on those same campuses? Early indications were presidents were not keen on that idea, but college football is big business, and universities need its revenue to fund all of their sports.
My bet is universities figure out a way to get the games played and collect that vital television revenue.
Stay tuned because, at least for now, tuning in is your only option.