In an unprecedented move to prevent the spread of a pandemic, sports worldwide have been put on hold, or have been cancelled entirely. Only very small amounts of professional sports remain active as of this writing, primarily in Russia and Mexico, where spread of the virus has been limited due to tight travel measures.
The first wave of postponements, cancellations and closures started in early March as COVID-19 (or the coronavirus) first forced soccer leagues in Europe to schedule their games behind closed doors, but when fans started gathering outside of those games by the thousands, teams and leagues made a decision to entirely postpone contests to prevent such large social gatherings.
The few games that were played in empty stadiums in the week prior to the sports world’s full stop were eerie to say the least. UEFA Champions League soccer is usually marked by each team’s passionate fanbase yelling and singing their team to victory in the storied European tournament. Instead, Paris Saint-Germain faced Borussia Dortmund in front of fifty thousand empty seats. The loudest noise in the stadium came from the coaches, barking orders at their respective teams.
Italy, one of the countries hit hardest in this outbreak, was the first to move toward cancellation or postponement, due to the unexpected rise of cases in the country. Italy is currently under a nationwide quarantine, and multiple soccer players in Italian leagues have tested positive for coronavirus, including Daniele Rugani of Juventus, the defending Italian champions.
The reaction to the virus in America was hardly apparent until March 11. Prior to this mid-March date, the only change to sports due to the pandemic was the NCAA’s decision to have the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments without fans.
On March 11, the Utah Jazz were scheduled to play the Oklahoma City Thunder in regular season NBA action. This was two days after Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert joked about coronavirus during a press conference, and as he left he rubbed every microphone and every reporter’s audio recorder sitting on the table in front of him.
As the Thunder and Jazz were about to tip-off, a trainer on the Utah Jazz staff ran out to the court and addressed officials. Suddenly, players left the court, and waved goodbye to the fans, sensing what was feared days earlier: an NBA player had coronavirus, and it was Rudy Gobert.
Gobert became the subject of incredible ridicule, from not just fans online, but players in the NBA. After the NBA suspended its season, news broke that Gobert’s Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell had also tested positive for COVID-19.
The NBA acted quickly to suspend the league, as the Jazz had played in several NBA arenas over the week prior to Gobert and Mitchell’s diagnosis. Naturally, the NHL followed suit, as the NHL shares many arenas with the NBA, including Detroit’s Little Caesar’s Arena, where Gobert and Mitchell’s Jazz beat the Detroit Pistons on March 7.
Once the cases of coronavirus were confirmed, and that carriers had been in several major arenas across the country, the NCAA made the official decision to cancel the basketball tournaments that cause the condition known as March Madness. There were thoughts and considerations of an alternate tournament happening without fans, but NCAA deemed it logistically impossible while also maintaining the safety of all parties involved.
Across the three divisions of college athletics, all winter and spring sports were cancelled, and no timetable was given on when collegiate athletics would return. College football, now starting spring practices and spring games, is also on hold, with most colleges that hold spring football games cancelling them at the behest of their state or local officials.
MLS, and other American soccer leagues, including Saint Louis FC’s USL Championship, followed suit and postponed their seasons till April. U.S. national team friendlies have also been cancelled, putting an effective halt to “the world’s game” here in the U.S.
America’s pastime, Major League Baseball, waited until the late afternoon on Thursday, March 12 to make the call to cancel Spring Training games and postpone MLB’s opening day. The Cardinals were on the field at Roger Dean Stadium playing the Marlins, while the MLB was on a conference call deciding to postpone the start of the season.
At this point in the timeframe, the fledgling XFL was the only active sport that had not cancelled. Sure enough, later on March 12 the XFL announced the cancellation of the remainder of the 2020 season. In a statement, XFL said all players would be paid the entirety of their contracts, and that “The XFL is committed to playing a full season in 2021 and in future years.”
The only popular professional sport to not postpone or cancel their events was UFC, as the mixed martial arts brand chose to host its March 14 show in Brazil in an empty arena.
As of this writing, plans for April’s highly anticipated bout between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson have not changed. The fight is rumored to be cursed, as every scheduled bout between the two has been cancelled for some reason or another. Fate (and preventative measures against COVID-19) might postpone this matchup yet again.
These preventative measures resulting in a sports stoppage, from major professional sports down to high school, is the unfortunate yet correct response to an incredibly unusual situation. While some may argue that events should not be cancelled in places where there have not been confirmed cases or have only been very few, that line of thinking does not factor in the travel of people who attend sporting events.
These measures are about prevention, and prevention matters most in actually stopping the virus. If leagues carelessly continued, and allowed fans to gather and rub elbows and potentially spread the coronavirus, the U.S. could be in a state of national quarantine, instead of just an extended spring break.