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Bubbles And Empty Seats: How Each Pro Sport Plans To Come Back Amid Pandemic

Ian McKinnell
Getty Images

The Great Sports Freeze of 2020, due to the coronavirus outbreak, appears to be thawing. Despite increases of COVID-19 cases innearly half of the country, sports and leagues are marching ahead with plans to reopen.

This week,men's professional golf returns, without spectators, with a tournament at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. It's the first PGA Tour event since mid-March. Major League Soccer has announcedits plan for a return early next month. The NBA is full steam ahead fora July 31 restart.

Oh. And then there's baseball.

Here's an update on restart plans for major sports in this country.

Major League Baseball (MLB)

Status: Unclear. And let's bring in another sport to illustrate MLB's current situation. Think of fans at a tennis match. As they watch a rally, their heads swivel as they follow the ball from one side of the net to the other. That's what it feels like to be a baseball fan right now — watching MLB and its playersvolley proposals back and forth as they try to agree on an economic plan for restarting. The key ingredients seem to be the number of games players will play, and how much they'll get paid to play those games. It's understood by all they won't get their full salaries because there certainly won't be a traditional 162-game regular season. But while the players want more games which means more money, the owners want the opposite. The latest volley, this week, was a reported player offer ofan 89 game regular season, starting July 10th, and players would get full prorated salaries. This followed an owner proposal of 76 regular season games and players getting 75% of their prorated salaries.

Baseball fans await the next move, and head swivel.

Irony: During the sports shutdown, MLB was winning the unofficial race to restart first. Just two weeks after shutting down, players and owners locked downan economic plan to get them through the pandemic. Last month, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred detailed baseball'scomprehensive health and safety plan for reopening.

Since then, however, baseball has been mired in additional labor talks and losing the PR battle as the sides publicly bicker over money. Lots of money. And they're bickering at the worst possible time.

Washington Nationals relief pitcher Sean Doolittle acknowledged that this week.

"It's frustrating to have a public labor dispute when there's so much hardship," he said on Twitter. "I hate it. But we have an obligation to future players to do right by them. We want to play. We also have to make sure that future players won't be paying for any concessions we make."

A Creative Plan: Courtesy of WFAN producer Brian Monzo, who tweeted this baseball proposal:

"2 game season. Three [designated hitters] in the lineup. Each field has three hungry lions roaming the outfield. In the 3rd and 9th innings, the ball is lit on fire. Every player's stance must be similar toJulio Franco. 85% pay."

One must think outside the box in baseball.

The Plan (for real): While a plan for an NBA-type bubble once was discussed, it now appears if there is a season, teams would play in their own ballparks with lots of health measures in place. Teams would travel but would be advised to fly into smaller airports. On the road, players would be advised to isolate themselves at hotels.

As far as dates, both recent proposals have a July 10th start date for the regular season. The end dates differ: the player plan for 89 regular season games would end October 11th, meaning the baseball postseason wouldn't be played at the same time as the NBA playoffs. The owner's 76-game plan would end Sept. 27.

It's said there's about a week left to hammer out an agreement, or the ownerscould impose a very short season of about 50 games. Without needing the player's approval.

This week, MLB Commissioner Manfred said he's 100% sure there will be a baseball season in 2020. What that season might look like is anyone's guess.

And it might make some fans wonder, what's the point? A hugely truncated season, playing out in front of empty seats and played by angry athletes risking their health. Aren't sports supposed to divert our attention from all things rotten?

National Basketball Association (NBA)

Status: All systems go for a restart July 31. At least as much as systems can be "go" amid the uncertainties of a pandemic. Note the measured language from this month's announcement that the NBA Board of Governors approved a restart plan.

Approval "is the first formal step among many required to resume the season."

From NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, "We are hopeful of finishing the season in a safe and responsible manner based on strict protocols now being finalized with public health officials and medical experts."

The Plan: Many, but not all, of the league's 30 teams have reopened their local practice facilities for voluntary player workouts. The numbers of players at one time in a facility are limited, and those working out have to adhere to safety protocols including social distancing and wearing face masks except when on the court. Around July 8, the 22 top teams chosen to continue the season will travel to the Orlando, Fla., area for the start of what's expected to be athree-month run to finish off the interrupted season.

Teams will train and prepare for the proposed restart date of July 31. All teams will play eight games before a full playoff schedule begins. The NBA Finals will end no later than Oct. 12.

Challenges: Still many, and most have to do with trying to contain a coronavirus outbreakinside the Orlando "bubble." Will the NBA be able to enforce expected player quarantines when they arrive in Orlando — all of them in hotels at Walt Disney World? How will the NBA deal with players who havehealth issues that might make them more vulnerable? What will happen witholder head coaches who might be more at risk?

The NBA and its player's union reportedly are continuing to talk about details of how the bubble plan will work.

National Hockey League (NHL)

Status: It's also a go – minus two "small" details. The National Hockey League hasn't announced a restart date or the two "hub cities" where play will resume. There are ten cities in the running, one to host Western Conference games and one for the Eastern Conference. Each city will have secure arenas, practice facilities, hotels and local transportation for players, coaches and essential staff.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman says "we anticipate playing over the summer and into the early fall." While the uncertainty may be frustrating to hockey fans, Bettman says it's important to choose a conservative approach.

"We're not fixing dates," he said when he unveiled the NHL's plan to return, late last month, "because the schedule of our return to play will be determined both by developing circumstances and the needs of our players.

