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May 11, 2020

What they're saying: MLB's latest proposal, half-empty NFL stadiums, and more on when sports may return

Wells-Fargo-Center-Locked_031620_usat Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

A general view of the Wells Fargo Center after the arena shut it doors due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

UPDATE [3 p.m.] — The MLB players will indeed hear a proposal on Tuesday to restart major league baseball with spring training resuming in June, and the season kicking off July 4th weekend.

There are a lot of details still being figured out but here's what we know, via a report from ESPN:

• Games would be played in ballparks without fans.

• All teams would use a DH.

• Teams would play 82 game regular seasons against opponents regionally (so the Phillies would play NL East and AL East teams only).

• The Blue Jays would likely play from their spring training home in Dunedin FL, while some other teams may also need to relocate.

• The playoffs would expand from 10 to 14 teams with four Wild Cards from each league.

• No All-Star Game.

The player's union and the league are slated to begin negotiations Tuesday.


There was a lot of news over the last few days on the "when will sports return" front, though of course, none of them are really any closer to returning than they were a week or even a month ago.

There is so much still up in the air, as the complications of different locations having different COVID-19 issues becomes one of the main stumbling blocks for the leagues as they try to get to a place where they can at least start planning. The lack and availability of testing is also a huge "if," as sports leagues must plan ahead with the assumption that hundreds of thousands of them will be available for players and staffers.

The UFC returned with a pay-per-view card (and no live fans) over the weekend. We know the PGA Tour plans to re-commence on June 8th in Ft. Worth, Texas, and a fan-less tournament seems to be fully in the works there as well. Which major American sport will be next? And when will fans be able to return? 

Here's what they're saying...

Fans in the stands?

Peter King | Pro Football Talk

In his weekly "Football Morning in America" for NBCSports' Pro Football Talk, NFL insider Peter King had Dr. Anthony Fauci at his disposal and led his regular weekly article with a conversation he had with the White House's point person on Coronavirus. The two chatted about numerous things, one of them being the inevitable "second wave" of the virus expected to come in the fall — right when the NFL is on center stage. Fauci was pretty repetitive in saying that it depends on how everything plays out over the summer as to how bad the outbreak will be when it spikes again as the weather gets cold. 

He also offered a wide range of possibilities for what the NFL could look like in 2020, everywhere from having fans in the stands to having Patrick Mahomes kicked off the active roster the night before a game (if he tested positive for COVID-19). Here's more of what he had to say about football's return:

The question we all have, I believe, is whether it makes sense to aim for negative-testing pro football players to compete in empty stadiums starting in September. Fauci suggested stadiums might not have to be empty all season. 
 “I think it’s feasible that negative testing players could play to an empty stadium,” Fauci said. “Is it guaranteed? No way . . . There will be virus out there and you will know your players are negative at the time they step onto the field. You’re not endangering . . . Also, if the virus is so low that even in the general community the risk is low, then I could see filling a third of the stadium or half the stadium so people could be six feet apart. I mean, that’s something that is again feasible depending on the level of infection. I keep getting back to that: It’s going to depend. Like, right now, if you fast forward, and it is now September. The season starts. I say you can’t have a season—it’s impossible. There’s too much infection out there. It doesn’t matter what you do. But I would hope that by the time you get to September it’s not gonna be the way it is right now.” 
It’s clear he thinks the NFL has time on its side. Not just because he sees the virus waning by Labor Day, certainly, but because of other factors that are calendar-friendly. One: The availability of tests should make massive testing by August and September easier. Two: We should be far more prepared to handle the disease as it loosens its grip on society, even with the prospect of a second wave hitting later in the fall. Three: Increased Antogen testing might increase the prospect that a significant segment of society—including, presumably, football players—could be made immune to the virus by plasma donations. []

Silver lining's playbook

Gary Washburn | Boston Globe

The NBA had its big phone call with players late last week, and as many readers of this likely know not a ton was really decided or newsworthy from that conversation. Commissioner Adam Silver is still trying to pass the buck to America's public health officials, but it is becoming clearer each day that eventually, the NBA is going to have to make its own decision, and that an "all clear" is not going to be coming anytime soon.

