It’s really not looking promising for sports anytime in 2020

If you’re sick of reading “When and how will sports return?” posts, well, you and me both: There is something soothing about the idea of not looking any farther ahead than how to get through today, and leaving the uncertainties of the distant future (i.e., anything past this week) unconsidered. But there are some interesting disjunctions afoot, so once more into the breach:

The last few days has been full of speculation about ways to restart the sports seasons, and oh what speculative ways they are. An NBA tournament entirely in Las Vegas! Stanley Cup games in North Dakota! MLB games at spring training facilities! Only the NFL seems to be talking about playing a regular schedule in front of fans, though California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared Saturday, “I’m not anticipating that happening in this state.”

Meanwhile, the Washington Post skipped asking league officials or political leaders what they’re wishcasting for a sports restart, and instead went to infectious disease experts to see what their best predictions were. And the results weren’t pretty:

  • “From my point of view based on data — and I’m huge sports fan, so this is really hard — I can’t really predict or truly speculate,” said Jared Evans, a senior researcher at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. “We need as a population to be prepared for anything. And also be prepared for that disappointment.”
  • The best-case scenario, [Stanford infectious-disease doctor Dean] Winslow said, is that social distancing and other restrictive measures combined with higher temperatures lead to a dramatic decrease in cases by late May. “That would potentially give public-health people the incentive to at least consider starting to relax these restrictions,” Winslow said. “That would mean allowing potentially sporting events and concerts and that sort of thing to happen by the early fall.”

The problem with resuming sports even in quarantined spaces without fans, as several experts have pointed out, is that a quarantine only works if you can be sure that nobody within the cordon sanitaire is infected. “There are going to have to be considerations in place as far as making sure the participants are tested,” Evans told the Post. “You have to have an understanding where they were, who they were in contact with.” And if even a single player, or player’s family member, or league official, or camera operator tests positive, then you face the possibility of having to halt play entirely and quarantine everyone for another two weeks before starting up again.

The Post further notes that neither China nor Japan has been able to set a solid date for resuming sports leagues, which would be the best test of what a return to normalcy (or even semi-normalcy) might look like for the rest of the world. Meanwhile, in a worst- or even moderate-case scenario (this remains the best overview of the range of futures we could be facing), we could easily see organized sports entirely suspended until a vaccine can be developed, hopefully in 2021 — though I suppose in the interim you could see smaller groups of negative-testing (or better yet, already recovered from coronavirus) players competing in H-O-R-S-E tournaments or ad hoc War Cup–style competitions.

This, needless to say, would not only make 2020 suck even worse for sports fans, it would wreak havoc on every corner of the baseball economy, as leagues would be left battling with media partners over TV contracts, and teams with fans over ticket sales money, and TV carriers with fans over cable bills. It could also be devastating to leagues without much financial cushion; while global soccer teams might be helped out by FIFA’s huge cash reserves — who knew that one day we’d actually be glad for FIFA’s propensity for stockpiling gold and jewels? — that’s not going to help leagues like the WNBA or minor-league baseball that run on shoestring budgets and have either no parent leagues or ones that actively want them dead, though hopefully they’re at least getting to suspend rent payments during the pandemic, which should cut down on their costs. (Whether public stadium owners absolving teams from rent or at least letting them defer payments counts as subsidies is a question that normally I’d be all over, but under the circumstances we probably have bigger fish to fry.)

In other words, we probably have a lot of Marbula One in our futures. I wonder if the O’raceway was built with public funds…

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30 comments on “It’s really not looking promising for sports anytime in 2020

  1. I do not really know what to make of it but German soccer teams, on a team by team licensing basis across the entire pyramid, are allowed to return to practice today.

    1. Sorry, I guess German football is planning for a May based return. They are planning on isolating players from general public and using a lot COVID testing. Several teams cannot practice as their local authorities are not allowing it.

      1. The EPL floated that plan with a June date and the pushback was rather swift and severe. They backed Pretty quick.

        Like most leagues, the Bundesliga is more functioning on hope than anything else.

        1. Great line from Jeff Passan’s otherwise bonkers article today about MLB trying to start back up in May:

          “The logistics to pull off such a plan would be enormous and cumbersome on the league side and require the buy-in of players, who sources expect to be skeptical of separating from their families for an indefinite amount of time — perhaps as long as 4½ months.”