"Although we're anxious to get back on the ice, we won't do anything until we're assured by medical professionals and relevant government authorities that it's safe and prudent to do so."

The Plan: When it is deemed safe and prudent, the NHL will dive right into the playoffs. The regular season is officially over and 24 of the league's 31 teams will compete in a postseason. That's an increase from the usual 16 playoff teams. The top four teams in each conference, when the NHL paused in mid-March, will get first round byes.

National Football League (NFL)

Status: The NFL has had a "luxury" other leagues haven't: the pandemic hasn't had an impact on the actual playing of football games. NFL officials continue to say the regular season is a go, in three months. Although several teams reportedly want the September startpushed back to October.

"Moving the season back is one option that I know some teams support," says Albert Breer, senior NFL reporter for Sports Illustrated's MMQB. "It would allow for the NFL to observe how other leagues start back up, watch them do things right and wrong, and buy more time for all this stuff. But the league office hasn't been receptive at all to the idea at this point."


The Plan: A Sept. 10 regular season start. A Thursday night extravaganza in Kansas City, with the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs hosting the Houston Texans. Well, as much as it can be an extravaganza with no fans in attendance. Which is the plan at this point.

Before all that, the off-season has unfolded virtually, including thewidely praised NFL Draft. But now teams are starting to prepare for player's return to training camps. And the union is advising its players to proceedcautiously.

Major League Soccer (MLS)

Status: A green light for Major League Soccer.

The Plan: Disney World is about to get even more crowded with pro athletes. TheMLS Is Back Tournament is scheduled to start July 8 and run through Aug. 11, at the resort near Orlando where NBA teams will be competing as well.

All 26 MLS clubs will play in a World Cup-style event that includes a group stage followed by knockout rounds. And, of course, MLS guarantees the tournament "will use extensive medical protocols and a comprehensive Covid-19 testing plan developed by infectious disease experts."

The MLS regular season will then continue after the tournament.

The National Women's Soccer League (NWSL)

Status: Ready to go and excited to be the first professional league back

The Plan: The women's professional soccer league returns to the pitch at the end of the month, beginning June 27, with a 25-game tournament in Utah. Fans won't be present but nine teams will begin play with eight advancing to the quarterfinals for knockout competition. The final of the NWSL Challenge Cup will be played on July 26.

Missing The Action: at least two stars from the defending World Cup champion U.S. Women's National team reportedly won't play, including women soccer's biggest star, Megan Rapinoe. Her coach with the NWSL's OL Reign says Rapinoe will be a no show. Also, Christen Press, forward with the NWSL's Utah Royals, is not expected to play.

Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA)

Status: Unclear. The women's pro basketball league was supposed to start its season in mid-May but it was postponed.

The plan: Reports say the league is mulling a 22-game regular season, down from 36 games, starting July 24. According toESPN, games would be held at one location, the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Playoffs would end in October.

The plan is said to be tentative.

PGA Tour

Status: It's back! The best male golfers in the world are playing in the Charles Schwab Challenge this week at famed Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. It's the first PGA Tour event since March, when the Players Championship was shut down before it ended.

The Plan: As with all sports, this restart will be notable for the obvious health and safety measures. Players will get daily temperature checks. They'll be required to fill out health questionnaires, use hand sanitizer on the course and socially distance on tee boxes and greens.

Still, players and fans are excited golf is back. Fans watching on TV at least. There won't be spectators for the foreseeable future. And, bad news for casual fans – at the Colonial at least, there'll be no Tiger Woods. He's chosen not to play this reopening event.

Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour

Status: The women's pro golf tour is feeling less optimistic this week. It was announced one of its major tournaments, the Evian Championship in France, was canceled for this year. It's scheduled to return in 2021.

The Plan: Four other majors are still scheduled for this year. The Women's British Open in August; the ANA Inspiration in September and the Women's PGA Championship in October. The U.S. Women's Open was supposed to be held this month, but now is scheduled for December.

Meanwhile, the regular LPGA Tour is scheduled to restart July 23 with a tournament in Ohio.


Status: Those baseball fans mentioned at the start of this article, swiveling their heads back and forth? That's the closest we'll get to tennis, at the top levels of the men's and women's games, at least until the end of July. The men's top Tour, the ATP, and the women's, the WTA have shut down — they'll reportedly update their plans this month. The most prominent casualty among the events canceled? Wimbledon. The sport's legendary grass court event, scheduled to begin at the end of this month, was called off for the first time since World War II.

The Plan: Two other major championships still are planned. The French Open was rescheduled from May until September; the U.S. Open is scheduled for its original start on Aug. 24. The Australian Open ended in early February, before the coronavirus was rampaging worldwide. Novak Djokovic won the men's title; 21-year-old Sophia Kenin became the youngest Australian Open singles champion since Maria Sharapova won in 2008.

Loss of Star Power: Regardless of whether the men's tour restarts this year, Roger Federer won't be part of it. The most graceful and complete player in the men's game (notice the absence of "arguably") and the record 20-time Grand Slam winner, announced he'll skip the rest of this season because he had to have an additional"quick procedure" on his ailing right knee. He says he'll be back for the start of the 2021 tour. Still, this year won't be as much fun to watch without him. On top of that, tennis insider Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated says there's talk that the game's other big stars — Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams --aren't overly enthusiastic about resuming play this year because of the still present pandemic.

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Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on