How professional sports are working through a pandemic
By Zach Worden, Sports Editor
Despite professional sports — along with most of the world — being forced to the sidelines in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, professional leagues have worked their way back to action in many different ways. With no fans permitted to attend games, leagues started looking for a safe way for their teams to play without contracting or transmitting COVID-19.
Some leagues have chosen host cities to operate as a “bubble” in hopes of keeping their players safe in a location where they can minimize contact with others while having the freedom to move around. Meanwhile, other leagues are hoping that stricter guidelines and no fans will suffice for keeping their players’ exposure levels low.
Here, we will take a look at the steps being taken by four different leagues to ensure the return to play is done safely, as well as some of the protocols involved.
After abruptly being forced to cancel their season on March 11, the NBA decided to bring 22 of their 30 teams to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., to complete their regular season and play their regular 16-team postseason.
Teams arrived at the Orlando campus on July 7, with the intention of the first regular-season games being played on July 30. Every player, coach and staff member had to be isolated in their hotel rooms for up to 48 hours once they arrived in Orlando, until they received two negative COVID-19 tests.
Using the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex — which includes three different arenas — NBA players and coaches, limited media members and NBA personnel could come together in one location without risking the spread of COVID-19. No players have tested positive since the very first round of results came back on July 13.
The NHL conducted their situation similarly to the NBA. Opting for a bubble, the NHL brought 24 teams to two hub locations — Edmonton and Toronto. The teams arrived on July 29, and games started Aug. 1.
With Western Conference teams reporting to Edmonton and Eastern Conference squads to Toronto, the NHL decided to hop right into their Stanley Cup playoffs. The top four teams in each conference competed in a round-robin to determine their seeding for the playoffs, while teams in the fifth through 12th positions competed in a best-of-five series to round out the playoff field.
Players are undergoing daily testing, as well as temperature and symptom checks while they are in the bubble. Everyone must wear masks whenever they are outside their hotel rooms, and social distancing must be maintained “in all circumstances in which it is feasible,” per the league’s protocols.
After starting and eventually being forced to cancel the league’s annual Spring Training taking place in Arizona and Florida, the MLB faced a different challenge than the NBA or NHL. Since they hadn’t started their regular season at the time of shutdown, they had to figure out a way to play both a full season and then begin their postseason.
With a regular 162-game season inevitably being impossible, the league and player’s association agreed to a 60-game format with expanded playoffs.
The league did not pick a host city like the NBA and NHL; instead, they are having all their teams play at their home ballparks (except the Toronto Blue Jays who have taken a temporary home in Buffalo) with a limited travel schedule.
Unfortunately for the MLB, there have been multiple breakouts of COVID-19 within individual teams, which has forced those teams’ schedules to change. Missed games have been rescheduled to later dates as the MLB hopes that every team will complete their 60-game schedule.
The MLS restarted their regular season on Aug. 12, with teams playing at their home stadiums as well. The league hosted a single-site tournament in Orlando at the same ESPN Wide World of Sports campus as the NBA. The tournament had two teams withdraw due to several positive COVID-19 cases being reported.
Once the tournament wrapped up on Aug. 11, the teams returned to their regular-season schedule, leading to an expanded 18-team playoff format and culminating in the Dec. 12 MLS Cup.
Testing protocols have played an essential role in ensuring the health of all teams. Clubs have taken chartered flights and buses, and for most road trips, they arrive in the host city on match day and leave that evening.