Pro Sports Make a Game Plan for Returning to Play

Sports fans, the countdown can finally begin.

As the country takes its first steps out of a coronavirus-induced slumber, plans for the re-emergence of pro sports are surfacing. NASCAR, golf, boxing and UFC have all returned to play without spectators, and WBEZ sports reporter Cheryl Raye-Stout says that when other sports like basketball, baseball and hockey return, fans probably won’t be able to get in on the action there, either.

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“We were talking to Matt Nagy today and they’re preparing their team, if they have a training camp, to practice without fans,” she said. “Right now, it’s a no, but things can always change.”

Currently, most NFL facilities are open for their teams, but Raye-Stout reports that per head coach Nagy, the Bears are still not at Halas Hall, and negotiations are underway for full training camp details.

While the NFL is working on getting its plans in place, the NBA has developed a robust plan for resuming the coronavirus-shortened season. Unfortunately for Chicago Bulls fans, it’s one that leaves the Bulls out, since they weren’t in playoff contention when the season was suspended. But Raye-Stout says they are trying to keep their players active during the long break.

“The Bulls and the seven other teams that were left out, they’ve asked the league if there could be some sort of summer camp for them to keep their players motivated, to physically be OK, because they’re not going to start the next season until around Dec. 1, that’s the tentative date,” she said. “So that’s a long time to be idle for the players. And also with the Bulls, you’ve got a new front office, they’re trying to figure out what they’re going to do with the head coach, so this could be an interesting scenario for the Bulls right now to figure out what they do next.”

The NBA’s plan resumes play on July 31 with 22 of 30 teams playing – the 16 teams in playoff positions and the six teams within six games of a playoff spot. Players will be tested for COVID-19 every night and the games will all be played in Orlando at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, which will act as a campus for all NBA games, practices and housing. Teams will play a 16-day regular season with eight games followed by playoffs, with games every other day in best-of-seven series. The current plan for the NBA 2020-21 season is to open training camps in November and begin games in December, but that’s not set in stone.

The NHL is also in the planning stages to resume the hockey season with a 24-team playoff format with the top 12 teams in each conference, which includes the Chicago Blackhawks. The remaining seven teams will enter the draft lottery. Two hub cities will host each conference for round-robin play for the top four teams in each conference to determine seeding, a qualifying round for the remaining teams, and playoffs with the remaining 16 teams. Dates are not yet determined. This week, the NHL is allowing a maximum of six players at training facilities. 

“They want to get going … end of July, early August, so they said if they have players that tested positive, they’ll just quarantine them and see what happens after that,” said Raye-Stout.

But even as summer is well underway, the boys of summer are still nowhere close to returning to the diamond. Negotiations for a shortened season have ground to a halt primarily over money disputes, and Raye-Stout says they’re the sport most in danger of losing their fans.

“Baseball’s in trouble. There’s no doubt about it,” she said. “This reminds me of what happened in 1994 when they had the strike but this is even more so because you’ll have so many other sports that would be active at the same time that they would be. So people may pull their interest over there, to hockey, to the NBA.”

The latest proposal from MLB is a 76-game season with players getting 75% of their already prorated salaries beginning in July and running through the end of October, with playoff bonuses. The players have yet to accept this plan, and the longer it takes to negotiate a plan, the likelier it is a step down to a 48-game season will end up being the fallback.

Raye-Stout says she’s unsure if that will be enough for fans to tune in. “Baseball has got to get this right. They have been losing fans so much over the last several years … so this could be a death knell for them.”

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