Minutes before tip-off on March 11, the announcer calmly addressed the jam-packed Thunder Chesapeake Energy Arena, home of the Oklahoma City Thunder: “Due to unforeseen circumstances, the game tonight has been postponed.”
As he tried to continue, fans screamed. “You’re all safe,” he assured the fans as they exited the arena. He spoke truthfully — most of the people in the building were perfectly safe, except for a few right near the benches and maybe some media members who had been close to players.
Minutes before tip-off on Wednesday, Rudy Gobert — center for the Utah Jazz — reported he tested positive for COVID-19. Four minutes later, the NBA announced they would be suspending the season for at least thirty days. Fans across the country went to sleep on Wednesday night angry and disappointed. Over the next two days, things got worse. The MLB season was delayed; MLS and the PGA tour were suspended; The NHL was “on pause.”
By Thursday, fans across the country understood the severity of the problem. COVID-19 had infected American sports and The New York Post announced it was, “the day the sports world stopped.”
As the U.S. government announces new requirements and regulations concerning COVID-19 almost every day, fans are wondering if their leagues will ever be able to finish the season. For the NBA and the NHL, leagues that were nearing the end of the regular season and gearing up for playoffs, will a champion be crowned?
The leagues listened to the experts and reported to their fans: there is no definitive plan for a return. Each time new regulations are released, officials scramble to set approximation dates for when normal activities can resume, just to have new information destroy their timetables. For example, on March 16, the NHL announced a self-quarantine period through March 27. On March 31, the league extended their self-isolation period for players and staff through April 15 in response to Trump’s extension of social distancing guidelines through the end of April.
Commissioners of the NBA and NHL, Adam Silver and Gary Bettman, respectively, have each emphasized that safety is their number one concern. Neither league intends to move forward in any fashion until they know that it is safe — for their athletes, as well as team and league personnel — to do so.
But, when the NHL and NBA do resume, should they pick up where they left off, or jump right into the playoffs? Well that depends on who you ask, and probably whether or not their team held a playoff position going into the pause.
“You try to get in as many games as you can, but I wouldn’t mind starting right at the playoffs,” said Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.
Crosby’s Penguins hold the third-place spot in the Metropolitan division. Marc Staal of the New York Rangers, who currently sit just outside of a playoff spot, had a different take.
“You want to keep the integrity of what we’re doing intact,” he said. “You want to get as many games as possible to get your true tournament and whether that’s [adding] a few more teams or a play-in [game].”
The NBA is toying with their own ideas regarding how the season should pick back up. One idea is to hold a revised tournament in Las Vegas that would lead right into the playoffs. By holding the rest of the season in one location, the NBA could eliminate the need for travel and thus reduce health risks.
“I believe we’re going to be able to salvage at least some portion of the season,” Commissioner Silver said in an interview with ESPN.
The question of whether to include some sort of play-in tournament and how to format such a tournament is at the discretion of the league, but the ultimate goal, and what each league views as most important, is crowning a champion at the end of the playoffs.
The question of how to resume also depends in large part on logistics. Rescheduling dates to play in arenas, which will have backed up schedules, as well as agreeing on airtime with the networks will be nothing short of a logistical nightmare for the NBA and NHL. Additionally, there is concern about a serious diminishment in quality of play, once games resume, as athletes will be jumping back into a season after being stuck in their homes for months.
In order to ensure that games are competitive, the leagues may have to consider a training camp period, where teams can hold workouts and practices before games pick back up. Of course, this would chew up even more time before the season can officially resume.
Both leagues have acknowledged that playing into the summer is a very real possibility, but this brings its own challenges. Continuing into the summer will necessitate offseason events, such as the draft and free agency, to be pushed back into late summer and possibly even early fall. Events such as these can only be pushed so far back without interrupting the following season.
As the duration of the pause lags on, financial pressures mount for both the NBA and NHL, in addition to all the other leagues on hold. Without a steady stream of revenue coming in via T.V., ticketing and sponsorships, both leagues have been forced to reduce employee salaries. For individual clubs, financial woes can be even more costly. While some owners and players have pledged to donate their own income to compensate those temporarily out of work, other arena employees have lost their jobs. Part-time employees of the Boston Bruins and their arena, TD Garden, were laid off once the season paused. Although Delaware North, the owner and operator of TD Garden has pledged that these measures are temporary, many workers are momentarily trapped without pay and are unable to find substitute work amid the outbreak.
Another concern for leagues is how to keep fans interested in the absence of games. ESPN will be airing a players-only 2k tournament beginning on April 3, and NBC presented “Hockey Week in America” at the end of March, broadcasting some of the most thrilling games from the last decade to deprived fans. Individual players have taken to social media to keep fans entertained, showing everything from unique at-home workouts, to incredible trick shots and funny family videos.
One can only wonder if, how and when, seasons across all major sports leagues might resume. Financial woes to the side, these leagues are a dominant feature of American culture. Fans follow all year to see their captain awarded the Stanley Cup or the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy.
“People need something to rally around right now,” said Dallas Mavericks Owner Mark Cuban. “(People) need something to get excited about … something to cheer for. People need sports.”