When and How Will Sports Come Back?

With the country mostly shut down due to coronavirus, it’s been nearly two weeks since the last live sporting event in the U.S. There isn’t a clear end in sight for this period of social distancing, which was recently extended to April 30th, and I expect it to go on potentially much longer as the virus continues to make its way through various areas. The future of sports in this environment feels unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but at the same time, there is a collective need for distraction and entertainment, and historically sports have served as a strong unifier and a way to rally the country. This is a big reason why I expect sports to be one of the first normal things to come back, likely in June or July, though it will have to be in a vastly different form than we’ve seen before.

Until there is a vaccine, widespread herd immunity, or some unforeseen mitigation of the virus threat, I do not expect sporting events to be played in front of crowds. This will make for a weird viewing experience, but it also opens the door for creative solutions: without a live crowd, the actual location where you’re playing the game is irrelevant. This is the key to my proposed solution, which will sound insane — but these are insane times, and a weird, unprecedented problem like this will likely have weird, out-of-the-box solutions. The concept of “social distancing” would have sounded crazy weeks ago, but now seems like the obvious correct thing to do.

A league that wants to play games could theoretically quarantine all of their players, test them (we’ve already seen how accessible testing is for NBA players), and then isolate them in a location that is not as susceptible to the virus — something like a small town in rural Montana, but there is room to go crazy here if you want to ship players to the Yukon. This is a possible solution for the NBA, which still wants to finish its season, and really only needs a traditional basketball court to play. The two conferences could quarantine in a local hotel or something, then play games all day at a random gym, with the Western Conference taking one day, then resting the next while the Eastern Conference plays. Assuming thorough testing, this is not that far-fetched of an idea, and it could potentially give Americans hours of live basketball to watch each day while stuck indoors.

Sports leagues are heavily incentivized to come back, and whoever jumps first in this game of chicken has potential to reap serious rewards — they can establish a narrative of helping the country “bounce back” while also generating attention to their games, which could lead to iconic moments that are replayed forever (think Mike Piazza’s home run after September 11). I assume every league in season right now is thinking of these sorts of drastic measures to get games in, simply because the benefits are so significant. With that said, here are the three leagues I think are most likely to jump into the pool first:

MLB: Commissioner Rob Manfred is a desperate man who has been doing anything he can to get more eyeballs on the game and try to win new fans. Baseball being the first sport to return would be a perfect opportunity for that, and it will be in the summer which is strongly associated with the sport. MLB can also credibly argue that they play the safest game, as it is typically outdoors with much less intense physical contact than basketball, hockey, or soccer.

The biggest issue I see with MLB is finding enough fields and being able to get the games (which take forever) in while quarantining the large rosters. I am skeptical about teams traveling around and playing in their home parks while this is going on. It’s possible there is a complex in the right location with enough fields to play the needed 15 games, which could obviously be staggered throughout the day. Even if there is, baseball teams often jettison players back and forth from the minor leagues, and it’s hard to envision a situation that supports a full major league and minor league slate. This would likely necessitate larger rosters (which have already been discussed), but a lack of minor league games still would have a ripple effect on the trade market and the development of young players. If MLB can figure out a solution to those complex issues, they have a strong chance of being the first sport to come back.

WNBA: Their draft is still on as scheduled and we’re approaching when the season would start anyways. The WNBA has a few things going for it: it has the fewest players of any league, it only needs simple basketball courts (as discussed earlier), and it’s the league with the most to gain from being the first league back. They’ve needed a shot in the arm for popularity and more exposure to the sport forever, and I think the country will be so sports-starved that even those skeptical of women’s sports will tune in. When they do, they might be surprised by how much they like it.

The only complicating factor here is that WNBA players are very socially conscious — I’m not sure if that would manifest in them not wanting to participate or in them desiring to get on the court and give the country a distraction. There are also still some old gender roles issues at play with many players who are mothers and may be more reluctant to leave their families during these heightened, stressful times, especially since they’re not making millions like their male counterparts. However, the WNBA always deals with players sitting out seasons even when things are going fine, so I’m not sure if that’s a dealbreaker, and in the end, my hunch is that athletes will want to play and compete if assured of their safety. This is a sleeper pick and might be my favorite right now.

MLS: This is another rising sports league that would love to get some attention, and also benefits from being outdoors and playing on a basic field. I honestly don’t follow the league enough to know its social dynamics or what the commissioners are thinking, but they will clearly have one of the stronger incentives to get back on the field as soon as possible.

