Which League has the Best Return to Play Approach?

As we near the midway point of July it almost doesn’t seem possible, but the return of the four major sports are just around the corner. In fact, we’re going to see the MLB and NBA back in action this month which is very exciting! However, with COVID cases on the rise the question is no longer when each league's season will start, but will it finish? 

When I thought about writing this blog I originally wanted to talk about my opinions on the NBA and NHL bubble. Are the bubble setups really feasible and what will happen if a player gets sick? Those are just two of many questions that I have for the bubble situations and I think there are just too many variables to predict what’s really going to happen in these unprecedented circumstances. Because of this I instead want to look at the different protocols for the four major sports leagues, and talk about why each league is doing the return to play differently. 

(Picture Credit: Insider)

There will not be any predictions about which league will come out of this in the best shape because as we already know, there’s no way to predict COVID. Do I think that in the end one or two leagues will fare better than the rest? Definitely, but I couldn’t tell you which one, so only time will tell. 

For those who don’t know the NBA and NHL have decided to go with a “bubble” setup, where the players and staff are contained to a specific area where they are not allowed to leave. For the NBA this is Walt Disney World, where players and coaches will stay at hotels on Disney property, and play on the courts at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports, which is also on Disney property. The NHL is adapting a similar concept except the bubble will be broken up into two separate areas. The teams in the Eastern Conference will be playing at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, while staying at neighboring hotels, and the teams from the Western Conference will be playing at the Rogers Place in Edmonton, with a similar hotel setup. 

(Picture Credit: The Hockey News)

The MLB however, will be taking a whole different approach to the season compared to the NBA and NHL. Essentially the MLB will be traveling like a normal season, but will limit the distance each team will have to travel for games because of the compact 60 game schedule they’re rolling with this year. 

Finally, there’s the NFL, which has been rather hush about their plans for this upcoming season. They’re in the best place for any of the four leagues because this is happening during their off-season, and there’s no pressure to rush to put a plan together at this time. The league also has the luxury of observing what works and doesn’t work for the other three leagues, so I believe they’ll wait to see how things play out until making a concrete plan on the situation. 

That right there is the bulk of what’s going on but I want to take a deeper look at what the leagues are planning during this time. 

NBA 

Let’s cut to the obvious, the NBA definitely has the most interesting when it comes to return to play. There’s already been lots of drama out in Orlando; from the middle school cafeteria style food, players trying to sneak girls into the bubble, and players leaving the bubble for food only to be quarantined, it seems as if we’ve seen it all already. Even today there were reports that there had been multiple tips on the leagues anonymous COVID hotline, which was setup so that players could report other players if they’re not following guidelines. The best part is that these guys are going to have to battle on the floor for the next two months for the NBA crown, and I believe that these could be some of the most exciting playoffs in league history. Adam Silver has one again done a great job once again with the setup, proving why he is the best commissioner in all of sports.

I really do like the bubble idea and think the NBA is going to draw some great ratings over the summer. They’re even making play exciting for teams that are outside of the playoffs with a possible 3 game series between the 8 and 9 seeded teams in each conference, depending how close they are to each other at the end of the regular season. There’s going to be plenty of storylines to come out of Orlando over the next few weeks, but I still question what happens if there’s an outbreak, especially because all the players are so close to each other at all times. Only time will tell on the COVID front, but the NBA is keeping it simple and are basically picking up play from where they finished, just with a shortened end to the regular season.

(Picture Credit: The New York Times)   

There have been a few players of non contending teams who have opted out of the season but it seems as if many of the key players are healthy. I hope that there’s no outbreak in the bubble but I’m confident that the league is doing as good a job as they can to limit contact between players. 

NHL

The NHL is in a similar setup to the NBA, minus a lot of drama. I think it’s cool that each conference has their own hub and I’m interested to see what happens when the Stanley Cup Finals roll and a team from each conference needs to meet each other for the championship. The NHL has my favorite playoffs out of any league, and they’re only going to be better this year with 24 teams participating in the tournament instead of the usual 16. I think the initial round of 5 game series will be must watch hockey, and it’ll be interesting which teams respond to the break better than others. The round robin for the top four teams in each conference to determine seeding is also a great feature that I’m excited about, and it’s a good way to get the higher power teams some ice team without any large pressure on their back.

(Picture Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

The NHL is going to be awesome to watch as always and we only have to wait until August 1st for the action to resume. There have been a few players who have tested positive for the virus, but it hasn’t been overwhelming. I fully expect that the NHL players will be taking this seriously and have their eyes set on the main goal, the Stanley Cup.

MLB 

I feel like I may be the first person to ask this question, but does the MLB really think that there aren’t going to be problems flying teams all over the country twice a week for the next two months? Apparently so. I totally understand the idea of keeping each team's opponents to team’s that reside in a close region, but I still think there are going to be problems with the MLB and COVID. Don’t get me wrong I really want the season to happen flawlessly, but I’m nervous for the MLB. Again I’m not going to make predictions but I still question why the MLB isn’t going with a bubble setup, especially after the rumors in the spring about a possible bubble in either Florida or Arizona. Is it because they haven’t even started the season and need a more permanent setup for the 60 game schedule rather than just using it for the playoffs like the NBA and NHL are doing? Possibly, but again I can’t say for certain. 

(Picture Credit: USA Today)

The MLB is going to have some interesting storylines this season, as there are already a few big name players who have tested positive such as Aroldis Chapman, Charlie Blackmon, and Salvador Perez. There have always been a few big name players who have opted out of the season including Giants catcher Buster Posey, Dodgers pitcher David Price, and Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, among others. 

The league will certainly look different this year but at the very least we will have baseball this summer, even if it is just for a short period of time. 

NFL 

(Picture Credit: Forbes)

The NFL really hasn’t said too much regarding their plan to play in 2020, and my summary above sums about everything they’ve done so far. I think the NFL will have the most “normal” season out of the four leagues, but I put normal in quotes because it’s still going to be far from normal. The pre season has been cut down to just two games, but beyond that the season looks like it will resume as planned. I think there could be a fight between the league and ownership over allowing fans in the stadium but that bridge will get crossed when the time comes. 

In Closing 

To sum it all up I’ve got a lot of questions for each commissioner and I find it very interesting that there’s a lot of similarities and differences between each league's protocall. It sucks that there won’t be any fans at sporting events during this, but I think we can all agree that it’ll be great to have sports back no matter the conditions. I have a feeling that at least one league will need to stop play in the middle of the season, but again there’s no way to predict anything. In the very least sports will be back in some capacity, and hopefully many of them can return to normalcy next year.

- Andrew Gardner, UNH '23 

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