Sports Are Back(?): A Look At Professional Sports Restarting In The US

By Nathan Tucker
nrtucker@lc.edu

Despite surging positive cases of coronavirus in some regions of the US, the nation’s biggest team sports leagues have decided to push onward and start playing games in July. Popular non-team sports, such as NASCAR and PGA Tour golf, have already restarted after a brief layoff. 

As of this writing only one pro team sports league, women’s soccer’s NWSL, has begun play already. The first contest in the NWSL Challenge Cup was Saturday, June 27. 

Casual sports fans might not be entirely aware of the NWSL Challenge Cup. The entire tournament is being aired exclusively on CBS All Access, the broadcast network’s paid streaming service. Only the aforementioned opener and the final of the tournament are to be broadcast on CBS on television.

One team, the Orlando Pride, where US National Team star Alex Morgan plies her trade, has pulled themselves out of the challenge cup. The team reported a number of positive cases of COVID-19 among players and staff, and ultimately decided to not partake in the Utah-based tournament.

Staying with the sport, Major League Soccer is planning to start the “MLS is Back” Tournament at Disney’s Wide World Of Sports resort in Orlando on Wednesday, July 8. Like the NWSL, one team has already pulled out due to a large chunk of the roster testing positive for coronavirus. 

FC Dallas is the team that stayed home. Ten players and a technical staff members tested positive before the team was scheduled to travel to Orlando. 

Nashville SC, new to the league in 2020, was forced to cancel their inaugural competitive MLS contest after also reporting a litany of positive cases in the team. As of this July 7 writing, the team is still planning to play in the tournament in some capacity.

America’s second level of professional soccer, the USL Championship, starts their season on July 11. Unlike the NWSL and MLS, USL teams will be playing at their home stadiums, and dependent on local restrictions, with fans in the crowd.

Many USL teams have been approved by local governments to have 50% capacity crowds at their games. For some teams, this means a few hundred. For teams like Saint Louis FC with larger stadiums and bigger fan bases, crowds will be in the thousands as COVID-19 cases continue to climb in most states.

Teams will be limited to 4-team groups, opposed to the East/West conference format that USL Championship seasons have gone by since the league’s inception. Teams will still be travelling to and from each other’s stadiums across multiple states with varying levels of coronavirus-related restrictions.

An unfortunate truth for many teams in USL and all “minor league” sports: without butts in seats, the team goes away. As soccer leagues in the US that aren’t Major League Soccer are not supported by the US Soccer Federation financially, teams are forced into a position where they might not want to have thousands in the stands but feel they need to.

When Saint Louis FC takes the field in Fenton on July 26, they will be the only pro sports team in the St. Louis area allowing fans at games.

The USL team will not be alone in activity, as the Cardinals are currently on track to start the Major League Baseball season on July 23, hosting the Pirates. Like numerous other pro sports teams, the Cardinals have reported a handful of positive COVID-19 cases, and have had to cancel a few team practices because of it.

Major League Baseball’s return to play comes after a very contentious negotiation process where ultimately neither the MLB Players’ Association or league owners agreed at all. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred imposed the season after negotiations between owners and players fell apart. 

The plan that was chosen, a 60-game season where the players are paid at their same rate (a prorated salary) that they would be for 162 games, was first agreed upon back in March. Since then, MLB owners have attempted to negotiate more games, while paying MLB players less than the prorated salary. 

When players (understandably) balked at that proposal, owners went on an offensive saying that players needed to make sacrifices. Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt even claimed that owning a team worth $2.2 billion dollars “wasn’t actually that profitable”.

The NBA has bought into the “bubble” format, and like MLS, will be taking their talents to the Disney Wide World of Sports resort in Orlando. Also like MLS, NBA might be realizing that the confluence of COVID-19 cases shooting up in Florida and players testing positive or backing out of the bubble could prove detrimental for the league’s return.

Practice courts have already been installed in a rather gaudy convention hall at the Disney resort. NBA commissioner Adam Silver originally stated that the NBA’s bubble would be impenetrable, and “protected by security and police forces”. 

At a time when many NBA players are using their platforms to speak out about police brutality towards black people in the US, Silver’s comments came off as ignorant at best. He retracted from that position and said there would be no law enforcement involved in the bubble. 

As someone who’s watched the National Hockey League make dumb choices for over a decade now, I have to admit the sport’s plan for return has the highest chance of succeeding, and makes the most sense. 

Unlike the travelling MLB, and the bubbles of MLS and NBA, the NHL will play their playoffs entirely in Canada. Positive cases of COVID-19 are far fewer and farther between in our neighbor to the north. Canada has had fewer total cases than America’s had COVID-19 deaths. 

The NHL will split its 24-team playoff field between two “hub cities” in Toronto and Edmonton. The province Edmonton is in Alberta and has had fewer total cases of coronavirus than Florida had today, which is true basically any day you read this for a while.

Until teams get to their respective Canadian hub city, however, teams are still practicing in states where positive cases are climbing again. Or, in the Blues case, teams are partying in states where cases are on the rise. 

A group of Blues players and a coach all tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week. Contact tracing done suggests that all of them got the virus at a bar in Clayton, Missouri, an immediate suburb of St. Louis. 

While the football season wouldn’t start until September, many schools have been rocked and forced to close practices with dozens of positive cases among players and staff. Teams at all levels, college and pro, are returning to practice now with about two months before their seasons are scheduled to kick off.

Clemson football has proven to be almost a case study in how not to properly quarantine. The team has reported 37 positive cases among its players and staff. A number of schools have had dozens of cases, or, like LSU, have instructed a large number of players to self-quarantine.

Neither the NCAA nor the NFL has made any statements about a possible change in schedule, and NFL owners are pushing for fans in seats at stadiums in some way, shape or form.

I wish I could muster a snappy and witty thought about all of this and chuckle off this return for sports that will likely cost lives, but what I mostly think is “Why?”. 

Why are we even doing this? Why do we “need” sports to come back in a pandemic? Why is America alone in accepting mass COVID death as “a new normal” when other countries just actually locked down and largely mitigated the virus?

Why? Greed, at all levels. Whether it’s the guy you see yelling in a video on Facebook because some poor Walmart employee dared ask him to wear a mask, or the billionaires that own all these sports teams deciding that we “need” sports to happen for some vague idea of normalcy, greed and selfishness has driven America to a point that future historians will look back at in astonishment. 

If you, like me, want to watch sports and love sports, sports are out there, in countries that aren’t the US. For those who “want their sports back”, DVR some Korean baseball on ESPN if you miss the crack of the bat. Watch some Premier League soccer. Hell, YouTube has a wide library of past games, from all sports, I’m sure you’ve forgotten about already, just throw one on and kick back. 

We don’t “need sports” in the country that’s responsible for a quarter of the world’s total COVID deaths, and saying we do is putting lives at risk. 

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