Usually, the questions are easy, even if the answers are hard. But when it came to the unprecedented pausing and cancelling of sports across the country this week in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is taking me some time – a day, anyway – to even process the questions.
Once we establish that pro sports leagues are indeed acting wisely to limit the pace of community spread of the disease, the most obvious question is “how long do we all have to do this social distancing thing for the worst to pass and then get back to normal in a safe way?”
The point of these social distancing measures is to slow the spread of the disease enough that, as more and more people get it – and they will – the truly sickest among us can safely get care at health facilities. So basically, it’s not about waiting until the sickness is totally gone (that could take a year or more, if it ever really dissipates). It’s about waiting until we’ve peaked in the accelerating pace of new cases, which we can’t even know until there is massive, massively available testing – we’re just not there yet.
So that is to say, in the first of many unanswerable questions at this moment, that’s the big one. And it’s why MLB delayed the start of its season by at least two weeks, buying themselves time to evaluate how long they’ll *actually* have to delay by. Given that states like Illinois have already declared no large public gatherings through April, I think you can get a sense that health experts believe we won’t be past that peak until at least May. I would not expect baseball to resume until at least May, and maybe later.
With that in mind, there is a huge list of follow-up questions that pop into my mind because of the uncharted waters …
- Will the MLB season be extended at the back-end to make up for the lost games? Or will those games just be chopped off the schedule as part of a short regular season? How far into October/November can the sport realistically be played?
- It seems some shrinking of the season is most likely, but if that happens, how do you handle the imbalanced schedules it will create? The disproportionate losses of home dates and revenue? The timing of the All-Star Game? The Trade Deadline? The playoffs?
- Will MLB just jump ahead and impose its new and expanded postseason idea this year since it’ll be a shorter regular season anyway?
- Are players going to get their full annual paychecks, or only the portion for the season that is actually played? How would that impact the luxury tax calculation? Did the Cubs just suddenly go under the tax? But doesn’t that screw the players?
- Moreover, how will MLB and the MLBPA handle the accumulation of service time for players, which is based on days of big league service? Is every player suddenly not going to get a full year of service this season? Surely not, right? And same thing for accruing bonuses. Will those just be pro-rated?
- How will Spring Training be handled? Will it just start up again for like two weeks before the newly-scheduled Opening Day? Or will that not really allow pitchers to get into a good place? They were ramping up on specific schedules for a specific opening date … I already dread thinking about how various pitchers are going to be impacted.
- Will the league allow expanded rosters early in the season to account for this readiness question? (That’s what the league did in 1995 after the strike.)
- How badly is revenue going to be hammered this year if games are lost? And even if they aren’t loss, will there still be a massive impact on attendance? How will that impact ongoing CBA negotiations when no one really has a great idea how much revenue the league “should have made” in a “normal” 2020 season?
- How about those MLB/MiLB negotiations about their agreement, which is due to expire in September? Remember how MLB wanted to close off upwards of 40 minor league teams? Is that seriously going to be negotiated in such a crazy time?
There are no doubt many, many more questions to be answered. These are only the ones that popped into my head upon initially digesting the news.
These issues will be discussed and addressed in the coming weeks. There aren’t easy answers on some of these, and worse, some have the potential to create even more conflict.
Hopefully everyone will continue to operate in a spirit of cooperative understanding, both for the health and safety of everyone, and also for a positive resumption of the sport (whenever that time comes). We’re gonna need it.