Those three strike me as the most likely right now, but almost any projection is clouded with uncertainty. The NBA has a problem where if it wants to return for its playoffs, they would be playing through their typical offseason. It’s possible the league will still finish its season and then permanently change the start of their regular season to Christmas — something that has already been discussed by owners so they compete less with football. The NHL season feels like a lost cause to me, as getting rink space for every team seems difficult, and I think even the start of their next season might be an issue. If none of these leagues return in the summer (which would shock me), the NFL will have months to prepare a solution and I think will find some way to play empty arena games for its season, even if it means shipping the players to Antarctica.

Any return by one of these leagues will require planning, some creative thinking, and an acceptance of some level of risk. However, I think the rewards are too great, and the demand is too large, for every league to just sit out this entire pandemic. How all of this happens is one of the things I’m most curious about, and I expect around May or June we’ll see the ideas start to roll out and some semblance of normalcy will be returned to our lives.

Naomi Osaka Meets Her Hero

For those of us who enjoy sports because of the drama and the real life characters, there hasn’t been a better event in recent years than last weekend’s U.S. Open final. In one corner, there was Naomi Osaka, an emerging phenom who bulldozed through the tournament to make her first Grand Slam final. In the process, she won the hearts of many with her endearingly awkward and funny press conferences and post-match interviews that resonated with me in particular as a fellow mumbly weird person.

In the other, there was Serena Williams, looking for her first major win since giving birth and also looking to tie Margaret Court’s all-time Grand Slams record. Serena is an incredible athlete, but a little harder to relate to, in that she’s just so damn good and has reached this level where she feels almost more like a god of tennis than a real person.

Osaka is a big fan of Williams and grew up watching her play. When Tom Rinaldo interviewed her after the semi-finals, she admitted what was driving her was that she really wanted to play Serena. That’s followed by one of my favorite sports interview moments in a long time: Rinaldi asks if she has any message to send to Serena, clearly teeing her up for some sort of controversial trash talk or at least friendly banter. Osaka freezes up a bit and just blurts out “I love you!” and then laughs as she realizes how weird it is that she just said that to her opponent.

Not exactly the most intimidating message to send, but that’s what makes Osaka special. And it set the stage for a final that I figured would be competitive, and also a lot of fun as we got to see Osaka take on her idol on one of the biggest stages imaginable. It didn’t quite work out like that. I couldn’t watch the match because I was going into work, and when I arrived, people had it on TV and they were doing the post-match ceremony, everyone was crying, the crowd was booing, I couldn’t tell who won, and the whole thing just looked like a mess.

I got informed that there was a lot of controversy, and later watched the video of Serena’s meltdown, which is really unlike almost anything I’ve seen in sports. Verbally abusing the officials is a time-honored tradition in all sports, but usually it’s a brief thing and then everyone moves on and keeps playing. This just kept on going for what felt like forever, and got increasingly heated and personal.

Serena’s actions have predictably become a lightning rod for takes and debate, mostly overshadowing the match itself. I still don’t really know what to make of it. My kneejerk reaction was that it felt like Serena was way out of line and unprofessional, and just from a standpoint of trying to win the match, she should have dropped it. But Serena is also in a situation I can’t even fathom: she’s an incredible athlete fighting for a huge win and feels like it’s not only being taken from her, but that her reputation is being maligned in the process. So that makes me empathize with her even if I can’t fully justify her actions. And then there’s this referee, who is getting abused by Serena for like 10 straight minutes when I feel like he was just trying to do his job. Maybe he sucks at his job and made a mistake, but does that warrant this type of reaction from a player? I have no idea about any of this. I just laugh at anyone who has a really confident take on what happened, because to me there are so many gray areas and nuances that it’s impossible to judge.

The only thing I’m confident about is that this was an ugly, bad thing that happened. And of course, Osaka was caught in the middle of it. I found the entire thing incredibly poignant from her perspective. She gets to play her hero, who she has put on this pedestal, and then stands across from the court as she has this really human, fallible moment where she just loses it. She beats her hero, but it doesn’t happen in the triumphant way she had imagined, as the match is just a backdrop for what’s happening between Serena and the official. Then she has this trophy celebration, a moment she’s dreamed of, and there’s boos and awkwardness, her hero is hugging her, telling the fans not to boo, and everything is just overwhelming and weird. I don’t know if there has been a more bittersweet moment in sports recently. I was simultaneously happy and heartbroken for her.

I feel even worse for Osaka when I realize that, deep down, I’m really enjoying all of this. The narrative dork in me can’t help but think that this is an amazing story that nobody would have ever written this way if it were fiction. A big reason why I love sports is that you get these really powerful, meaningful moments that surpass what the human imagination is capable of thinking of.

