The leaders of the nation’s largest sports leagues began April on a conference call with President Donald Trump and finished the month on another call with the White House’s medical experts.
Officially, the question is whether to play or not to play. Realistically, the question is whether to be bold or lay low.
When it comes to re-starting society in the shadow of a pandemic, safety is obviously the greatest concern. When it comes to the sports world, another consideration is almost as powerful and vexing:
What level of risk, and wrath, are owners willing to incur to play a game?
President Trump has had a sooner-than-later perspective on re-starting the sports calendar, but league commissioners seem cognizant of the potential public backlash if they act too quickly.
This is why they have been moving forward with baby steps. This is why so many ideas have been floated anonymously. Before testing the temperature of a single athlete, they appear intent on taking the temperature of a nation.
In a move that could be described as either compassionate or shrewd, the four major leagues — MLB, the NFL, the NHL and the NBA — have avoided specific timetables while letting other sports test the waters first.
So NASCAR, with its minimal contact between competitors, announced this week it would begin racing again in Darlington, S.C., on May 17 with no one in the bleachers. The PGA Tour also is also planning spectator-less events beginning June 11 in Fort Worth, Texas.
Make no mistake, there is money to be made even without fans in stadiums and arenas. The NFL draft proved that last week with television ratings on ESPN that were 16 percent higher than the year before. Horse racing also has stayed afloat the past two months without spectators, by getting a small cut of online wagering and Internet pay-per-view.
While TV revenue will not come close to replacing the money lost due to postponements and cancellations in hockey, basketball and baseball, it could stave off economic disaster while keeping fans tethered to their teams.
How will it all work once sports leaders decide it is acceptable to resume?
First of all, there is no talk of fans returning anytime soon. Beyond that, there will be a sliding scale of normalcy depending on the sport and the level of physical contact. Hockey and basketball were nearing their postseasons and, thus, are in the biggest rush to get back into action. That means they likely will have to make the largest adjustments.
The NHL seems prepared to limit games, at least initially, to four hubs representing each division. The league could have 20 days or so for training camp, two weeks to finish a shortened regular season, all within divisions to limit travel, then a postseason that may stretch into September or beyond depending on whether they begin gearing up in late May or early June.
The league seems willing to delay the start of the 2020-21 season to get this season completed. Part of the calculation is the longer they delay next season, the more likely they’ll be able to have fans in arenas on opening night.
Baseball is not quite so rushed, and may attempt to replicate a normal season with half the number of games. Teams likely will play in their own stadiums with schedules that will emphasize limited travel. For cities that have been virus hot spots — such as New York and Seattle — teams may begin the regular season at their spring training stadiums in Florida and Arizona.
Like the NHL, baseball seems willing to extend the postseason calendar, with the possibility of having a neutral-site World Series in a domed stadium. (And, no, Tropicana Field probably wouldn’t be a major contender if baseball goes this route. The league prefers to showcase new stadiums, which would make Texas a strong possibility.)
The NFL is likely to be the least affected, provided any second wave of the coronavirus is contained. The Sports Business Journal reported that the NFL is considering contingency dates for Super Bowl 55, scheduled to be played Feb. 7 in Tampa, and that seems logical.
But the NFL is not likely to go too far down that road until figuring out the probability of starting the regular season on time in September. If the schedule is not released as expected by May 9, that may be the first indication that contingency plans will be necessary.
Is it all worth it?
Certainly not, if virus testing is not widely available or hospitals are straining to meet demand. But if the curve continues to flatten around the country, you can probably expect announcements about training camps and schedules to begin trickling out this month.
For a sports fan, the longest day of the year is typically the one after baseball’s All-Star Game. It is the one day on the calendar that the four major sports — as well as college sports — are all silent.
In 2020, that longest day began March 12.
As we move into May, we still await its end.