US sports leagues eye potential return from pandemic, but with few known details

A ticket window outside of Fenway Park is closed. The NBA, NHL, MLB, NCAA and MLS, among other properties, have all announced cancellations or postponements of events because of COVID-19. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

In some ways, operating a sports league can mirror a math equation, even given the emotional nature of the business and fan passion that exist at its core. There are certain business goals to reach, and finite numbers of games and potential victories on the schedule, available seats to sell, television households, or budgetary resources in existence.

From there, it’s largely a matter of trying to hit those goals within the confines of those and other known parameters. Most, if not all, of the variables in the metaphorical algebra equation are known.

For many US sports properties, however, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic resembles trying to solve that equation when it’s essentially nothing but unsolved x’s.

“Baseball guys don’t like the unknown,” said Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner, making a comment that could easily apply to almost any another sport. “We can deal with pretty much everything – and have. But we don’t like the unknown. And this is right in the wheelhouse of that uncertainty, and with about as much seriousness as can be,” O’Conner says.

That said, each of the major US sports properties are still trying to lay the groundwork for a potential return, despite not knowing when that could be and what the conditions will be to do so safely for all concerned.

Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner

Within each league, schedulers and other executives are feverishly working on one contingency plan after another, seeking to create sets of guidelines that will allow each property to move as quickly as possible once some semblance of certainty arrives from government officials to this most uncertain situation.

That desire for certainty is battling hard up against the US becoming the country with the most reported Covid-19 cases in the world. But the planning work nonetheless continues among the various sports leagues.

The National Football League is preparing for a full 2020 season, and has the current relative luxury of its regular season not starting until September and the public health crisis currently hitting in the middle of its offseason.

But the NFL already is converting its 2020 Draft – which was previously planned to be held in Las Vegas with a massive extravaganza along the city’s famed Strip drawing hundreds of thousands of fans – into a virtual event. The league is still moving forward with that event, set for April 23-25, that is a key component of its offseason calendar. But it is requiring team personnel to work from their respective homes.

“We are operating in an environment unlike anything we have experienced before, one that requires flexibility, patience, and cooperation,” said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

The NFL is also considering shifting some offseason player workouts and other functions into a similar remote format, and already did the same with its recent Annual Meeting for owners.

“Our planning, our expectation is fully directed at playing a full season and starting on schedule,” said Jeff Pash, NFL executive vice-president and general counsel. “Just as we did in 2019. Am I certain? I’m not certain I’ll be here tomorrow, but I’m planning on it.”

The NFL’s 2020 plans even include maintaining previously-booked international games set for England and Mexico.

“I expect that international games will be part of our schedule for this year,” Pash said. “We’re optimistic just as we expect conditions in the United States to permit playing a full season that will be the case for our international partners as well.”

Major League Baseball, which saw its Spring Training cut short and the start of the 2020 regular season delayed, is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance recommending against staging any large public gatherings until at least mid-May, as are many other US sports properties. From there, MLB is eyeing several resumption scenarios for not long after that point, though will take heed of advice from public health officials.

“My optimistic outlook is that at some point in May, we’ll be gearing back up,” said Rob Manfred, MLB commissioner, to ESPN. “I think the goal would be to get as many regular-season games as possible and think creatively about how we can accomplish that goal.”

In the meantime, MLB has struck a vital deal with the MLB Players Association covering a wide range of pandemic-related logistics, including player payments in the interim, service time accrual for players, and revenue-sharing components.

An important part of that agreement is for both sides to maintain an open mind and open dialogue about potential schedule scenarios, and both sides are considering more radical ideas that will also take that sport well beyond its normal timeframes, with neutral-site postseason games potentially in the mix.

“We would play as long as we possibly could,” said Tony Clark, MLBPA executive director. “Obviously, the weather becomes a challenge the later you get in the calendar year, but we would do our best to play as many [games] as possible, regardless of when we start.”

The league and union are also exploring the possibility of playing all its games in a single-site, controlled environment in the Phoenix, Arizona, area, though the league stresses no particular rescheduling plan has been finalized.

“While we continue to interact regularly with governmental and public health officials, we have not sought or received approval of any plan from federal, state, and local officials, or the Players Association,” MLB said.

Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Major League Soccer, meanwhile, is similarly looking at a potential staging of its championship game, the MLS Cup, in December, and also possibly in a neutral, warm-weather site.

“MLS remains focused on playing the entire 2020 season and is evaluating all options,” the league said.

Both the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League, which need to finish the tail ends of their 2019-20 regular seasons and begin playoffs, have similarly eyed several potential late spring and summer possibilities to return to play, both with and without fans in attendance, and staging games well beyond the normal June endings for their seasons.

Of course, all is still conjecture at this point.

“The form and format of resumption-of-play scenarios will depend entirely on what transpires between now and when we are permitted and able to resume – and ultimately, on timing and taking into account logistical constraints,” the NHL said. “We are going to have to be flexible and react to events as they unfold.”

Both the NBA and NHL, like MLB, are also exploring along with their respective players’ unions the notion of playing large sets of games in a single-site environment where player movement and health could be more closely regulated and monitored.

To that end, the NBA is considering staging its entire postseason in Las Vegas, while the NHL exploring several alternate game sites including North Dakota.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship, along a similar conceptual thought, has gone so far as to look at staging fights on a private island.

NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, however, like MLB stresses that it’s highly difficult to make firm decisions at this stage of the pandemic, and acknowledges he knows less about the situation now than at the beginning of the crisis given the accelerating pace of change around the situation.

“What I’ve learned over the last few weeks is that we have just too little information to make those sort of projections,” Silver says.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has indicated a similar mindset, saying the league is at least several weeks away from being able to make its own scheduling decisions. And with that continued delay is the possibility the 2019-20 regular season might not be able to be completed, and that a resumption might involve moving directly to playoffs.

“The best thing, and the easiest thing, would be if at some point we could complete the regular season, and then go into the playoffs as we normally would,” Bettman says. “We understand that that may not be possible, and that’s why we’re considering every conceivable alternate to deal with whatever the eventuality is. Again, it doesn’t even pay to speculate because nobody in any of the sports knows enough now to make those profound decisions.”

But at least in the case of the NHL, one thing has already been made clear, or at least as clear as it can: the league does not see the ongoing public health crisis as a threat to playing a full, uninterrupted 2020-21 season.

“We do not anticipate a scenario in our resumption of play format that would endanger or interfere with the league’s ability to stage and execute the 2020-21 NHL season in its entirety,” the league says.

Most recent

The Bundesliga is locked in a battle with other major European leagues for the hearts, minds, and eyeballs of fans around the world. Kevin Roberts examines some of the league's marketing efforts alongside the Der Klassiker match between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.

Last week, we spoke to three industry experts about the growing influence of environmental, social and governance (ESG) benchmarking measures within Asia-Pacific sport. This week, we hear from executives putting such measures into practice at sports properties.

Stevenage FC were pleasantly surprised when news arrived of Burger King's interest in becoming its main sponsor. SportBusiness speaks to Stevenage chief executive officer Alex Tunbridge to hear about the journey the club has been on since the association with Burger King began in July 2019.

Kevin McCullagh speaks to Luca Ferrari, partner and global head of sports at law firm Withersworldwide, about how investors in sport should be regulated and the measures that should be taken when exercising due diligence.