The next phase of re-opening society is occurring across the United States. In the latest step, occupancy has been increased for bars and restaurants along with other businesses being allowed to open back up. The most intriguing is sports teams being given the green light to resume playing their games, but not in front of live audiences. Although the noticeable absences of fans in stadiums and arenas will impact people from fully enjoying a game, that hasn’t stopped some from getting creative.
Football, or soccer in the U.S., has already returned in Germany as the Bundesliga resumed it’s season. In the first games back on May 25, the FOX network attempted to use fake crowd noises during matches; including the big one between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. On the sports entertainment side, the WWE has now begun to use NXT wrestlers as fans after seeing the success it’s been for rival wrestling company AEW. While occasionally seeing wrestlers scattered around the ring on television cheering and booing is encouraging, it’s far from the full engagement that comes with a packed arena. That same sentiment carried into the Bundesliga, as people watching the game could hear the crowd noises only to be reminded that the stadium is empty every time the camera angles changed.
The Bundesliga is one of the few sports leagues around the world to resume so far, and have been a closely watched by other leagues to see how well they fare in these uncertain times. With the NFL intent to start their season this Fall not only on time, but with fans in attendance, that leaves others leagues pondering if they should resume soon and salvage the remainder of the season. In the United States, Major League Baseball (MLB) has already missed Opening Day however their season normally ends in October. But for the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Hockey League (NHL) their season typically concludes around mid-June. This has caused fans, players, and management to assume that perhaps their 2019-2020 seasons are a lost cause.
That hasn’t stopped some from attempting to revive hope of bringing the games back. In the NHL’s case, commissioner Gary Bettman announced on May 26 that the NHL will forego the rest of the regular season and jump straight into the playoffs if it’s able to return to action. Bettman goes on to add that 24 teams, instead of 16, will be invited to the postseason in which the games would be held inside empty arenas at two hub cities. Players, staff and others would be housed during the season restart. The playoffs would include round-robin games, and best-of-five play-in series, which will lead teams to advance to the traditional 16-team Stanley Cup playoff bracket. This indicates that if hockey is able to return that it will end fairly quickly, unlike what the NBA has in mind if they follow suit.
Many NBA players and league management are hoping for the season to resume, but their idea has some fans questioning if it’s even worth it. In following the latest updates for the NBA, the strong idea is have hub cities such as Orlando host the league for the remainder of the season and into the postseason. The NBA’s step-by-step return plan includes an initial two-week recall of players into team marketplaces for a period of quarantine, one to two weeks of individual workouts at team facilities and a two-to-three-week formal training camp. That projection means games won’t actually be played until late-July, with a champion being crowned well into late summer/early Fall.
That would mean pushing the 2020-2021 season to a proposed Christmas day start, which they may think is a good idea, but could ultimately shift when the basketball season begins moving forward. The positives behind it would be no ratings competition with Thursday night football and other sporting attractions. It also means the season should end later in the summer, which will keep sports fans occupied in what normally is a slow, boring off-season. However, changing it to a December start date would mean no more Halloween games, Thanksgiving-time games, and other holiday season games. The NBA may subtly believe that the Christmas day games are the true “start of the season”, however the start of the season all begins the same no matter when the start date is.
In any sport, it’s not how you start, but how you finish. Teams that are true competitors really catch fire as the regular season draws to a close. But when a season begins, many teams start a little sluggish as they try to create chemistry and find their identities. The Win-Loss records still matter, and teams will do their best to get off to a good start, but many know the beginning of the season should not be held against them if they start off poorly. So while the NBA may think moving the season to start on Christmas day should bring more competitiveness, it only delays the growing pains teams go through typically the first few weeks and months of play. It should be expected, then, that teams would play similarly in January and February as they would in October, November and early December.
But back to this season that’s in peril, the NBA is still deciding on a playoff format including how it would look and which teams would be allowed to play. One of the debates is if teams that are doing poorly should even play the remaining games when there’s no incentive to do so. That leads into teams who are on the bubble to make the playoffs, and their records being affected by that and more. But what if the NBA copied the NHL’s plan of return? What if they forego their initial idea of taking up nearly two months of prep, that other leagues haven’t done, and jumped into the playoffs immediately?
Imagine extending the playoff format to all teams, who currently have a statistical chance of being in the dance, and having a round robin opening round that eliminates teams until the normal 16-team format is present. Then the league shifts to 5-game series for the first and second rounds, and then returns back to the 7-game series format for the conference and NBA championship series.
This not only eliminates the need for excessive NBA regular season games, in which lower-place teams don’t want to play, but also quickens the time the season concludes thus allowing the next season to start closer on-time. It also removes more risk of spreading COVID-19 by having less teams around for a shorter amount of time, as opposed to many teams playing well into late summer.
If the NBA is so intent on finishing this season, it should do so as quickly as possible because, no matter what, whoever wins will most assuredly have an asterisk by their championship. Not in a negative sense, but rather from all the complications that came with this pandemic-stricken season. Even if given months to prepare, no team will play like they were back in March and the chemistry will be varied from before. Great teams back then may play poorly, while lower-tier teams may play more inspired. How the playoffs are designed will also add to the asterisk, especially if bubble teams are given an equal chance. Players may urge for the season to resume, but would their opinions quickly change if they were first to be eliminated when they thought they’d go far?
The NBA should be expected to decide soon if there will even be a season to resume. Their intentions remain to bring it back, and if they do they should strongly look at the NHL’s plan as opposed to theirs. It cuts time and risk in what would be an unnecessary extension to a season that already feels lost for the fans and some players. Maybe their desire is to accrue whatever revenue they could earn from television, or their plan to move the start of future seasons to December. If that’s the case, then it’s understandable why they’re persistent. But if it’s simply to just finish the season out, maybe they should just cut their losses and wait till October for the next season to return and start fresh. Hopefully by then, the virus will not be a threat and fans can be in attendance to see the game they love and have missed so much.