The Great Restoration

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March 11, 2020: the day sports stood still. This fateful Wednesday pushed the sports world into uncharted territory as virtually everything was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. First, the virus took the NCAA away. Then the NBA. The NHL, MLS, PGA, La Liga, and ATP followed. The next days without sports felt like weeks. The next few weeks felt like months. But now, there is hope.

Bundesliga, Germany’s elite soccer league, became the first major sports league to return with games resuming on May 16, providing a glimpse of what major sports could look like for the months to come. Disinfected balls, COVID-19 tests for players, temperature checks when entering the stadium, substitutes sitting in the bleachers away from one another, and elbow bumps are now all mandatory practices in the Bundesliga. In South Korea, the KBO professional baseball league also resumed play with several preventive measures: players and coaches go through screening, umpires wear face masks during games, and the league banned chewing tobacco. In both cases, the stands, normally packed with rabid fans, are abandoned, with life-size cardboard cutouts replacing the home team’s faithful supporters.

The play on the field was still dazzling, with high scoring matches resuming the Bundesliga season. The typical teams (Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich) took home three points and the typical scorers (Erling Haaland) netted goals, but despite this normalcy, everything was still eerie: sports are simply not the same without fans. Sure, the games have to be well-played, but sports are only rallied alive with the camaraderie and passion of their fanbases. The anthems, the boos, the cheers, the flares, and the atmosphere are what really make sports the thing they are. For now, we will have to get used to fanless sporting events, as it is unlikely that sports stadiums will reopen in the foreseeable future.

We can only speculate about how this strange situation will affect sports in the near and distant future. Within the next year, sporting events will surely be played with few to no fans, but they will be more important than ever as a means of creating communities once again. In the next three years, will the coronavirus pandemic have scared sports fans out of crowded arenas? Or will more fans than ever be hungry to see their teams live? No one knows, but one thing is certain: everyone will get at least a little bit of a morale boost when sports return.

Sports leagues across the world are all training their eyes on the Bundesliga, the lab rat for the coming restoration. So far, the Bundesliga’s new beginning has been a cautious success, but officials have made it clear that any complications will result in a second shutdown. Economically, the return has been extremely lucrative, with eager sports fans in Germany and across the world putting up record television numbers. These encouraging signs have bolstered hopes for the return of several leagues, with many teams reopening or planning to reopen their facilities in the NFL, NBA, MLS, and MLB. Spain’s La Liga has kept a watchful eye on the Bundesliga and has been cleared to resume their season as soon as June 11. In addition, the NHL announced that they would scrap the rest of the regular season and invite 24 of the top teams to one of two central locations to play a modified playoff series.

While the MLB and NFL hadn’t started their seasons before getting shut down and the MLS was just a couple of games in, the NBA is in a unique quandary. Teams were in the thick of the playoff race when suddenly, the news that Utah Jazz star defender Rudy Gobert had the virus resulted in an immediate suspension of the season. The NBA plans to allow teams to settle into their facilities before sending them all to Orlando’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex to resume play. The NBA has yet to make a decision on whether it will resume the schedule of games originally planned or go straight into playoffs as the NHL decided to do. Both plans have downsides, resulting in the choice between robbing teams of the opportunity to compete to make the playoffs or significantly limiting the offseason.

These difficult decisions will have to be made by every league around the world as they grapple with how to deal with the most tenuous closure to the sports world since World War II. Sports leagues, like every other line of work affected by the pandemic, will have to make choices about financial ruin, player safety, fan attendance, and ticket sales. No matter how they return, sports will provide a glimmer of hope for billions across the world. Sports will remind us of how unifying they are and will connect us all in a time when we are physically alone.

Let the great restoration begin.