Many leagues around the world, fueled by the fear of fading TV money, are thinking about playing games behind closed doors with quarantined athletes. As Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a recent interview, “[p]ut [athletes] in big hotels, wherever you want to play, keep them very well surveilled and have them tested every week and make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their family, and just let them play the season out.”
But media members are bringing up the daunting logistical hurdles of putting players in quarantine. Let’s take a look at the questions being asked of other leagues to see just how hard it’ll be to re-start the 2020 MLS season.
1. Fantasy Island – What Other Leagues are Thinking
– Germany’s Bundesliga
All 18 Bundesliga clubs have returned to training with the hope that that matches could resume as soon as next month, according to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
Epidemiologist Alexander Kekulé of Germany’s Martin Luther University is optimistic that German clubs can play again. But he estimates that 20,000 tests would be required to finish the final nine rounds of the 2019-2020 Bundesliga season. Kekulé’s opinion carries weight because, according to Forbes, he “was one of the earliest specialists to warn the public about the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
As Jonathan Wilson, writing in Sports Illustrated, said “that [the Bundesliga’s return] is even being contemplated suggests how advanced Germany has been in terms of its testing.” As of last week, Germany has carried out more than 1.3 million swab tests and is now performing around 500,000 tests a week. And the country is driving forward with advanced blood antibody testing. By comparison, the US has only carried out around 2 million tests, and our testing takes a lot longer to complete because of lab backlogs.
Professor Chris Whitty, the United Kingdom’s Chief Medical Advisor, admitted “[w]e all know that Germany got ahead in terms of its ability to do testing for the virus and there’s a lot to learn from that.”
But even with Germany’s edge, the Bundesliga’s return isn’t assured. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it, “[t]he situation is fragile… we could very, very quickly destroy what we have achieved.”
Moreover, there’s an unspoken assumption that players are like emotionless Terminator robots who’ll be copacetic with playing in isolation far from family and friends. USMNT and Schlake midfielder Weston McKinnie is currently in Germany and laid down his concerns for CBS Sports, “[m]y family, they are all back in Texas…it’s a bit frustrating at the moment because for somebody like me that lives so far away from home, maybe having to play through summer and not having the opportunity to go home at all is a bit frustrating but something that you kind of have to go through.”
– Taiwanese Soccer & Baseball
Taiwan’s soccer and baseball leagues began play behind closed doors this past weekend. Cardboard cutouts of fans filled the stands – with no reports of any coming to life like Kim Cattrall in Mannequin.
Like Germany, Taiwan has contained the virus far better than other countries. As of last week it has reported only 388 cases and six deaths in a country of almost 24 million people. Unfortunately, no American state or Canadian province with an MLS club has numbers that low.
Unlike the United States, Taiwan’s aggressive and comprehensive efforts have included mass distribution of PPE, early imposition of social distancing, an early ban on incoming travelers, rapid response testing, widespread testing, affordable hospital care, pinpoint tracing, and public area temperature scans.
As Richard Wang, a baseball commentator in Taiwan, told the country’s Central News Agency, “[w]e are very lucky that Taiwan can have a baseball season, and at the same time, it also reflects the solid achievements by the government in coronavirus prevention.”
ESPN squashed the UFC’s plan to stage fights this month at a shuttered casino on tribal land in rural California. As an ESPN statement explained, “[n]obody wants to see sports return more than we do, but we didn’t feel this was the right time.”
The Association of Ringside Physicians had trashed the UFC’s plan, saying in a statement, “combat sports athletes often require medical attention after a bout, and we do not wish to see any additional strain on an already overwhelmed medical system.” British boxing promoter Eddie Hearn added to the attack, telling the Daily Express, “[t]his is stubbornness…with Sky Sports and DAZN, I would not be allowed to stage events right now. It’s bad taste to be quite honest.”
UFC president Dana White remains undeterred. As college football writer Spencer Hall points out, White is cribbing from Enter the Dragon in vowing to hold future fights on a private island outside American jurisdiction.
“That’s hell,” said one anonymous Met to the New York Post about Major League Baseball’s plan to have all its teams play a shortened season at Arizona and Florida’s spring training sites.
The players aren’t pumped. Said an anonymous AL pitcher to ESPN, “[w]hen I think about being isolated for four to five months without being able to see my family, I don’t think that would go through at all…I feel for guys who have young children. I feel for guys whose wives are pregnant right now…I don’t want to be putting myself in a position where you could go and infect someone or get infected, and we have coaches, staff, people around us who are older.” An anonymous second-year NL player posed perhaps the most crucial question, “how is everyone going to be quarantined?
Baseball writers are also dubious of MLB’s proposal. USA Today’s Bob Nightengale asks, “[d]o you really think MLB and the players’ association are about to embark on a season in which they get tested for COVID-19 whenever needed, including a result within hours, while health care workers and first responders can’t even qualify for a test?”
Adds The New York Post’s Joel Sherman, “restarting the sport would still put a lot of people in one place at one time — and not just players. There is a need for coaches, umpires, TV crews, grounds crews, clubhouse attendants, doctors, trainers, workout specialists. Everyone will have to be fed and housed and commuted from one place to another, forcing an ever-wider pool of contact…What happens if a player, coach, clubhouse attendant, etc., tests positive for the virus?