          YA THINK?

          1. I’m reminded of the old “Roller Game of the Week” wherein each week the Los Angeles Thunderbirds played host to some team such as the Texas Outlaws or the like in roller derby. The careful observer would note that various “visiting” skaters bore a remarkable resemblance to “visitors” from the week before. The Thunderbirds were always the home team. Never were viewers ever shown matchups between any two non-L.A. teams, and no mention ever seemed to be made of any league standings. These schemes that the NBA and MLB are floating bear all too much resemblance to the farce just described, and if these leagues actually pursue them, then they deserve to suffer accordingly.

          2. I’ve been thinking of that too, Russ. And the Roller Derby Arenas all looked “shockingly similar”.

            As to whether players would want to separate/isolate for “months”, I’m sure they wouldn’t. The question really is, do they need the increased income they would get for agreeing to do this MORE than they will hate doing it.

            The number of MLB, NBA etc players who make what seems like a lifetime’s income in a couple of years yet always seem to spend it all each year is quite lengthy.

      2. As many people on this site anticipated there are already problems with German soccer returning to practice. Two teams (Hannover and Wolfsburg) have already had lawsuits filed against them for violating quarantine orders (they have exemptions but I believe the exemptions are being challenged).

        In Europe I believe only Belgium has ended their season officially so far. More to come no doubt.

  2. I am beginning to think the best case scenario for sports will be the Fall, which means no NHL and no NBA until October, and no MLB until 2021.Why no MLB? If they try and start a Season and there is only a few months involved, there could be legal issues that may make it more logical to bite the bullet and wait until 2021.Not to mention this: If there is no MLB then it becomes much easier to overcome the political issues in implementing the slashing of Minor League teams ( the cutting of the Draft and possibly delaying International Free Agency until January are the first steps in this):

  3. Whenever anyone talks about the potential return date for professional sports I do cringe a bit (even though I wonder and talk about it occasionally myself). There are, of course, much bigger things going on than this. Just as there are many things more important and more deserving of public money than professional sports even during non-pandemic times.

    That said, I really don’t see how any major sport can come back and play before spectators this calendar year. We will be lucky if general workplaces are opened up again in the fall, much less sport and concert venues.

    The idea of MLB playing at spring training venues was a new one on me. I guess it would reduce travel and allow for slightly easier quarantines of staff. Scheduling (in either Arizona or Florida) would be interesting though.

    I wonder if professional sports won’t be the first to address the “acceptable risk” question? Namely that all the players are young and otherwise healthy, so even getting infected is likely to not be a significant occurrence for them (comparable to the common cold for some, but not all). If they are all monitored full time (and they are), and are otherwise healthy, with regular medical checks and assistance could they simply agree to play out the season for TV in front of empty stands?

    Would they?

      1. No, they would subject to the same conditions re: monitoring (as would any camera operators or necessary arena/stadium staff etc). The only difference might be that those personnel could use PPE whereas the players likely would not.

        Since MLB’s idiotic review system has already done away with the Earl Weaver/Billy Martin get right in yer face umpire confrontations, I would argue that facemasks wouldn’t significantly detract from the product.

        It’s really a question of when the financial concerns begin to outweigh the safety ones. And we live in a society where a basketball player (at least one) is paid $500k per game in the same city where many people live on the street or under overpasses.

        Is this really that much of a stretch?

        1. Face masks aren’t going to do much good if you’re in close quarters with a ton of players, though. You’d need dugouts ringing the entire field to do social distancing there, especially if you need expanded rosters to make up for none of your pitchers having had a full spring training.

          I can maybe see it working if we’re at a point where infections are at an absolute minimum, and testing and contact tracing is nearly universal. But even then, there would be some risk. I guess we’ll see what happens if and when China finally starts up its soccer season.

          1. Not to mention how difficult it would be for baseball players to refrain from spitting in the dugout or between pitches. Might need biohazard spitoons placed in the dugout, in on-deck circle and at every position in the field.

            My (tongue in cheek) vote is that golf comes back quickest . It can be played solo, without a crowd and little infrastructure. They play one-somes. Everyone is their own caddy.

