COVID-19 brought sports to a screeching halt worldwide and forced leagues to cancel or postpone in order to keep their players safe. In fact, this year marks the most significant disruption ever seen in the sporting calendar. After being on hiatus for months, professional sports are slowly coming back to life, but at what cost?
The German Football League (DFL, or Bundesliga) and Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) were the first leagues to dare to play. Both instated stringent hygiene guidelines, Bundesliga’s including regular mass testing and quarantining of players and coaches, social distancing on buses to and from games, and banned shaking hands or embracing. Players who break these rules face severe consequences, including suspension. Similarly, the KBO required all players to undergo testing, mandatory 14-day quarantine and required all players to download a contact tracing app. The app worked through location tracing, ensuring that the quarantine period wasn’t broken. It also listed a symptom checklist that had to be filled out every 24 hours. Both leagues were successful in their efforts, and when the KBO appeared, oasis-like, it quenched the thirst of American fans – ESPN recorded 173,000 viewers for the first game. Britain’s Premier League was the next European soccer league to start, followed by Spain’s LaLiga and RFEF.
Building off their momentum, golf and tennis began to make comebacks. Both are among the “safer” sports as they are played outdoors, facilitate no physical contact between players, and require little shared equipment. The density of golf and tennis players is relatively low, so it’s easier to control exposure and viral load. The PGA and LPGA tours returned spectator-free in June. Tennis has also returned, most notably, pulling off the US Open in August. The USTA required all players to live inside a “bubble” to limit player exposure. “Bubbles” are restricted environments in which athletes eat, sleep, and play. No spectators are allowed in bubbles, and travel in and out is closely monitored. This tactic proved successful: of the thousands of personnel required to make the tournament happen, only a handful tested positive for COVID-19.
The NHL and NBA also started up again, both using bubbles to continue the regular season. The NBA’s bubble is located within Disney World in Orlando, and has been used to house players during the end of the regular season and during the playoffs. Since mid-July, the NBA bubble has proven highly effective at protecting players.
However, not all leagues and tournaments have fared as well. One infamous example is that of the Miami Marlins. The MLB’s initial guidelines mirrored that of the CDC’s close contact guidelines – people were only at risk if they were within a six-foot radius of an infected person for more than 15 minutes, or coughed on. The Marlins proved within days that these guidelines were not enough, as over 18 players contracted Covid-19.
Another notable example is the Adria Tour, a series of tennis exhibition tournaments hosted by world number one Novak Djokovic. The Tour failed to implement social distancing guidelines, allowing un-masked fans to pack into the stands. Later, photos were revealed of players hugging, shaking hands, dancing, and playing basketball before and during the tournament. The Tour was ultimately cancelled before it’s completion, after many of the players tested positive.
Until the pandemic calms down or vaccines become widespread, many of these tactics won’t work outside professional sports. Inter-scholastic leagues have been cancelled due to safety concerns, especially for hybrid day and boarding schools like CA. As a student-athlete, I want nothing more than to compete and train again, but the future for game days seem dim. So while we can’t go back to normal yet, there is a lot we can apply from today’s professional sports to our own leagues – limiting contact sports, cleaning equipment, regular testing, mask-wearing, social distancing, and as sad as it seems, playing without fans. But if the pros can do it, we can too.