The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman points out that the plan would “require thousands of tests—which means taking thousands of tests away from people who need them more… Why take supplies that could save lives to save sports?”
LeBron James put it succinctly when asked on the Road Trippin’ podcast about the idea of being quarantined far from his family to play games, “I ain’t going for that s***. I’m not going for that.”
Dolly Parton sang about fleeing North Dakota’s “sub-zero winds” in Highway Headin’ South, but the NHL is thinking about bunking up in the roughrider state to find a Stanley Cup winner.
Hockey Hall of Fame writer Larry Brooks was blunt in the New York Post, “in a country in which millions who need the test have no access to one and almost certainly will be in the same position a month or two from now, priority would be given to what, the 3,000 or 5,000 people essential to maintaining the NHL ecosystem? …Is there a chance that special privileges granted to elite athletes would form a backlash against the league? What if your business hasn’t reopened or is not fully operational?”
The NHL, like MLS, is way more reliant on fans in the stands buying garlic fries and IPAs than big TV money leagues like MLB, the NFL, and the NBA. But, as ESPN’s NHL writer Greg Wyshynski asks, “how many fans are going to opt not to attend until, say, there’s a viable treatment or vaccine for COVID-19?”
2. Major Challenges for Major League Soccer’s 2020 Re-Start
MLS commissioner Don Garber told ESPN’s Taylor Twellman that MLS is thinking about a mini-tournament and neutral site matches played behind closed doors at MLS training facilities. But as the critiques of the NBA, NHL, and MLB plans show, travel restrictions could prevent every club from playing at home. And the alternative of concentrating clubs in only a handful of cities would also be a titanic task.
The stakes are high because MLS, at 48%, has a higher percentage of international players than MLB, the NFL, the NBA, or the NHL. So, as Larry W. Johnson explains on his Helltown Beer site, “MLS knows it has to do everything in its power to pay players because if they can’t? They risk losing them to leagues in countries that are in better shape in regards to the coronavirus.”
Seattle Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer was doubtful in the Seattle Times, “until we have significant amounts of fast testing that is not bypassing those people who really need the fast testing, I don’t see a path to having sport.”
3. Legends of the Fall – A Best Case Scenario for 2020
Even in a best-case scenario where America achieves widespread testing, or even a vaccine, an MLS re-start in August or September would have unique challenges.
No other soccer league, save perhaps for Australia’s A-League or Japan’s J1, faces as much domestic competition from other sports as MLS. In England for example, domestic rugby and cricket are barely even thorns in the Premier League lion’s paw. Olympic-style handball is Germany’s distant nummer zwei team sport. And would you guess that volleyball is Brazil’s second most popular sport
The MLS season always overlaps with other sports. But this year’s MLS season could potentially be competing against a stacked fall slate featuring the NBA playoffs, the Stanley Cup playoffs, a shorter more exciting baseball season, college football, the NFL, a September Kentucky Derby, and a November Masters.
And if MLS clubs don’t play at their training facilities then the ones that share their stadiums would hit scheduling conflicts because a bigger chunk of the MLS season would coincide with baseball and football.
Chicago will have a tough time in a scenario where the MLS season stretches into December and January as the wicked winter wind blows in off Lake Michigan and into notoriously notoriously muddy Soldier Field. Other clubs in Siberian sites like Toronto, Minnesota, and Montreal could theoretically move into their cities’ domed stadiums. Colorado and Salt Lake’s players might have to wear Gore-Tex kits.
It’s worth noting for those in favor of MLS playing through the winter that the Russian league takes a three-month winter break from mid-December to mid-March. And the Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish leagues are similar to MLS in playing from late March to early November.
Atlanta, Cincinnati, New England, Vancouver, and Seattle would be relatively fine because their fields use hardy plastic turf. Houston and Nashville share their natural grass pitches with other teams but winters there are relatively mild.
In Southern California, the virus continues to hit the construction crew working on the Rams and Chargers stadium. If the stadium is delayed then the Chargers would presumably move back in with the LA Galaxy. And if baseball returns to New York then both the Yankees and Mets may freeze out NYCFC as doubleheaders and fewer off-days will squeeze the baseball schedule.
And as Miki Turner points out on SB Nation’s Sounder at Heart site, pushing the MLS season into the winter “would likely necessitate a MLS Cup final in a neutral warm-weather site.”
4. The Outlook
Major League Soccer’s latest official statement makes the likelihood of playing the 2020 MLS season anytime soon seem as remote as me breaking Cristiano Ronaldo’s toe touch record. But, as Debbie Harry sang, “dreaming is free.”
Thinking about how sports can come back is important. As Emory University epidemiologist put it to writer Patrick Hruby, “we could all do with more real talk of the practical challenges of restarting sports. Not for doom and gloom, or to say it’s impossible. But for the opposite reason: to get it f***ing done, as responsibly, quickly, but above all *safely* as possible.”