The comeback of MLB, NFL or NBA in USA will not be easy like combat sports across the country.
Pro sports events are inching back into American life. Last weekend, the UFC held its first event in the U.S. since the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak began in the US, in a near empty arena in Jacksonville, Florida. Though one fighter on the UFC 249 fight card with two of his cornermen tested positive for the virus before the event, UFC 249 carried on. NASCAR will hold its first pandemic-era race this weekend in Darlington, North Carolina, with safety measures in place.
But the comeback of MLB, NBA or NFL (Big Three), the major team sports leagues, would mark more of a return to normalcy. Football teams, Baseball teams and basketball teams in America are the part of the civic fabric of municipalities across the country. Players are beloved by millions of people. The return of baseball league, in particular, carries special significance. Baseball is still US’s national pastime, the sport of summer season, the daily background rhythm of American life. And the sport is working towards its return hard and soul.
The owners of MLB have approved a tentative plan that calls for an 82-game season in this year — instead of the typical 162-game slate — to begin in early July, 2020. No fans would be permitted to watch live in stadium, at least not at the beginning of the season. Where allowed, all games will be played in home stadiums. But teams could only play against teams in their divisions, plus regional interleague rivalries; e.g. National League Central teams can play in American League Central teams.
In a move of the league there sure to upset some of the National League purists, all of the teams would use the designated hitter to reduce and minimize the risk of pitcher injuries. Meanwhile, the playoffs of baseball would be expanded from five teams to seven in each league. Also, active rosters would be expanded, to 30 players plus a 20-man taxi squad with it, since Minor League Baseball could effectively be called cancels this year.
Players union of the baseball and the owners are currently negotiating the rescheduled plan. The economics are very much sure to be a sticking of this point.
The owners of the baseball teams are considering a 50-50 split of revenues from this season with the players, while the baseball players say they’ve already agreed to a prorated revised salary structure (in the case of a reduced 82 game season, they would receive around half of their contracted 2020 wages which the signed). Since the gate receipts reportedly account for anywhere from 30-40% of the overall revenues, a 50-50 split of revenues from a shortened season this year with no fans will almost certainly result in a significant pay cut for the baseball players.
Aside economics, the new plan has some other potential complications. For example, Los Angeles County has signaled that stay-at-home orders could last for another three months from now — so what do the LA Dodgers do now? Canada requires a mandatory 14-day quarantine for any asymptomatic travelers returning to the country.
So, can the Toronto Blue Jays play home games at all? All the team could play at its spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida, though that training plan would increase the travel burden for many American as well as National League teams in the eastern divisions based in the Northeast, New England, and Mid-Atlantic of USA.
“This plan sounds possible,” said Lee Igel who is the clinical associate professor at the Preston Robert Tisch Institute for Global Sport of the NYU’s School Of Professional Studies, and also a member of an advisory panel consulting mayors on the safe reopening of sports and recreation in US. “But when you start to lay things out, you hit natural stopping points where you go, ‘oh, wait a minute here.’”
Testing is the key sticking point. “I think a plan like this would have to be paired with daily testing,” Emory University in Atlanta’s epidemiologist Zachary Binney says “I really don’t see how you can even begin to talk about something like that being done safely with testing any less frequent than that.”
The sports events like the WWE or UFC take place intermittently, in one centralized arena with no audience. NASCAR races are the weekly plan, which is also at a specific track. So, it’s easier to test all the participants for COVID-19 in WWE, UFC and NASCAR. But baseball is a daily activity game in stadium which should be taking place in up to 15 different facilities across the country, plus Canada. Each of this team has dozens of players, coaches and support staff.
Therefore, Daily testing for COVIS-19 will require a considerable high investment in a country that’s already falling short of requirements to safely reopen — The Harvard Global Health Institute says the that United States of America needs to be conducting 900,000 tests per day; The President of United State Donald Trump said on Monday that the U.S. is only doing 300,000 tests daily now.
Any tests given to the players in the interest of restarting a big season risks resulting in fewer tests for others. “The problem is going to be, will there be enough testing available for the general public?” the infectious disease specialist at the Baylor College of Medicine Jill Weatherhead. “Will there be enough testing to allocate to sporting events to keep the players safe?”
All baseball players will also be returning to their homes from the ballpark, increasing the risk that they might carry the virus of the disease from the locker room to their baseball communities, and vice-versa. And though the MLB plan strives to reduce travel as much as possible they can, but the teams will still have to shuttle from city to city across the country. “It’s going to potentially be an awful lot of moving people from areas that are hotter with virus to areas that have fewer cases,” says Binney. “So how are the areas with fewer cases going to feel about that? You raise the risk of possibly seeing epidemics in new areas.”
Sean Doolittle, Washington Nationals relief pitcher, took to social media to express skepticism about the return plan of MLB. “It feels like we’ve zoomed past the most important aspect of any MLB restart plan: health protections for players, families, staff, stadium workers and the workforce it would require to resume a season,”
he wrote on last Monday with introducing a Twitter thread worth reading in its entirety. “It feels like the conversation about an MLB restart has shifted to the economic issues and that’s really frustrating,” After that, Doolittle also wrote yesterday. “Until there’s a vaccine, let’s focus on keeping everyone as safe as possible & minimizing the risks so we can play baseball.”
Discussions between owners and players of baseball will continue despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the uncertainty it brings. “We’re not seeing massive declines across the country,” Weatherhead says. “To make predictions and plan what is going to happen on July 1 is not possible.”
The benefits of baseball’s comeback in field can’t be discounted at all. Playing baseball would offer quarantined fans across the country, many of them already struggling whither economically or otherwise, welcome psychic rewards. Even without fans, baseball league would offer communities a financial lift with it: gameday jobs are at stake now. It is not to be mentioned that the symbolic importance of the return of America’s pastime. Some pre-pandemic normalcy would be awfully nice to recapture nowadays.
However, any plan is at the mercy of how the coronavirus acts across dozens of MLB markets. “There are no good answers here,” says Binney. “You’re taking on a lot of risk with this plan.”