Professional Sports Prepare to Return Amid COVID-19 Pandemic


Denis Adriana Macias

Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida will be the bubble site for the NBA and MLS. For the next few months, players will stay on the resort and complete their seasons in the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Photo courtesy of Denis Adriana Macias.

In the early stages of quarantine, sports fans were deprived of the entertainment that had been a fixture in their lives. Supporters had been yearning for sports to return at some point, as it could provide a sense of normalcy to their lives in such strange times. Now, their prayers are being answered, and sports are beginning to make their long-awaited comebacks. While some leagues around the world have been back in action for some time, associations in America are just starting to get underway, a welcome sight for the many sports-deprived fans across the United States. After months of being shut down, professional sports leagues are kicking off once again, providing a distraction from the pandemic for fans everywhere.

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) was the first American sports league to reopen, and had a successful month-long Challenge Cup conclude on Sunday, July 26. Hosting the tournament in an isolated “bubble” located in Utah, the NWSL became the first American league to complete their season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the upstart Houston Dash, a club that had never even made the playoffs before, claiming their first title in franchise history as they defeated the Chicago Red Stars 2-0. Even though an entire team dropped out prior to the tournament, the NWSL had a wildly successful month of action, earning record ratings and even announcing a new expansion team backed by actor Natalie Portman. After the quick and relatively smooth completion of the season, the NWSL has emerged as a blueprint for other leagues to restart.

Other leagues, such as the National Basketball Association (NBA), Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), Major League Soccer (MLS) and National Hockey League (NHL) are also resuming play in bubbles. The NBA and MLS will play behind closed doors in Orlando, Florida, at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World. Closeby, the WNBA will play their season at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. The NHL will have two bubble cities – Edmonton hosting the Western Conference teams, and Toronto hosting Eastern Conference squads. 

The NBA bubble is comprised of 22 teams – 13 from the Western Conference and nine from the Eastern Conference – still in the playoff hunt. Starting Thursday, July 30, teams will play eight games to determine playoff seeding, and the playoffs will begin on Monday, Aug. 17. Meanwhile, the MLS is hosting a World Cup-style tournament for their season, with teams divided into groups and playing group stage matches until the knockout stage began on Saturday, July 25. The WNBA’s 12 teams will play 22 games running from Saturday, July 25 to Saturday, Sept. 12, and the playoffs will start shortly after. The WNBA season is dedicated to social justice issues and honoring the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as advocating for justice for Breonna Taylor; both the NBA and WNBA are displaying the phrase “Black Lives Matter” on courts during games. Finally, the NHL will conduct a 24-team tournament, with a round robin mini-tourney played by the top four teams to set the top seeds and a qualifying round to flesh out the rest of the playoff field. From there, starting on Tuesday, Aug. 11, the 16-team playoffs will be played to determine the winner of the Stanley Cup.

The NBA’s execution of the bubble has been widely praised for keeping players safe but also happy, despite coronavirus cases skyrocketing in Florida. Since players, coaches, and other team personnel have moved in, they’ve found many ways to pass time when not working out and practicing while also giving fans an inside look at life inside the bubble. Fishing has been the most popular activity so far, even if it is all catch-and-release, and other activities such as cornhole, golf, and bowling have also been favored, and other amenities include a players’ lounge and barbershop. Content creation has been an effective way of connecting fans to the bubble, with players such as Philadelphia 76ers rookie Matisse Thybulle, Los Angeles Lakers center JaVale McGee, and Denver Nuggets guard Troy Daniels uploading vlogs to YouTube. Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has a recording studio set up in his room, and podcasts from other players are seemingly launching soon as well. While some players have made mistakes, such as accidentally leaving to pick up takeout, the bubble has gone well for the most part.

