Where we’re headed: Games, maybe, but no fans

The Wall Street Journal's Jared Diamond reported Tuesday that MLB teams "are planning to unveil new ticket policies, following updated guidance from the league office, that lay the groundwork for refunds." At a time when nothing is moving in sports, this represents movement — albeit a retreat. It tells us what we've suspected for a while: MLB will try to play some sort of season, but it's not apt to involve fans in the stands.

From Diamond’s report: “Nobody has passed through the turnstiles of an MLB stadium this year, and it seems increasingly likely that nobody will.”

Even as some states, ours among them, have moved to reopen after six weeks of self-isolation, it remains unclear just how the reopening of sports might work. After an ESPN report last week held that the NBA hoped to open team facilities Friday, the NBA itself said: “Uh, not so fast.” On Monday it emailed a release, the longish headline being a marvel of qualifiers: “NBA Targeting No Earlier Than May 8 To Allow Limited, Individual Workouts In Cities Not Subject To Government Restrictions.”

From the release itself: "The league also advised teams … that it may push the timing back if developments warrant." 

The NBA was the first U.S.-based league to suspend operations — at 10:30 p.m. March 11. Seven weeks have passed, and the NBA hasn't budged. Golden State coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday: "We are absolutely in offseason mode now."

The Warriors had been eliminated from playoff consideration. The longer the layoff, the greater the chance the NBA, should it resume, will move straight to some sort of playoff. Nobody knows what sort. Nobody knows if it will be staged, as has been posited, entirely in Las Vegas. What’s taken for granted: Fans won’t be allowed.

The NHL considered staging its Stanley Cup playoffs in, of all places, Grand Forks, N.D. It's now working on a plan involving four hub league cities. It has announced nothing definitive.

In another of its periodic trial balloons, MLB floated the Arizona Bubble — a 4 ½-month season played in/around Phoenix with 30 teams quarantined in hotels. Later reports have focused on hubs in Arizona, Florida and Texas, with 10 teams in each locale. One rumor has baseball skipping its regular season and moving to a months-long 30-team tournament. (Which would be silly. Then again, this is MLB.) As ESPN's Jeff Passan reported, commissioner Rob Manfred wrote in a letter to employees last week: "It is very difficult to predict with any accuracy the timeline for the resumption of our season."

Nobody in sports has said as much out loud, but every league is surely waiting to see what will happen with the first batch of state reopenings. Will the predicted-by-some second wave of the virus hit two-to-four weeks hence? Would another round of sheltering in place be triggered? There’s no sense in starting, or restarting, a season if you’re not sure you can keep your players healthy enough to complete it. And, there being no COVID-19 vaccine, can anyone be sure of anything?

The NBA and NHL need to decide something by Memorial Day. If they wait any longer, they risk having two seasons compromised — the one on hold and the next one, too. MLB can be more patient: As reported by USA Today's Bob Nightengale, it could start around the Fourth of July, play 100 games and hold the World Series in November. (MLS is in a similar position.) Owing to the calendar, the league with the most wiggle room is the NFL. It can hold out deep into summer before finalizing a plan, though the plan could look much like what the other leagues are moving toward already — games without fans.

As for college sports: It remains unthinkable for schools to allow athletes to gather and travel and compete if campuses are closed for the fall. It remains unthinkable that, without a vaccine, those athletes would be asked to play in front of crowds of 80,000-plus, and what’s the point of college football if the Color & Pageantry is a backdrop of empty seats? As Georgia State athletic director Charlie Cobb said recently, “The pros are different. They can get away with being a TV sport.”

The longer this goes, the more the possibility becomes a probability. The PGA tour is set to restart in June minus fans. The Coca-Cola 600 in Concord, N.C., is hoping to run on Memorial Day sans spectators. Two different sports, one common theme.

Seven weeks after our games were halted, we see a few signs of stirring. Only a few, though, and if MLB teams are readying to hand back ticket money they’d banked, it’s a powerful indication of where we’re headed.