Will We Have Major U.S. Team Sports To Bet In 2020?

As we enter the second half of 2020, what challenges do the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB face in attempting to start or restart their seasons?

Life and health come before sports and entertainment. But that doesn’t mean sports and entertainment aren’t important parts of life.

For what currently ails America’s collective mental well-being, the return of major team sports would be one highly effective form of partial treatment.

And with the return of those sports would come the return of betting on those sports (beyond just those futures bets you can make that may or may not ever get graded).

Is sports wagering a major part of humanity’s emotional recovery from the devastation of the last few months? Perhaps not. But it does align with the other reason so many people are pushing for the return of team sports: money.

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, there has been a push and pull over prioritizing health vs. prioritizing wealth. The numbers suggest, sadly, that the U.S. has failed thus far on both fronts.

America’s four major sports leagues are all moving ahead with plans to start (or re-start) their seasons, but all four face potential roadblocks, particularly with the virus not remotely under control as July begins. MLB, NBA, and NHL were all hoping to get balls and pucks moving this month. But will they? And what about the league that stands at the center of the sports gambling (and fantasy) universe, the NFL?

Here’s a breakdown of where each league stands on July 1 and what factors are working for and against hopes of games being played.


The plan

After much labor strife, the league and the players agreed on a 60-game regular season schedule with a start date around July 23 or 24 (the schedule has not been released yet). Teams will play their four division rivals 10 times apiece and the five teams in the same division in the opposite league (e.g., AL West teams for the Dodgers) four times apiece.

The trade deadline will be Aug. 31, the season should end roughly on time in late September, and then it’s on to a standard postseason, with the three division winners in each league awaiting the winner of a one-game Wild Card play-in.

There have been some rule adjustments, such as universal DH and starting with a runner on second base in extra innings to prevent extremely lengthy games.

Reasons for optimism

The nature of the game of baseball gives it clear advantages over basketball, hockey, and football. It’s played outdoors, where the experts agree COVID-19 is far harder to communicate. Aside from the occasional tag at a base, no contact between players is necessary. It’s a relatively anaerobic sport, so requiring players to wear masks wouldn’t necessarily be a dealbreaker.

MLB, if it’s smart, has a chance of getting through a season without being the cause of a “super spreader” event that shuts everything down.

Reasons for pessimism

While other leagues are opting for a “bubble” setup to attempt to separate the athletes from the general population (something being achieved with some success on a more limited basis in individual sports such as boxing and MMA), MLB is not going the bubble route. Players and staff will go from the ballparks back home to their families every day, with their movements not monitored.

Now that we know the league will essentially be split into three regular-season zones of 10 teams apiece — East, Central, and West — three two-month bubbles might have made some sense. Instead, 30 cities and 30 ballparks will be in play, including in cities where the virus is raging out of control. A lot can change in a few weeks, but as of now, would you want to go play baseball in Houston, a city spiking the way New York was three months ago?

As ESPN’s Buster Olney wrote, “MLB’s season will be one long wade through humanity, with roving bands of players moving from state to state, city to city, hotel to hotel under the best circumstances.”

Numerous teams are reporting multiple players have already tested positive for COVID-19, with the Philadelphia Phillies organization leading the way with seven players and five staff members known to have the virus. The opt-outs are also starting to add up, including such notables as the Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman and the Rockies’ Ian Desmond.

Overall outlook

Maybe MLB’s chances would be better inside bubbles. Then again, maybe more players would be opting out if they couldn’t see their families for the next two to three months. All signs point to the season starting later this month, and while the games themselves might not lead to an excess of infections, the travel likely will.

As with all sports in 2020, there will be giant asterisks attached to the outcomes, as impact players on every team figure to miss time. The World Series might simply be won by whichever team has its starting lineup and rotation most intact in October.

If the league, the players, and the fans are comfortable with these realities, MLB has a realistic shot at starting and completing this truncated, compromised version of a season.


The plan

The NHL has invited the top 12 teams in each conference to go right into an expanded playoff tournament, with two “hub cities” — one for each conference.

It appears zero of those hub cities will be in the U.S. — not exactly a shocker given America’s botched handling of the pandemic and infection rates that dwarf all other countries’.

Training camps open July 10, and an exact start date for games is uncertain (but the aim appears to be early August). The NHL will exist within two bubbles, with 12 teams in each becoming eight after a couple of weeks, then four a couple of weeks after that, and so on.

Reasons for optimism

The plan to have every single game take place outside the United States is a great start. While American cities like Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Chicago were in the mix until recently, a pair of hubs in Canada indicates a league that wants its bubbles to be as safe and secure as possible.

There’s no guarantee that Edmonton or Toronto won’t become hot spots in the weeks ahead, but for now, they’re relatively low-risk cities.

Reasons for pessimism

A bubble is great in theory, but how certain can you be that young athletes, who have become accustomed to a certain level of socializing and — well, let’s just say it: sex — are going to interact only with teammates and staff without going anywhere but their hotel and the hockey arena for weeks on end?

Unlike baseball, hockey is played indoors (much higher COVID spread rate), players frequently have to get in each other’s faces, and they can’t possibly be expected to diminish their breathing by wearing masks.

As with all walks of life, if we test, we will find positive cases. On Monday, the NHL announced that 15 players were positive among more than 250 tested in June. A week and a half ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning temporarily shut down their practice facility due to an excess of positive tests. This is all a work in progress. But it’s all a stark reminder that things can look encouraging one day, and the next day an entire team might need to stop playing and go into quarantine.

