Suspensions to MLB, NHL seasons lead latest shutdown wave in US pro sports

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, left, and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred

Following the initial moves of the National Basketball Association and Major League Soccer, the rest of the major US pro sports leagues quickly followed suit to suspend their own operations, essentially bringing the core of the American sports industry to a standstill due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

Major League Baseball is immediately suspending the concluding two weeks of Spring Training, and will also delay the previously scheduled March 26 start of the 2020 regular season by at least two weeks. 

Because of the everyday nature of MLB’s schedule, the rescheduling logistics of how to resume play when it is deemed safe to do are far more complex than in other sports. It is not known whether the league will seek to make up the suspended games, or play an abbreviated schedule. 

The league last did not play a full schedule in 1995, when a labor dispute with the MLB Players Association delayed the start of that season. Since then, there have various other crises on a smaller scale such as hurricanes in several markets. But in the last generation, MLB has not grappled with anything of the scale of the ongoing global pandemic.

MLB’s shutdown also extends to ongoing qualifier games for next year’s World Baseball Classic. 

“MLB and the Clubs have been preparing a variety of contingency plans regarding the 2020 regular season schedule,” the league said. “MLB will announce the effects on the schedule at an appropriate time and will remain flexible as events warrant, with the hope of resuming normal operations as soon as possible.”

Added MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark: “Players are of course disappointed they won’t be able to compete on the field. At the same time, they recognize the importance of public health and safety.”

Minor League Baseball, meanwhile, also said it will indefinitely suspend the start of its 2020 season. That organization, given its contractual working relationship with MLB, will likely take many of its cues from the major leagues about how and when to resume play.

“We will work with Major League Baseball and our community partners to resume play as soon as it safe to do so,” MiLB said.

Even if MLB had wanted to proceed with its schedule as is, a fast-growing list of jurisdictions are now imposing various bans on most large gatherings, defined with numbers far smaller than the attendance of any major league game. New York, home to both the Yankees and Mets, was the latest, with state governor Andrew Cuomo banning public gatherings of more than 500 people.

The National Hockey League, meanwhile, puts its own indefinite suspension on the 2019-20 season. Given many of its teams share home venues, and more specifically locker room facilities, with NBA teams, the decision was widely expected.

“The NHL has been attempting to follow the mandates of health experts and local authorities, while preparing for any possible development without taking premature or unnecessary measures,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “However, following [the March 11] news that an NBA player has tested positive for coronavirus – and given that our leagues share so many facilities and locker rooms and it now seems likely that some member of the NHL community would test positive at some point – it is no longer appropriate to try to continue to play games at this time.”

The PGA Tour, which obviously operates in larger, outdoor settings, made a different decision, electing to keep its competition schedule intact, but do so without fans. Beginning with the March 13 second round of the ongoing TPC Sawgrass in Florida, Tour events will be played without fans through at least the Valero Texas Open scheduled for April 2-5.

“This is a difficult situation, one with consequences that impact our players, fans, and the communities in which we play,” said PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. “We’ve weighted all the options, and I appreciate the input and collaboration across the Tour, our industry, our partners, and our members that got us to this point. We’ll continue with that collaboration.”

The no-fans rule will also be enforced across other PGA Tour competitions, which include the Korn Ferry Tour and PGA Tour Champions.

The LPGA, meanwhile, has postponed the next three events on its schedule. The tour called off the Volvik Founders Cup in Phoenix on March 19-22, the Kia Classic in Carlsbad, California, on March 26-29 and the major ANA Inspiration in Rancho Mirage, California, on April 2-5.

The XFL also elected to forego the remainder of its regular season, blunting the strong early progress the revived spring football league had made in several US markets, perhaps most notably St. Louis. The league said it intends to play a full season next year.

“The XFL will not be playing its regular-season games,” the league said. “However, all players will be paid their base pay and benefits for the 2020 regular season. All XFL ticket holders will be issued refunds or credit toward future games. The XFL is committed to playing a full season in 2021 and future years.”

Elsewhere in US Sports, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, has postponed its fanfest, which was scheduled for March 21-22.

The National Football League also scrapped its annual meeting, which was due to take place March 29-April 1 in Palm Beach, Florida. A number of NFL teams have also suspended travel for their coaches and scouts. There are no plans to move the March 18 start of the new league year, and NFL players are voting through March 14 on a proposed new collective bargaining agreement with the league.

Nascar says it will hold its next two race weekends – in Atlanta and Homestead, Florida – without fans in attendance. IndyCar’s season-opener Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will take place this weekend in Florida, but similarly will be closed to spectators and limited to essential personnel only.

The National Lacrosse League has decided to suspend operations until further notice, while Major League Rugby has suspended all matches for 30 days.

The National Women’s Hockey League postponed its 2020 Isobel Cup, previously scheduled for March 13 between the Boston Pride and Minnesota Whitecaps.