The New Look of Pro Sports

by Austin Chen, Sports Editor
photo courtesy of Greg Goebel

When major European soccer leagues restarted in May and June, Italy, Germany, England and Spain were all experiencing plateaus in new COVID-19 cases, and, in a way, the resumption of sports was a reward for their triumph of public health. 

Here in the U.S., however, people like to have their cake and eat it too, even when eating said cake is wildly undeserved. In stark contrast with the overseas leagues, MLB, the NBA, the NHL and the WNBA resumed their seasons when COVID-19 cases in the U.S. were hitting their first peak in late July and early August.

Given that much of Europe and the U.S. were on such opposing ends on the spectrum of responses, yet sports are now being played in both, it’s clear that the success a country has in controlling the spread of COVID-19 has little bearing on whether or not professional athletics resume. The fact remains, however, that the U.S. did such a disastrously poor job in containing the coronavirus that it made the return of major sports a task far more complicated than those faced by overseas leagues.

The challenges began with newly necessitated discussions between each league’s players associations and officials, where the onus was on the officials to present environments that would minimize players’ risk. To that end, three of the four leagues — the NBA, NHL and WNBA — created what are now known as “bubbles.” The bubbles are campuses closed off from the world with lodging, food services, on-site medical and training staff, off-time entertainment and, of course, rinks and parquets. The bubbles are all over the continent, with the NBA’s and WNBA’s in Florida; the NHL’s are located in Edmonton, Alberta and Toronto, Ontario.

For MLB, however, having a season at all was hotly contested for over a month. Starting in May, owners and the MLB Players Association traded offers back and forth, disagreeing on everything from salaries to the number of games. Unable to reach a compromise, MLB owners simply imposed a 60-game season without the consent of the MLBPA, inviting future litigation.

Regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome, the biggest consequence of the MLB owners’ unilateral decision is that baseball is not being played in a bubble. Other than rule changes, empty stadiums and the introduction of strict medical regulations, the season is essentially business as usual for MLB, a situation highly conducive to outbreaks. Unsurprisingly, a plethora of teams have already missed multiple games due to positive COVID-19 tests, eventually leading MLB to establish two bubbles each in California and Texas for the postseason.

While bubbles’ establishments were huge triumphs — bubbled leagues have reported zero positive tests since their restarts —  player concerns remained, ranging from restructured economic terms to a lack of player autonomy with regard to social activism. Ultimately, across the NBA, NHL and WNBA, some general trends began to arise: players wanted full salaries and the ability to opt out of the season with minimal consequences to their long-term employment, and league officials wanted strict behavioral and medical regulations to prevent outbreaks. Discussions varied from days to weeks, but at the end of the day, both sides largely got what they wanted, with small concessions for the players in order to sweeten the strictly regulated pot.

In the NBA, players were permitted to wear league-approved phrases on the backs of their jerseys, and players have almost universally embraced this, sporting statements including “Equality,” “Black Lives Matter” and “Education Reform.” The WNBA took a more active role with activism, working with the WNBA Players Association to establish the WNBA Social Justice Council, and every player in the league wears a jersey featuring Breonna Taylor’s name alongside their own. We can interpret the leagues’ active support of their players with varying degrees of cynicism — after all, this could be read as the league simply moving to protect their investments — but their actions played no small part in convincing players to put a pause on their social activism and come to work instead.

After police in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot Jacob Blake, however, NBA players in the bubble were so frustrated that they discussed a strike in earnest. On August 26, the Milwaukee Bucks stayed in their locker room and refused to take the court for their playoff game. Soon after, the NBA postponed the rest of that and the next days’ games, prompting similar actions by MLB, the NHL and the WNBA intending to raise awareness of the systemic racism within the American justice system.

Now that all four leagues have returned, it remains to be seen whether these bubbled (or non-bubbled, in the case of MLB) models will prove sustainable. If the COVID-19 pandemic persists, the American sports industry will become financially untenable. With no fans and thus no ticketing, concession or amenity revenue, ownership of a sports franchise or arena will go from one of the surest investments there is to a liability hemorrhaging money. There is no chance athletes risk their bodies and long-term health for what would be drastically diminished salaries, nor should they.

 Ultimately, the future of American sports is dangerously dependent on the ability of local, state and federal governments to curtail the coronavirus, and if past performance is indicative of future results, the concept of professional sports in 2021 and beyond is precarious at best.