Overall outlook

A tight bubble in a low-positivity city, combined with strict testing and tracing, give the NHL an outside shot at pulling this off.

Again, there’s every reason to expect star players to test positive and shift the competitive balance, as the “hot goalie” factor becomes secondary in determining playoff success. There’s also a very real chance that an infection spreads through both teams in a playoff series and forces the league to make tough decisions.

How secure can a bubble in a Canadian city be? If the answer is “very” and no carriers of the virus get in, the NHL can be a great success story. But those are two huge “ifs.”


The plan

The NBA has invited 22 teams — those in playoff positions and those within sniffing distance of an eighth seed — to restart with eight more regular season games (getting all teams past 70 total) and then a mostly normal postseason (other than a possible play-in situation if the gap between No. 8 and No. 9 in a conference is four games or fewer).

The schedule is out. The games begin — theoretically — on July 30.

Like the NHL, the NBA is attempting to construct a figurative bubble. Unlike the NHL, there will be one hub city. Unlike the NHL, the NBA games will take place in the U.S. Specifically, in Orlando (gulp), Florida (double gulp).

Reasons for optimism

One advantage the NBA has over the other leagues is roster size. It’s a lot easier to keep a dozen players coronavirus-free than it is to shield 25 or 50 players.

Other than that … it’s frankly hard to feel optimistic.

Reasons for pessimism

Basketball is played indoors and in-your-face. Also, the NBA is the most star-driven league there is. A single player can make all the difference when only five per team are on the court at a time. How worthwhile will it be to continue if LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo tests positive for COVID-19 in the middle of a playoff series?

Same as in the NHL, asking NBA players in their physical primes to stay in their rooms at essentially an all-boys boarding school for up to three months is a problematic request, as Stephen A. Smith acknowledged on Tuesday.

In one 24-hour news cycle, the NBA produced headlines about the Denver Nuggets closing their facility due to COVID spread, three New Orleans Pelicans players testing positive, and two Brooklyn Nets players opting out.

And that’s before anyone has arrived in Orlando, home to perhaps the world’s most Mickey Mouse — literally and figuratively — implementations of social distancing.

Overall outlook

The folks running the NBA have long been among the most rational, intelligent, and compassionate in U.S. sports. From a health and safety perspective, it’s good to hear commissioner Adam Silver say things like “Never full steam ahead no matter what.” But his “pretty confident” declaration on the resumption plan does anything but inspire confidence that the NBA can make it all the way to crowning a champion.

It’s just plain unlucky that the decision to go to Orlando, which made perfect sense when first suggested, has become less sensible with each passing day. And it seems it’s too late to find a different hub city in some out-of-the-way town in a state with a more modest coronavirus problem.

The NBA completing its season sure feels like an underdog right now.


The plan

More than two months out from Week 1, the NFL hasn’t announced any major changes yet, aside from some new health protocols.

The league is planning to play a full season. It’s planning to play in home stadiums, with no bubble. There’s an expectation that fan attendance will be either non-existent or extremely limited (or start as the former with hopes to go to the latter), but otherwise, the NFL has designs on playing out its season as scheduled. (Although the preseason kickoff “Hall of Fame game” has already been canceled.)

Reasons for optimism

The NFL has the “advantage” of time. We put “advantage” in quotes because it’s certainly possible that the COVID situation in the U.S. will be even worse in September than it is now. But we know it’s bad now. So at least the NFL has the luxury of hoping the U.S. case load goes down before its games begin, or that a reliable treatment for the virus is found.

Those fans and bettors who desperately want to see NFL games played also might feel encouraged by the league’s status as America’s undisputed TV-ratings-generating, money-making king. There will be no shortage of cash spent on testing and treating, and there are plenty of people associated with the NFL who will throw endless amounts of money at a problem, for better and for worse, to ensure games are played.

On top of that, most NFL stadiums are outdoors. That helps a little.

Reasons for pessimism

The “outdoors” factor is largely overruled by how much the game demands that exhausted, sweaty men breathe heavily in each other’s faces. Perhaps it’s time to require helmets with full face shields.

The biggest problems the NFL is facing are the massive roster sizes (and the game’s super-spreader potential), the apparent lack of intention to attempt a bubble, and along with that, the weekly travel from city to city.

The NFL gets to sit back and wait a bit, watching what works and what doesn’t for everybody else. But if the NBA, MLB, and/or NHL fail before September, what does the NFL do?

Overall outlook

It feels from the outside looking in like the NFL just thinks it’s too big to fail. It isn’t. The virus doesn’t discriminate, at least in terms of spreading. It does discriminate in terms of how life-threatening it is, and the NFL has difficult decisions to make about its willingness to be an accomplice to infection if the presumption is that its players will mostly avoid long-term physical consequences.

Really, that’s a question weighing on all sports leagues, on all businesses reopening, on all schools trying to make a plan for the fall.

If team sports happen in the second half of 2020, they will see their fair share of positive tests. Some leagues might start or restart this month or next. Some might shut down or re-shut down soon after.

Every scenario involves risk. You can do all your due diligence before placing your bet, but in the end, you’re still taking a gamble.

Photo by Joe Maiorana / USA Today Sports


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