Is the bubble the only way that professional team sports can successfully operate moving forward?
After what felt like a successful opening weekend for the 2020 MLB season, baseball fans felt that everything was back to normal, with just a few hiccups as it relates to positive COVID-19 tests.
Then, just like always, Monday morning rolled around to sour everyone’s mood. In this case, bad news came back for the Miami Marlins, with eight more players and two coaches testing positive COVID-19, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan and Jesse Rogers.
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In total, at least 14 team members in the Marlins’ clubhouse have reportedly tested positive in recent days.
As a result, a potential slippery slope began: the Marlins’ Monday night matchup against the Baltimore Orioles in Miami was postponed, the team was forced to stay in Philadelphia for the time being, and the Philadelphia Phillies’ Monday night game against the New York Yankees was also postponed.
The Associated Press pointed out that the Marlins also played games exhibition games against Atlanta on the Tuesday and Wednesday prior to the season starting, and the Braves then had two players start to show symptoms of the coronavirus.
From there, other questions popped up: Do the Phillies have to quarantine because of their exposure to the Miami Marlins over the three-game series to start the season? Will the Yankees want to play in Philadelphia at all after such a widespread outbreak in the visitors’ clubhouse? What will the league do when this type of incident happens again in the future, potentially with multiple teams at the same time?
But, for fans of all of the United States’ “Big Four” sports (baseball, basketball, football and hockey), another larger question came to mind: Is the bubble the only way for professional team sports to successfully operate moving forward?
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The NBA hasn’t officially started its continuation of the 2019-2020 season, with seeding games scheduled to start on Thursday, July 30. But, the league has had numerous exhibition games for each of the 22 teams housed in its bubble in Orlando, and testing numbers have shown positive trends.
On July 20, days before exhibition games got underway, the league reported zero positive tests among the 346 players tested inside of the bubble. At the same time, it reinforced the mentality as it relates to players leaving the bubble for any variety of reasons, and the extensive rules in place to make sure that they cannot spread anything upon their return.
“In the event that a player on the NBA campus returns a confirmed positive test in the future, he will be isolated until he is cleared for leaving isolation under the rules established by the NBA and the Players Association,” the NBA wrote.
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As the NBA piled up satisfactory test results throughout their extensive process, the NHL moved into the third part of its phased approach to restarting its season.
During the entirety of Phase 2, the NHL said there were 4,934 COVID-19 tests administered to a group of “in excess of 600 Players report to Club training/practice facilities for optional participation in Phase 2 activities.” 30 returned confirmed positive test results for COVID-19, with 13 additional Players who tested positive for COVID-19 outside of the Phase 2 Protocol.
Those players self-isolated and followed guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, and Phase 3 then began as training camps opened on July 13. The NHL said that 4,256 total tests were administered to more than 800 players from July 18 through July 25, with zero positive test results. Two positive results came back during the period from July 13 through July 17, creating a total of just two positives among 6,874 total tests in Phase 3.
While no official games have been played as of this writing on July 27, the NBA’s and NHL’s respective bubbles could turn out to be the go-to solution for the sports world in the future, especially if the current MLB schedule falls by the wayside as a result of a rapid spread of COVID-19.
The NFL will likely follow whatever lead MLB sets, considering the similarities in their respective setups. Both outdoor sports, with both leagues featuring teams spread out across the country and some based in current coronavirus hotspots. Neither opted to go with the bubble approach, and could wind up with shortened or canceled seasons if things go south quickly.
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Meanwhile, the NBA and NHL chose to operate inside of their bubbles, with the NBA taking over Disney World in Orlando, and the NHL posting up in Edmonton and Toronto up in Canada.
Yes, the circumstances are different, as the NBA is looking to finish up its “regular season” and move into the playoffs, and the NHL is wasting little time by moving right into its postseason.
And yes, MLB and NFL teams are larger than their NBA and NHL counterparts, and trying to set up a bubble with big, outdoor fields in one or two cities could prove to be an impossible task for an entire season’s worth of games.
But, if both the NBA and NHL are able to pull it off this summer, it could set the tone for the future of sports in a post-pandemic world.
Players may not feel safe under the guidelines that MLB is following, and stars in the NFL may start to get cold feet of their own as a result. Then, both leagues may see players decide to wait until there is a vaccine if their respective sports don’t try to operate under the bubble format.
It’s a tough path to travel down for members of the baseball world, as the train could come off the tracks at any moment if enough positive COVID-19 tests pile up for teams across a variety of cities. Games will start to get canceled left and right, and the season as a whole could fall apart before fans even get back into their groove.
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If it happens in baseball, it’ll likely follow suit in football. From there, each league may have to find ways to operate in a potential new normal for the world of professional team sports: the bubble.
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