The MLS has also seen some success with the MLS is Back Tournament format. Despite two clubs, FC Dallas and Nashville SC, dropping out before the tournament due to multiple positive tests, the tournament has gone relatively smoothly. Being the first major men’s American sports league to return since the cancellation of sports due to the coronavirus pandemic, the league has reported zero positive COVID-19 cases across all teams in the bubble eight consecutive times over a span of over two weeks. However, early reviews of the WNBA bubble, or “wubble”, as it’s been called, on the IMG Academy campus were mixed, with issues mainly focusing on lodging and food service. Videos on Twitter posted by ESPN’s Kayla Johnson detail some of the conditions players have dealt with, including a raggedy-looking laundry room and a worm on a room’s floor. Conversely, many athletes have defended the WNBA and have said their conditions, including expansive housing and a wide variety of food, have been ideal. For the NHL, different teams are staying at different hotels, and the early responses from players have been positive. The league is providing plenty of amenities to keep players satisfied; in Edmonton, player lounges have been set up, as well as a golf simulator and bubble hockey. In Toronto, players have access to BMO Field, the home of soccer club Toronto FC, the NBA’s Toronto Raptors’ practice court, and a tennis court. In both cities, players are allowed to leave their hotels, but walkways are fenced off for players. In addition, there are plenty of ping pong tables in the hubs, staples of hockey locker rooms.

Meanwhile, as Major League Baseball (MLB) is getting underway, having started on Thursday, July 23, the league is not utilizing a bubble strategy like other American leagues have. The MLB will play a shortened 60-game season as opposed to the traditional 162-game season, and travel will be minimized greatly due to a regionally-based schedule for every team. There will be no fans in stadiums, and different on-field rules for this year include the National League implementing the designated hitter for the first time ever and extra innings beginning with a runner on second base. There will also be an expanded playoffs, with 16 teams qualifying instead of the usual ten squads. However, the league is already running into health concerns. The Miami Marlins have had at least 18 known coronavirus cases amongst players and personnel in the last five days and are quarantining in Philadelphia after their opening series against the Philadelphia Phillies. The MLB has postponed their games until Monday, Aug. 3. The Phillies were initially scheduled to play the New York Yankees, but both teams’ schedules have also been altered. The Marlins are the only team to have cases in on-field personnel, though. The health of not only Miami, but also every team as they travel from city to city as opposed to being confined in a bubble will be something to watch as the season progresses.

The status of football in the fall, though, is up in the air. There are concerns about football seasons even happening due to the amount of contact involved in football and no apparent plans of a bubble for teams to play in. The National Football League (NFL) and the league’s Players Association have agreed to play a season next year, but it is more uncertain with college football, due to each conference making their own decisions in regard to the upcoming year. Multiple conferences have agreed to play conference-only schedules, and the Ivy League cancelled fall sports entirely for this year. In addition, multiple players have opted out of the NFL season, and the first college player, Virginia Tech defensive back Caleb Farley, has opted out as well, citing preparation for next year’s NFL Draft and uncertain health conditions as reasons. With the college season in doubt, more student-athletes may also opt out in order to prepare to go pro or to not risk their health. 

Internationally, different leagues are taking different routes to resuming play as well. European soccer leagues, such as England’s Premier League, have completed their seasons or are at the ends of their seasons, as the majority of these leagues started before American sports, and these domestic leagues have progressed after the restart without much trouble. The UEFA Champions League, Europe’s biggest club competition, will have an alternate format – as it is already partially through the opening round of the knockout stages, the second legs of unfinished fixtures will be played at the home team’s stadium, and then the rest of the knockouts will be played in Lisbon, Portugal. From the quarterfinals onwards, each matchup will be played as only one game as opposed to the standard two-legged fixture. In Taiwan, baseball is starting to be played with fans after originally playing in front of empty stadiums due to the country’s effective methods taken to control the coronavirus. 

As sports return to action, they will prepare to play seasons unlike any we’ve ever seen before. Playing in front of fake fans and empty stadiums will be strange, but the return of beloved pastimes for many are welcome sights. But while fans won’t be able to see their teams in person, the fact that sports are restarting at all is a sight for sore eyes. The wait is over; sports are finally back.