4 major leagues return to sports in the age of the pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down live sports back in March, uncertainty loomed about how and in what capacity they would return. Six months later, fans are finally back on their couches fervently cheering for their favorite squads. Due to virus-spreading concerns, however, stadiums and arenas around the world lack one defining element: fans in the stands. Nonetheless, leagues have not given up, and so far, sports fans have been blessed with some of the most exciting play in recent memory.

Both professional basketball and hockey have been finishing out their 2019–20 seasons since late July in a “bubble” format. The NBA invited the 22 best teams out of 30 to a sports complex near Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

 “It kind of feels like when I was back in high school where you have everything together,” Orlando Magic guard Evan Fournier said in an interview with ESPN. “You have where we stay at, our rooms, then we have the lunch area, dinner and the practice facility is like right there. Everything is close. There’s a little bit of that Olympic Village kind of a feeling.”

While the players are reminded of their childhood days through this experience, the outcomes of the NBA bubble have also been nothing short of ones we would expect from a child playing a basketball video game.

Two of the presumptive favorites to win the NBA championship, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Clippers, have surprisingly been knocked out of the second round by upstarts in the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets, respectively. One of the other remaining favorites, the Lebron James-led Los Angeles Lakers, appear to have a clear path to the championship, but anything can happen.

The NHL boasted two separate bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton for its best East and West teams, respectively. Currently, the four remaining semifinalists are the Las Vegas Golden Knights, Dallas Stars, Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Islanders, who are all in Edmonton to play for the coveted Stanley Cup. 

According to Stars interim coach Rick Bowness, the bubbles have been mentally challenging, especially since there is no freedom of movement. He cites the monotony of playing and going back to the hotel, which is walking distance from the arena, as obstacles that may not seem significant on the surface, but is certainly testing the mental toughness of all those involved.

While players in bubbles struggle with these issues, professional football and baseball both opted out of a bubble plan and instead are hosting games inside normal team arenas, albeit with limited fans for the NFL and no fans for the MLB. 

Although a bubble environment would have been safer for containing COVID-19, there were two reasons why the leagues elected not to go with that option. First, both MLB and the NFL were starting their seasons, not finishing the end of them like the NBA and NHL, so the amount of time and money needed to spend on potential MLB and NFL bubbles would have been significantly higher. Secondly, the number of people involved in NFL and MLB teams is extremely large, so it would have been much harder to control the virus even in a closed environment.

MLB, which normally starts its season in March and ends with the World Series in October, fast-tracked its schedule in order to start in July while ending when it normally does. The risk that MLB took by not instituting a bubble initially looked like it wasn’t going to pay off. Outbreaks from the Miami Marlins and other teams caused the league to reassess its plans.

However, after postponing some games, the season has gone on, and as of now, positive tests are few and far between. In addition, the playoffs, which will start at the end of this month, will be played in a bubble, which bodes well for virus safety.

The NFL kicked off its season last Thursday, and while COVID-19 concerns remain real due to the fact that teams are still traveling to play across the country, the league seems to be doing well. According to Dr. Allen Sills, who is the NFL’s chief medical officer, everybody who is involved with the league, including players and staff, are required to wear a tracking device at all times to be able to assess risks in distancing behaviors and detect how the virus may potentially be spread. 

Tracking will allow potential safety issues from travel to be spotted quickly. In addition, the NFL is also one of the few leagues in which some teams have a limited fan presence in their arenas. These procedures may be able to help detect whether having fans indeed has a significant impact on the spread of COVID-19. This could be a case for leagues who are eagerly looking to bring back fans soon.

Fortunately, these complex logistical concerns do not apply as much to individual sports such as tennis and golf, where the numbers of people involved are far lower. Both the U.S. Open in New York and the PGA Championship in San Francisco were able to operate almost normally, with the exception of no fans. However, this seeming normality has not stopped there from being unique outcomes.

Novak Djokovic, who was the clear favorite to win the U.S. Open especially after many of the top players dropped due to injury or COVID-19 concerns, was unexpectedly booted from the tournament after he accidentally hit a ball in frustration that struck a line judge in the throat. That set up a clear path to the title for many who were desperate for their first Grand Slam. The one who wanted it the most was Austria’s Dominic Thiem who beat Germany’s Alexander Zverev in a thrilling five-set match. In the PGA Championship, 23-year old American Colin Morikawa beat out household golf names such as Jason Day, Bubba Watson and Tiger Woods, to win his first major title.

During the long months when us sports fans were deprived, all we asked for was some semblance of a game or team to root for. We haven’t just gotten that, but we have a return of the excitement of sports that we get to savor. We should be beyond grateful. Long live the spirit of competition!