Here's more from the Boston Globe's NBA writer Gary Washburn:

There is going to be pushback on any Silver decision. But if it is safe and other sports can potentially set the model for a return, Silver should put all his efforts into resuming the season, acquiring the adequate number of tests and also purchasing twice that amount perhaps to donate to COVID-19 hot spots where those in need would be helped.

NBA players and owners could generate a fund to not only help those arena workers who haven’t had their jobs for two months but for other unemployed workers in those disadvantaged areas. If the government is going to pass the buck with responsibility, and the NBA is a flourishing league that wants to return at a time where most of America is suffering, then it can make sure to make efforts to reduce that suffering in anyway it can.

That’s the best solution for a return. This is one of those situations where Silver is not going to make everybody happy or be universally praised for his actions. He’s in a difficult situation but has enough resources to pull this off. The NBA could resume at Disney Wide World of Sports in Orlando, a location that has 151 hotels in the surrounding area and sports facilities that usually house various youth sporting events.

Teams could begin training camp in June at their own facilities, take a chartered plane to Orlando in July and resume the season in various facilities with an abbreviated regular-season schedule, a potential playoff play-in tournament and close to a full playoff schedule.

This NBA season is going to historic, for dubious reasons, but there’s time for Silver to make the best of a dreadful situation. If the situation with COVID-19 does not improve or even gets worse, it may be the best call to cancel the remainder of the season and prepare for 2020-21. But as America slowly takes steps forward toward normalcy and sports such as auto racing, baseball and others begin resumption, the NBA could again become the shining example and resume in the most prepared and sensitive fashion.  []

Bad sign for NHL? Staff

The announcement came Monday morning that the AHL, the feeder system and minor league for the NHL would not be finishing its 2020 season (and will not award the Calder Cup for the first time since 1936).

"After a lengthy review process, the American Hockey League has determined that the resumption and completion of the 2019-20 season is not feasible in light of current conditions," AHL president David Andrews said. "The League's operational focus has turned toward actively preparing for the 2020-21 season.  []

Major League Baseball too, is flirting with not having a minor league season (more on that in a bit), but that makes sense, logistically. Baseball has a lot more affiliates and players it would need to coordinate around for a safe return to baseball and it simply didn't make sense. The NHL deciding to pull the plug could be a necessary sacrifice, or it could be a sign of pessimism in the hockey camp as they continue to work on finding a neutral location or two to begin what could be an extended 2020 playoffs. 

Five and still fighting

Jeff Passan, Kiley McDaniel | ESPN

Baseball announced it would have just five rounds in its upcoming MLB draft, down from the usual 40 rounds. The implications of this change are wide reaching. Players who are routinely drafted out of high school will instead be enrolling in college. Those talented ballplayers will be taking starting roles or scholarships away from current collegiate athletes, forcing players to, perhaps, enroll in different and lesser baseball programs. Juniors in college who would typically leave early to be drafted will be staying, which takes college slots away from new freshman or underclassmen. And seniors will also have the choice of returning, as they've reportedly been granted a fifth year of eligibility with no 2020 season.

The long term consequences of the shortened draft will be very interesting to follow as baseball eventually returns to normalcy over the next few years. But a more interesting piece of information came out from Passan and McDaniel's story about baseball's joint decision with the MLBPA:

The news serves as a lead-in to the discussions between the league and MLBPA next week on a return-to-play proposal MLB is expected to deliver Tuesday. The previous formal offer between the sides concerned the draft in late April, when MLB offered a 10-round draft -- with the slot values from the sixth through 10th rounds half the size of the agreed-upon amount and the number of $20,000 signings limited to five. 
The union rejected the proposal, precipitating the league settling on five rounds. Though the college baseball world had anticipated five rounds, it will scramble to figure out how to balance its limited scholarships, a potential influx of freshmen and the desires of draft-eligible juniors -- and seniors, after the NCAA restored eligibility to spring athletes upon canceling the 2020 season -- to forgo $20,000 bonuses and return to school. 
The 2020 minor league season could be in jeopardy as well, with multiple farm directors saying they believe prospects would spend their seasons at teams' complexes in Arizona and Florida instead of minor league affiliates, who would lose money running games without fans.  []

A return to play proposal is coming on Tuesday? Well, that will be good news. Hopefully. 

Stay tuned...

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