      2. And the remaining 118 MiLB teams?

        No, seriously.

        Won’t there be a need to call-up players, given the chance of an injury, much less half-dozen or so on any club comes down with the virus.

        MLB creates a pool of players, available to all 30 teams, given the above?

        1. I think the MLB is secretly hoping a bunch of them just fold because of this, solves the problem of too many minor league teams pretty nicely that way.

  4. Question: Does anyone on this board including the author know exactly how many American have had this virus (no I am not talking about confirmed cases)?

    1. No one on earth knows that, since the vast majority of Americans haven’t been tested.

      You can do a rough estimate of approximately 1% fatality rate divided into 10,000 deaths means somewhere in the neighborhood of a million Americans have it — or rather had had it as of a couple of weeks ago, since it takes some time for people who come down with to die (or recover). So maybe somewhere in the low seven figures as of this moment, including asymptomatic cases?

  5. Even if you had only players who’d been infected, recovered, and developed immunity (something most virologists think will be the case for recovered sufferers, although as with much on this, we can’t be sure), you’d still have a problem. There’d inevitably be players who sought out ways to get infected as a means to resume getting paid for games. It’d be like watching “Jeopardy” if, at random intervals, Alex Trebek shot somebody for getting the “Daily Double” wrong.

  6. Let’s be real here. Professional sports will not be returning until there is a vaccine. At best, the next time we may see professional sports is the beginning of the 2021 MLB season. NFL, NBA and NHL will not return until fall of 2021.

    1. Current CDC and pharma estimates suggest that, even with favourable testing outcomes, a vaccine will not be available for public use until the end of 2021 at the earliest. And that is assuming that the promising early experimental and animal trials don’t turn into failed drugs that do damage to human patients and cannot be used/sold.

      If what you say about the importance of the vaccine to professional sports is accurate, there will be no professional sports until the spring of 2022.

      1. Where are you seeing end of 2021? I’ve consistently seen 12-18 months (which isn’t that far off at the back end, but it’s still significant in terms of hopes for a 2021 MLB season, say).

        It’s also possible that some combination of testing/contact tracing and, say, survivor antibody serum can get this thing down to a dull enough roar you can restart sports before there’s a vaccine. But, you know, TBD.

        1. Politiicans (and those who are their sycophants) have been touting “12-18 months”. So far as I can tell only US officials have been giving this time frame. I would also point out that at least one person has already died from trying out a supposed cure a Prominent US Government Official spouted off about on tv.

          I have not heard one serious researcher, epidemiologist or vaccinologist suggest that the lower end of that scale is even possible. Further, many say that 18 months is highly optimistic and assumes that there will be no hiccups or failures in the vaccine development process (which will occur in parallel for each candidate, naturally).

          In addition, NPR has regularly interviewed epidemiologists over the past few weeks who have concurred with the info in the linked articles.

          The vaccine development time includes the 3 phases of trials (which will occur during the development process – thanks to my partner for providing this info… she works in infection control and says I never listen to her – until now) will require:

          Phase 1 is normally done on otherwise healthy volunteers who receive the vaccine solely for the purpose of determining any immediate negative effects. This generally lasts 1-3 months. Assuming the vaccine “passes”, on to phase 2.

          Phase 2 is more detailed, involves a few hundred participants and examines the results over several months to 2 years.

          Phase 3 is the largest and involves 2-3,000 volunteer subjects and follows their responses for 1-4 years.

          Following this, if any of these drugs are successful and do not produce significant adverse reactions/side effects, the product can be approved and marketed. Post marketing, the test groups continue to be monitored for ongoing effects of the vaccine.

          Which steps would America like to skip?

          1. Just read a bunch on this, and 12-18 months is indeed the best-case scenario:



            That will take a huge push to rush through vaccines (already happening) and a bunch of luck in one of them working well and not having terrible side effects (dice roll). It shouldn’t be counted on, but it’s not impossible by any means.

  7. What are sports owners going to do, ask the taxpayers to build them a house?

    1. Yes.

      1. …and they didn’t even need to wait for coronavirus to provide the opportunity… well done.

  8. Thirst quenched!

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