Some businesses and services are beginning to reopen in the wake of the coronavirus shutdown, but large gatherings are still prohibited in most areas. That means that professional sports — or at least, professional sports as we're used to experiencing them — will have a longer and more complicated path to return. The good news is that most major pro leagues are planning a comeback of some kind; the bad news is that we may not be able to see them in person for a while, maybe not until a vaccine is widely distributed.
Globally, the Korean Baseball Organization was one of the first pro leagues to resume play. The Bundesliga, Germany's elite soccer league, followed suit in mid-May. Keep reading to see how and when American pro sports are planning to return, and what you can expect to see when they do.
The Major League Baseball season will begin either July 23 or 24, with players reporting to training camp on July 1. The 60-game season essentially represents a failure of negotiation between the MLB owners and the MLB Players' Association (MLBPA), both of whom negotiated for months over player salaries (players wanted full prorated pay, which would be their full-season salary decreased based on shortened playing time) and stemming profit losses from a season with no fans (owners were against full pro rata, and some believe they wanted a shorter season to cut costs).
On June 23, the league mandated the new schedule, a right stipulated in a March 26 agreement that also guaranteed players full prorated salaries if it came to this point. Both sides are expected to file grievances against the other, with the MLBPA likely claiming that the league is at fault for not putting on as full a season as possible.
As for what the games themselves will look like? Teams will be restricted to playing within their division and geographical area. Rosters will be smaller (30 players, down from the 40-player extended roster), and extra innings will start with a runner on second base, among other changes. The playoffs will include 10 teams as usual.
The story from the minor leagues is not as positive. The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the governing body of the minor leagues, announced on June 30 that the 2020 minor league season was canceled because the MLB opted not to provide players to teams amid the pandemic. "These are unprecedented times for our country and our organization as this is the first time in our history that we've had a summer without minor league baseball played," said National Association President Pat O'Conner on Twitter. "While this is a sad day for many, this announcement removes the uncertainty surrounding the 2020 season and allows our teams to begin planning for an exciting 2021 season of affordable family entertainment."
Major League Soccer is set to return July 8 with the MLS Is Back tournament. All 26 teams will participate, and the competition will be held in Orlando at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex (part of the Walt Disney World Resort). The games will be played without fans but the matches will be televised; broadcast and streaming information haven't yet been released.
Each team will play a three-game group stage, with the top two teams in each group moving on to a round of 16 knockout stage. The final is scheduled for Aug. 11. Regular season play will resume after the tournament, though the full schedule has yet to be released. A regular postseason is also planned.
The National Basketball Association will return in late July with a 22-team format. Each team will play eight regular season games to determine seeding before moving into the playoffs, The Washington Post reported. The games will be played at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World without fans in attendance.
So far, most of the focus has been on whether college football will be able to hold its season in the fall, and it's reasonable to assume that other sports will follow a similar plan. The latest update, reported June 8 by ESPN, would plan for the season to begin on time (in late August and early September), with coaches beginning to work with players as early as July 6. Meetings and walk-throughs with a football would start in mid-July if the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) approves the current plan.
Much can change between now and the projected start of the season. In a call with congressional leadership, NCAA President Mark Emmert said that some teams may not return at all, though leaders appeared confident that football will be played with at least some fans in the stands, according to Sports Illustrated. However, as of June 24, COVID-19 outbreaks had been reported among several NCAA football teams, including Louisiana State University, Clemson University, and University of Texas at Austin.
The National Football League's season is still scheduled to begin on Sept. 10, with no word yet on whether fans will be able to attend games. Players are currently training remotely, with team training camps set to open in late July.
The National Hockey League's Return to Play Plan will have 24 teams compete to determine playoff seeding. Sixteen teams will play in eight best-of-five series while the top four teams in both conferences will play a round robin, setting rankings for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Still to be determined: the start date and two "hub cities" that will host the games.
The National Women's Soccer League is set to be the first US sports league to return. The 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup will kick off June 27 in Utah, with broadcast coverage on CBS All Access. No fans will be in attendance for the tournament. Originally, all nine clubs had planned on participating, but the Orlando Pride withdrew on June 22 due to a coronavirus outbreak among the team and staff. The new schedule plans for 23 total games.
The WNBA will have a 22-game regular season with a start date in late July and a postseason in October, all played at a single site in Bradenton, FL. The season will be 14 games shorter than usual, but players will be paid 100 percent of their full salaries. Details on testing protocols and an official start date have yet to be announced.