The Curious Case of Sports During a Pandemic

The Curious Case of Sports During a Pandemic

By Chris Cole (@HockeyNC)

It certainly has been awhile since I have written for Under Review.  Partly busy with work in an essential industry, some of it writer’s block, but mainly not having the will or interest in writing about sports while COVID-19 ravages the world.  But, many sports leagues have started to open up again in various ways and it’s giving me the urge to write this article.  

How have sports evolved (or devolved, not in a bad way) during this strange time?

For myself I resorted to watching old hockey games on YouTube.  The eight-game Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union in 1972 as well as all the Canada games in the Canada Cups of the 70's and 80's are available in full on the platform.  I was also watching NHL Super Series games between NHL teams and Soviet League clubs during that same time period too.  Go watch the game between the Montreal Canadiens and CSKA Moscow on December 31st, 1975 which is considered one of the greatest games of hockey ever (and I wholeheartedly agree!). 

For others it started with simulations.  The great people here at Under Review simulated and streamed the remaining regular season and playoff games of the Federal Prospects Hockey League.  NASCAR and IndyCar ran virtual races on iRacing with both praise (awesome driving) and controversy (rage quitting and unnecessary crashing).  Those races peaked my interest and I made sure to either watch them live or catch the races later on YouTube.  Cycling has gone virtual as well with riders using their exercise bikes and linking them to a program to race others. 

The oddest one though is horse racing.  Horse racing didn’t exactly stop during these strange times.  When every other sport was shut down the only thing some sports channels were airing daily races.  Even crazier in Great Britain they held a virtual horse race!  I don’t even want to know how they made that happen.  

Wrapping back around to myself, I and a few others in the North Carolina hockey community started up an eSports league on NHL 20 called the CanCHELation Cup which has been moderately successful and we are finishing up season 2 soon and in the midst of planning for season 3.  It’s been great to interact with so many people online during this time and have a lot of fun! 

How are sports dealing with the new normal?

Our first taste of sports in the new normal started in South Korea with opening day games in their top baseball competition the KBO League.  No fans, fist bumps instead of handshakes, and plenty of player noise are what stuck out to me more so than the game being played… at first.  After watching another game I didn’t notice it as much and just focused on a ballgame.

It’s mid-July and we have all forms of motorsports back (NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula 1), soccer, The Basketball Tournament, and golf back in action albeit with massive restrictions. All of these sports as well those (NHL, NBA, MLB) starting up in the near future are playing in either empty or capacity-restricted arenas.  

Various soccer leagues around the world are broadcasting their games with crowd noise included.  It was very strange to watch a Bundesliga game with full chanting and clapping but seeing all those empty seats.  Heck, in the Serie A in Italy they have taken it a step further and have digitally put in fans in the stands whenever there was a wide shot of the field.  

In motorsports Formula 1 has had to condense their schedule from 22 races to at least 10 (there is a possibility of the FIA adding more) with Austria and Great Britain holding back-to-back Grand Prix's to make up the numbers.  Fans are not in attendance, but some have been along the roadsides off the property. 

NASCAR, on the other hand, has been racing like crazy! They are doing what they can to keep their schedule intact which means multiple races during a weekend at the same track weekend-after-weekend.  Depending on the capacity restrictions in each state they race in some races have some fans like Talladega and Bristol (SOME OF THE UNDER REVIEW CREW WENT TO THE ALL-STAR RACE THIS PAST WEEKEND) while tracks like Miami Homestead were raced in front of no spectators.

While it is great to see sports programming returning to our televisions, there is a lingering question of what happens if a team (or league) gets bogged down with positive Coronavirus tests?  

It’s time to look at the MLS for how to deal with the pandemic.

To answer the aforementioned question we need to look at Major League Soccer and their MLS is Back Tournament.  Originally slated to have all 26 of their teams in six groups (five groups of four and one group of six)  two teams, Nashville FC and FC Dallas were withdrawn from the tournament due to their teams having multiple players with positive COVID tests.  Instead of shutting down the tournament, the MLS just went ahead with 24 teams placed in six groups.  When a player on Toronto FC tested positive before their game against DC United the league postponed the game and played it a few days later after going through all their medical protocols.

With the NHL and NBA returning shortly to finish up their respective season there is a lot of worry that a team or multiple teams will run into the same situation as the MLS.  The worst-case scenario for the NHL and NBA is that these games are playoff games so what happens if a team has a handful of positive tests despite being in a bubble?  Do you wait a handful of days to bring up players outside of the already expanded rosters to fill the void?  Would that team have to forfeit?  

What happens if it’s the finals and a team gets hit with the virus?  That’s my main worry.  The first time the Stanley Cup wasn’t awarded was during the influenza epidemic of 1919 because two players on the Montreal Canadiens team had died from the flu.  There’s no doubt that every sports league has a plan in place for all of these situations shall they arise.  

We do take sports for granted a lot and while these are strange times, be happy that sports are back, but be patient if things don’t go the way they are planned.  Stay safe.