by Theodore M. Wachtel –
Play ball! Professional sports is back! Even though we are still very much in the COVID-19 pandemic, almost all of the professional sports leagues, both in the United States and around the world, have either resumed play or are making plans to do so.
I must admit that before the pandemic, I was one of those people who railed against the exorbitant dollars paid to professional athletes. However, when play in professional sports leagues was either interrupted, delayed in starting or scrapped altogether, I began to realize the significant role professional sports plays in our society.
First of all, for those who enjoy it, watching professional sports, even on TV, can be relaxing. Although I watch sports much less now than I did when I was a kid, when the PGA Tour started holding tournaments again a few weeks ago, even I found myself on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon watching and letting my mind just relax.
Second of all, I did not realize the number of people who rely on professional sports for their livelihoods. I am not talking here about the players and themselves but, rather, the multitude of people, both inside and outside the stadiums, who rely on professional sports for their livelihoods. In addition, professional sports generates millions of dollars every year for charity in the communities in which these events are held.
Therefore, I am glad to see professional sports resuming. This begs the question, however, what professional sports are doing to keep the players, coaches and everyone else involved healthy and prevent the spread of the virus. To answer this question, I will focus on four professional sports leagues which have resumed play.
The PGA Tour
The PGA Tour was the first professional sports league to resume play. Weekly four-day tournaments started in June and are continuing. Tournaments are held without fans present.
Organizers initially thought that fans would be allowed to attend July’s Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio. The usual daily attendance is approximately 40,000 people. The plan called for allowing in 5,000 fans per day.
If there is any sport which lends itself to having fans present amidst the coronavirus pandemic, it is golf since the fans are spread out over acres of real estate. However, given the surge in cases in Ohio, the plan to have fans was ended. (Well, no fans except for the fans who had cocktail parties in the houses that border the golf courses, as seen in the background of this story’s lead photo.) Likewise, the PGA Championship in San Francisco also had no fans, although a close listen to the television broadcast audio revealed quite a few hoots and hollers.
As of the date of this publication, the Masters just announced that they will have no fans during their tournament which was rescheduled for November 12-15.
The players and caddies and those traveling from tournament to tournament are in a bubble. Players and those working at the tournaments are tested before arriving at the tournament site, and continuously throughout the tournament. Charter flights are offered to shuttle players, caddies and others from tournament to tournament. If anyone leaves the bubble, they have to self-quarantine for 14 days before coming to the next tournament.
The PGA’s plan has proven successful. Today, amongst the thousands of tests which have been done, thus far only nine people have tested positive. Therefore, this plan seems to be working and is expected to continue.
During the first few weeks of resumed play, golfer Nick Watney tested positive, and the golf world immediately freaked out. However, Watney took it seriously, quarantined, and recovered. The PGA eventually grouped Watney with other players who tested positive – Dylan Frittelli and Denny McCarthy at the Muirfield Village tournament in July. Since then, the PGA has largely avoided more positive test results.
Major League Baseball
Major League Baseball has a different story. Although the players, coaches and others involved in the games are in a bubble, the result has not been the same as with the PGA Tour. Each team is playing in its own stadium. The Toronto Blue Jays are unable to do so, however, because the Canadian government would not allow play in Toronto due to the pandemic. However, the Blue Jays eventually were able to find a home in a minor league stadium in Buffalo, New York.
Eighteen players from one team, the Miami Marlins, tested positive for the virus, which led the MLB to suspend their games until further notice. Interestingly enough, they were able to call up enough healthy players from the minor league teams, and were able to resume play with a strong start. As of the date of this publication, they are still in first place – which has come as a surprise to fans who saw the Marlins win only 35% of their games in 2019.
At this time, the St. Louis Cardinals have also had a few positive test results and their games are currently suspended, but it appears that the league is hopeful that they too will be able to resume their season soon.
The NBA and NHL’s Bubbles
The NBA and the NHL have also resumed play in “bubbles.” The NHL bubbles are based in the “hubs” of Toronto and Edmonton. As of the date of this Aug. 10 ESPN article, the NHL has largely been a pleasant surprise with no positive tests to date.
The hockey league has implemented random testing of about 1,500 people a day in and around the sport, which includes players, announcers, referees, and arena employees. Peer pressure plays a large part of it too, as teams have encouraged players to limit their travel strictly to and from the arena. As of Aug. 10, the league had conducted more than 7,000 tests with no confirmed positive results.
The NBA got off to a rockier start than the NHL, despite playing in the tightest of all the bubbles at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. At the prospect of being quarantined for months without seeing friends and family, many players have opted out and decided not to play. Thus far, before play even began, dozens of players have tested positive for the virus. Some broke the rules and ventured out into the theme park. In fact, one Los Angeles Clipper was photographed at a nearby strip club before being forced to quarantine for leaving the bubble without telling his team.
However, once the bubble actually started – the NBA has seen zero positive cases as of Aug. 10. In other words, once the league was able to control and confirm that the people in the bubble had not been exposed to the virus, they have been able to avoid any positive test results whatsoever.
If you’re wondering whether other types of businesses can learn from these largely successful sports leagues, it’s important to remember this GQ writer’s point that all of the aforementioned athletes are motivated by unusually-large salaries. Athletes’ careers are relatively shorter than other careers, and most realize that the next few years could be their last shot at making millions of dollars.
The restart of professional sports clearly depends on whether those involved will do what we as citizens of the world have been and continue to be called to do – follow the rules. So far, these athletes and the thousands of people around them have served as an excellent example for the rest of society.
Professional athletes also have much greater access to more reliable testing than the general public, with most leagues able to obtain COVID-19 test results the same day of the test. If they had to wait the same 1-3 weeks that much of the country currently has to wait, then these leagues would probably see more of their events in jeopardy.
May your team win!
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