Pro, college sports landscape about to go dark

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

When Major League Baseball announced Thursday afternoon that it had immediately suspended its spring-training games and delayed the start of the season by at least two weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic, the league was not acting without precedent.

Before the 1919 season, team owners decided to push back the start of the season by two weeks, according to Jacob Pomrenke, director of editorial content for the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). Owners acted out of two concerns. One was the end of World War I in November 1918. The other was a global flu pandemic that caused the deaths of 50 million people worldwide, according to the CDC.

“History repeats itself sometimes,” Pomrenke said Thursday.

This time, a once-a-century event has taken a much greater bite out of the U.S. sports landscape. On Wednesday and Thursday, fans of all sports were witness as concern for the spread of COVID-19 led to an epic obliteration of events off professional and college sports calendars.

“I’ve never seen anything remotely like this,” said Bob Hope, a former vice president of the Hawks and Braves and, at 73, one of the more enduring and cherished members of the Atlanta sports community.

In a matter of hours, starting late Wednesday night, the virus led league officials in MLB, MLS, the NBA and the NHL to do what many would have thought unthinkable only a few days earlier – suspend operations for weeks, if not longer. The NFL, even while out of season, has bowed to caution. The league announced Thursday that it had canceled its annual meeting, scheduled for March 29-April 1.

“We like to believe that sports is kind of off in an area that the real world doesn’t penetrate sometimes, but it always does,” Pomrenke said.

The NCAA and major college leagues acted with similar precaution. The NCAA canceled its men’s basketball tournament for the first time since its inception in 1939, including the Final Four, scheduled for Mercedes-Benz Stadium on April 4-6, as well as all of its remaining winter and spring championships.

Without championships to play for, the move increases the likelihood of college teams nationwide canceling or limiting their remaining athletic schedules through the end of the academic year. It would follow the Ivy League, which canceled all spring athletics practice and competition Wednesday, and the ACC, which Thursday suspended all competition, formal and organized practice, recruiting and participation in NCAA championships until further notice. The SEC suspended regular-season competition in all sports on SEC campus and also conference championships until March 30.

» More AJC coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

At the high-school level, sports appear headed for an extended break, as well. On Thursday, the GHSA released a statement “recommending that all member schools suspend spring-sports activities until further notice.”

Said GHSA executive director Robin Hines in a statement, “The final decision will rest with the local school systems, but we hope they heed the Governor’s and the GHSA’s recommendations.”

The speed with which leagues and teams took action was startling. As late as Tuesday, there seemed to be no imminent possibility of league-wide suspensions of play. Teams in MLS, MLB, NBA and NHL all had games. The same day, all four leagues put into practice a policy banning media from locker rooms to help contain the spread of the highly contagious virus. That measure proved to pale in comparison to the actions that would follow, starting Wednesday.

The NBA had six games scheduled Wednesday night. Four of them, including a Hawks-Knicks game at State Farm Arena, started and were completed. But when Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert received a preliminary positive test for COVID-19 before his team’s game, the league moved to suspend games until further notice.

The same night, the ACC and SEC welcomed fans into their men’s basketball tournaments. Less than 24 hours later, the tournaments were canceled along with league tournaments across the country, followed by the NCAA’s cancellation of its own tournament.

On Thursday, the NHL suspended play indefinitely after five games were played Wednesday night. Also Thursday, MLS suspended play for 30 days. U.S. Soccer also canceled its men’s and women’s national team games for March and April.

NASCAR, which has races scheduled for Saturday and Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, will conduct races for the next two weeks without fans. The PGA Tour, after announcing shortly after midnight Thursday that it would continue its events as scheduled – while acknowledging that the situation was “very fluid” – announced less than 12 hours later that coming tournaments would be held without fans.

Masters tournament officials “have put all options on the table,” according to a Thursday report from Golfworld, citing unnamed sources. Possibilities included limiting patron access or banning them from the course, although canceling the tournament was not expected at the time. (The Masters is not a PGA Tour event.)

The actions were not contained within the U.S. The ATP tour suspended its men’s tennis tournaments for six weeks. All sports in Italy were suspended Tuesday, part of a national lockdown. The Japanese baseball season has also been postponed.

For sports fans in Atlanta and across Georgia, the sum of games potentially postponed includes 15 Hawks games, perhaps 14 Braves games (depending on when the two-week delay ends, if it does at that point), the Final Four, four Atlanta United matches and countless college games and matches.

While more dire matters are at stake, it leaves a strange void for fans whose leisure times often are based around watching or attending games.

“They’re telling us to go home and telling us to not to go outside and there’s nothing for us to watch on TV,” said Hope, the longtime PR executive, with a laugh. “But one of my daughters said, ‘You’re just going to have to watch Netflix.”