Baseball’s Contrarian Franchise

Despite what you might think from watching ESPN or MLB Network, the most interesting franchise in baseball is not the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, the L.A. Dodgers, or the Chicago Cubs. It’s a team that plays its home games in a dingy dome stadium in front of generously 5,000-10,000 people per night, has one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, and was accused by almost everyone of “tanking” for a high draft pick just a couple months ago.

Despite the public thinking they were fielding a terrible team on purpose, the Tampa Bay Rays currently sit at 46-44 with a +13 run differential, continuing their recent trend of somehow patching together a .500 team every season with what looks like the baseball equivalent of Scotch tape or possibly gluesticks. If not for the Mariners being the luckiest baseball team in history, they would be contending for a playoff spot. The secret to their success is what makes them the most fascinating team in the league to watch: the Rays are willing to rethink every single aspect of the game if it means getting an edge.

In the old Moneyball days, it was somewhat easy for the small-budget organizations to field a winning team because other front offices didn’t know what on-base percentage was and thought the key to winning games was bunting. In today’s MLB, there are no secrets. The big market teams have stopped entrusting their decision-making to former players who don’t actually understand the game, replacing them with robotic Ivy League whizzes and baseball nerds. The odds have never been more stacked against teams like Tampa Bay or Oakland, who can’t afford to keep star players once their salaries get too high and now are left with fewer resources towards analytics than the bigger clubs.

Since simply outsmarting teams like the Red Sox and Yankees is no longer an option, the Rays have gone a different route: they think differently and weirder. In a Wall Street Journal article, a team official summed up the Rays Way: “If we occupy the wake of both the Yankees and Boston and our behavior is aligned with theirs, we’re never going to step out and pass them—ever.” The only edge the Rays have is their willingness to try anything, no matter how crazy it sounds.

So the Rays have become the contrarians of baseball, mostly through necessity. Their home park of Tropicana Field has become like a baseball laboratory, where new ideas are constantly tossed into the fire. Eyebrows first raised in the offseason, when they traded away their face of the franchise, Evan Longoria, jettisoned last year’s best player, Steven Souza Jr., and straight-up DFA’d Corey Dickerson, who was coming off what looked like a career year. This led to the accusations of tanking (and they were obviously salary-cutting moves), but they were more about changing the philosophy of the team. With the rest of the league obsessed with power hitting and launching the ball, the Rays decided to go small ball, building around their defense and pitching.

It’s worked thus far, as the Rays are a competitive team that is notably stingy at giving up runs. Most remarkably, they’ve done it while frequently using a three or even two-man starting rotation. They’ve taken to having “bullpen days,” where 3-4 pitchers go through the batting order once or twice instead of using a traditional starter. They’ve also begun using “the opener,” where one of their normally late-inning relievers starts the game, faces the team’s toughest hitters, then leaves after one or two innings to hand the ball to the “starter,” who is spared from facing that team’s best hitters three times. These are all dramatic shifts from the way every other team is run, with a five-man rotation where the starter pitches basically as long as he can every game.

The logic behind the bullpen days makes a lot of sense: relievers routinely have lower ERAs than starters and pitchers always are better the first and second times through the batting order than the third. While very good starting pitchers are still important (and the Rays have them in Chris Archer and Blake Snell), using a group of bullpen guys instead of trying to wring 150-180 innings out of a mediocre 4th or 5th starter is one of those obvious ideas backed up by data that just needed a team brave enough to try it. As always, due to their situation, the Rays are that team.

Baseball is notoriously resistant to change, which leads to widespread skepticism and even disdain whenever the Rays try these strategies. But baseball’s obsession with tradition and doing things the way they always have been done is exactly why the Rays are able to comparatively thrive despite being in the worst possible situation. And when the rest of the league catches up to them on bullpen days, like they did with infield shifts and aggressive platooning, they will have some other trick to try to stay ahead of the curve (my guess is trying to develop two-way players).

More reasonable critics of the Rays dislike the team’s cold approach and cheapness, which leads to their best players inevitably being shipped out of Tampa, often at the peak of their ability. Personally, I enjoy the team’s lack of sentimentality and borderline disrespect for their own fans. If the Rays only did things that were popular and understood, they would never be remotely competitive in the AL East. And there is something admirable about how they make their decisions with the internal conviction that they are right, even if nobody else agrees. It’s why the Rays are a fun and good baseball team, as well as a walking argument for not just aligning with the status quo.