Hawks fans Robert Foushee (left) and Jon Cristofunelli are on hand to watch Atlanta face the N.Y. Knicks Wednesday, March 11, 2020, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Not to be crass, but when might sports return?

Confession: If you’re reading this, you probably watch more sports than I do. When it comes to TV, I’m selective. I see what I need to see, and not much more. (Exception: Premier League soccer. That’s my fun place, except when Man U. is behind. Then I’m throwing shoes.) But in our nation’s first full week of social-distancing, I watched the following: 

• A documentary on the Detroit Red Wings’ Russian Five. (For the record, I haven’t watched 20 seconds of an NHL regular-season game since the Thrashers — that was their name, right? – lit out for Manitoba.) 

• The final minutes of Illinois’ comeback win over Arizona in the 2005 Elite Eight. (This was Deron Williams, whom the Hawks should have drafted, against Salim Stoudamire, whom the Hawks did draft.) 

• Tom Brady’s comeback victory in the Super Bowl over Seattle, whose defense was coached by Dan Quinn, and then Brady’s comeback victory in the Super Bowl against another team coached by Quinn. (There was once a time when I couldn’t flip past “The Dirty Dozen” without stopping. Then it became “GoodFellas.” Now it’s 28-3. For reasons unclear, I can’t not watch it.) 

• Oh, and three hours of Premier League best goals of the season, dating to 2014. 

That was just TV. If we count YouTube, we’ll be here all day. I’d love to say I watched the 1974 N.C. State-Maryland ACC tournament final as due diligence for our Best Final Fours series, but that’d be a stretch. I watched it because it was a famous game I’d somehow never seen. (And, let’s face it, I had nowhere else to be.) I had no need to watch UCLA and Bill Walton blow an 11-point lead at Notre Dame that same year  I saw that one as it happened —– but I clicked on it, too. 

In sum, I’ve watched more sports in a week than I usually do in a month, and I know it’s because no sports are ongoing. It’s one thing when you know something’s there and you can access it as needed; it’s different when there’s nothing. Which brings us, in a convoluted way — apologies, but you probably don’t have anywhere else to be, either — to this: 

How long will it be before sports are there again? 

On the list of human concerns at this fraught moment, sports rank in the bottom 1 percentile. But this is the sports section, and I am, at last check, a sportswriter. And if we didn’t like our little games, there wouldn’t be 31 different flavors of ESPN. 

As we know, everything involving a ball or a puck or any form of racing is on hold. In our world, much of life is on hold. We can’t know where the coronavirus will lead – 12 days ago, would you have believed there’d be no NCAA tournament? — and we have no idea how long it will take to return to any semblance of normalcy. But let’s take a guess that much of these United States will remain in stay-home mode, or something approximating it, until June. (To reiterate: I’m a sportswriter, not an epidemiologist.) 

The Kentucky Derby is now scheduled for the first Saturday in September. The Masters could be played in October. Euro 2020, the biggest soccer tournament outside the World Cup, will be held in 2021. The Tokyo Olympics keep postponing an announcement of postponement, but that seems a fait accompli. Immense as they are, those events aren’t seasons. Seasons are even more difficult to rearrange. 

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly told NHL.com last week that the NHL had played enough of its regular season — more than 80 percent — to constitute “integrity.” That suggests hockey will move into playoff mode shortly if not immediately after any resumption. The NBA regular season stopped at a similar place. Assuming the playoffs start in June and the usual 16 playoff teams work best-of-sevens all the way through, they mightn’t be done until August. (The NBA is great at many things, but it’s terrible at streamlining.) If that happens, would it permanently reset the NBA calendar in the way that Hawks CEO Steve Koonin recently proposed at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytic Conference — start in December, end in August? 

MLB halted midway through spring training. If/when its teams reconvene, it’s thought that they’ll require at least two weeks to re-ready themselves. That could push opening day within sight of the Fourth of July. There would be no way to play beyond November — most baseball games, duh, are held outdoors — so there’d need to be a much-truncated schedule. Say 100 games, as opposed to 162. Would that produce a fair result? Maybe not, but in 1981 MLB added a layer to its playoffs in the effort to salvage the strike season. (Still played 120 games, give or take.) 

And that’s just the scheduling part, which avoids the elephant in the room – or not in the room, as the case may be. What happens if the leagues — MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS — are allowed to resume play, provided they do it in empty stadiums/arenas? On the one hand, the players would be getting paid and the leagues and teams banking broadcast revenue. On the other, there’d be no money coming from ticket sales, concessions and parking.

Would the leagues and their franchises carry on playing if they’re losing money? (Remember, the NBA suspended its season on the night the NCAA was still planning to stage its tournament without fans.) Would players consent to playing if the all-clear for fans hasn’t been sounded? (Rudy Gobert testing positive pretty much shut down U.S. sports.) Or would leagues and teams and players just say, “Everybody stay safe out there, and we’ll see you in 2021?” 

I don’t know. I spoke with someone who participates in five conference calls a week regarding the immediate future of a league named above. That person essentially said that, for all the attempts at game-planning, nobody knows anything. Who can say how June will look? Who can say anything for sure? 

Sorry to be the bearer of such uncertain news, but we’re living — file this under “massive understatement” — in an uncertain time. Maybe we’ll see the Braves and Atlanta United again soon, and maybe even the Hawks. Until then, there’s YouTube. Watch that N.C. State-Maryland game. It’s epic.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.
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