Sports·Analysis

Sports leagues are leaking their return ideas — here they are

Three days after Donald Trump held a conference call with the bosses of all the major U.S.-based pro sports leagues, it feels like they're all suddenly leaking their plans, hopes and half-baked ideas for returning. Here's a breakdown of what they're mulling.

After that Trump call, everyone seems to have a half-baked plan

UFC boss Dana White's plan for getting his fighters back in the octagon is, like the man himself, a little wild. (Zhe Ji/Getty Images)

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Over the weekend, President Donald Trump held a conference call with the commissioners/top executives of pretty much all the big pro sports leagues that operate in the U.S. It included, of course, the NFL's Roger Goodell, the NBA's Adam Silver, the NHL's Gary Bettman and Major League Baseball's Rob Manfred, and also the leaders of Major League Soccer, the WNBA, the PGA and LPGA tours, UFC, NASCAR, IndyCar and even WWE (boss Vince McMahon is a friend of Trump's).

Even though the return of pro sports in his country will likely depend on the opinions and orders of public-health experts and state and local officials, Trump reportedly said on the call that he thinks the NFL season should kick off on time in the second week of September. He also reportedly said he hopes to have fans back in arenas and stadiums as early as August.

To help facilitate that in what figures to be a difficult economy even after the coronavirus pandemic is under control, Trump reportedly suggested the leagues band together to lobby for incentives such as allowing fans to deduct the cost of tickets and concessions from their taxes.

Trump declined to publicly suggest a date for the return of sports when he spoke at a press briefing later in the day, saying only "I think it's going to be sooner rather than later." He also said: "And the fans want to be back, too. They want to see basketball and baseball and football and hockey. They want to see their sports."

Clearly, Trump does too. The return of pro sports this summer would be a massive signal that the U.S. is winning the war against the coronavirus. It would also give the President a major boost heading into the November election. And it goes without saying that everyone with a financial stake in pro sports — league and team executives, owners, players, coaches, team staff, arena workers, etc. — is also aching for the day when it's safe to return.

So it's interesting that, since Trump's conference call, several U.S.-based sports have leaked their plans/hopes/half-baked ideas for returning. It's unclear whether the Trump call spurred them into quickly throwing something together, or whether it simply encouraged them to let some reporters in on whatever they already had in the works. But the timing suggests that the call served as a catalyst of some sort.

Here's a look at the many things that have been reported and/or officially announced in the last few days:

Major League Baseball

Multiple reports last night said that MLB and the players' union talked yesterday about possibly putting all 30 teams in the Phoenix area and playing in empty ballparks — including the Arizona Diamondbacks' stadium and the 10 spring-training facilities located nearby.

ESPN reported that the plan calls for players, coaches and other essential personnel to be sequestered in local hotels and travel only to and from games. According to ESPN, MLB and the union believe they have the support of high-ranking U.S. federal health officials who think baseball can be the first sport to return if its plan enforces strict isolation and promotes physical distancing. That could mean modifications like an electronic strike zone so the home-plate ump doesn't have to stand so close to the catcher, no mound visits, and players sitting six feet apart in the empty stands instead of the dugout.

MLB responded with a statement today saying it's "actively considering numerous contingency plans that would allow play to commence once the public health situation has improved to the point that it is safe to do so," but that it hasn't settled on a single plan.

Golf

Yesterday, less than 48 hours after the Trump call, the big pro tours and the organizers of the sport's major tournaments released a joint statement outlining their plans for a revamped 2020 season. Interestingly, the only men's major that was cancelled outright was the non-American one: the British Open. The PGA Championship in San Francisco was rescheduled for early August, the U.S. Open in New York for mid-September and the Masters in Augusta, Georgia for November. The Ryder Cup is staying put in late September in Wisconsin.

With the caveat that all of these plans could blow up if the coronavirus situation doesn't significantly improve in the fairly near future, the only other big change to the men's calendar (for now) is that the FedEx Cup playoffs will start a week later and the playoff-ending Tour Championship will finish on Labour Day.

Both the PGA and the LPGA are targeting mid-June for their next tournament. Two of the five women's majors (both being played in the U.S.) were moved: the ANA Inspiration to September and the U.S. Women's Open to December. The other U.S.-based major, the Women's PGA Championship, is still scheduled for late June. The Evian Championship in France and the Women's British Open are still on tap for August. Again: for now.

Ever since Donald Trump talked to a handful of sports commissioners, plans seem to be leaking about possible return scenarios. Rob Pizzo looks at a few.  2:31

NBA

Speaking yesterday, commissioner Adam Silver refused to speculate on a return date and said that won't even be possible until at least May 1. He did say, though, that the league has been holding internal discussions and also talking with players and team officials about "many different scenarios for restarting the season." It's just too early for any serious planning, Silver cautioned.

But ESPN reported that Silver said on the Trump call that he'd love for the NBA to be at the tip of the spear for the return of sports once things are all clear from a public-health standpoint. One of the plans being considered, according to Sports Illustrated, is a playoff tournament held entirely in Las Vegas. Games could be played in an empty arena or gym, with players, coaches, team support staffers and broadcast crews quarantined in hotels. This would be very difficult to pull off, but the NBA has pretty much given up on a traditional playoffs taking place because of travel restrictions and the varying states of public health in NBA cities.

In the meantime, the NBA is reportedly working with ESPN on televising games of H-O-R-S-E between players stationed at their own separate hoops at home. So it's clearly willing to experiment.

Another ESPN report yesterday said the league and the players' union have been assessing different blood-testing devices that could be capable of spitting out accurate coronavirus results in less than 15 minutes — similar to those finger-prick tests that diabetics perform on themselves. Fast and reliable testing of all players and team staff is considered a foundational piece for any sports league hoping to play games in the coming months.

NHL

While MLB and the NBA consider single-location returns in, respectively, Arizona and Las Vegas, the NHL is reportedly mulling a considerably less popular destination: North Dakota. 

It's not as silly as it sounds. Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported yesterday that one of the venues the league is considering is Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks. That's where the University of North Dakota hockey teams play, but it's not your typical college rink. The rich guy who it's named after paid for it and he spared no expense. It's got marble floors and leather seats, it fits about 11,600 fans for hockey and it cost over $100 million US to build. Also, North Dakota hasn't been hit as hard by the coronavirus as some other areas in the U.S. Still, as Friedman noted, there aren't exactly a ton of hotels in Grand Forks for everyone to stay in, so multiple venues might be needed.

According to several reports yesterday, the NHL would prefer holding early playoff rounds in multiple cities — maybe as many as four. The teams that advance from these "regions" would then meet up for later rounds (similar to how the NCAA basketball tournament works).

The NHL is reportedly prepared to play through August and even into September to cram some kind of playoff tournament in. Commissioner Gary Bettman said today that ice quality won't be an issue in the summer because modern arenas can handle it. He also acknowledged publicly for the first time that completing the regular season may not be possible.

NFL

This is the league Trump (and the largest portion of American sports fans) most wants to see back in action. But the NFL has remained pretty quiet — mostly because it has the luxury to do so. The season doesn't kick off until Sept. 10, and full training camps don't even open until July. So there's really no sense in changing the schedule — yet.

In the meantime, the NFL has aggressively stuck to its key off-season dates. Free agency went ahead as scheduled in March, and the enormously popular draft will still take place April 23-25 and be televised. Commissioner Roger Goodell has been very insistent on that, and yesterday he issued orders for teams to conduct their draft operations virtually. That means team personnel aren't allowed to meet in person, and picks will be submitted to the league over the phone or by some other digital means.

Team facilities remain closed by order from the commissioner, so the rookie camps that typically start this month, and the ensuing full-team minicamps, will almost certainly not happen. At that point we might start hearing about the NFL's contingency plans for the season.

UFC

Leave it to Dana White's organization to have the wackiest plan. Last week, the outspoken president kept insisting that UFC 249 will happen on April 18 — even though it's been booted from its arena in Brooklyn and lightweight star Khabib Nurmagomedov refused to defend his belt, ruining the main event. White also said he had a new location picked out, but he wouldn't say where.

Well, now he has. And it's wild. "I'm a day or two away from securing a private island," White said yesterday. He added that this will allow him to avoid U.S. travel restrictions because he'll be able to fly in international fighters on private planes. Cards on the island would be held without fans, but would (of course) be available on pay-per-view. Sounds plausible, but also carries some definite Fyre Festival vibes.

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