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Volume 26 No. 202

Coronavirus and Sports

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is "set to make his economic pitch" today to the MLBPA, and there is a "spark of optimism that the recent cold war between the sides has thawed enough to get a deal done and return the sport to the field," according to David Lennon of NEWSDAY. This week is the "biggest to date for baseball since spring training was halted." Sources said that there "already have been productive back-and-forth discussions on finalizing the health and safety protocols," so the "last remaining obstacle boils down to money, as it traditionally does." Lennon notes fighting over fiscal matters "invokes the more visceral reaction that we’ve seen from both sides in recent weeks." However, now that "we’ve reached the critical stage of these negotiations," one can "expect cooler heads to prevail." Lennon: "The bottom line is that a deal needs to get done. Period. And with spring training 2.0 targeted for early June -- followed by Opening Day in July -- all of this has to get wrapped up in about a week or so. Nothing is a better motivator than a fast-approaching deadline, and failure is not an option here" (NEWSDAY, 5/26).

SPARK OF PESSIMISM: SPORTS BUSINESS JOURNAL's Eric Prisbell reports there is "one sentiment coloring the process that both sides can agree on: mutual distrust." Sources "paint a picture of a fundamental, if unsurprising, dispute over money." Specifically: "How much revenue would be lost in a shortened 82-game season played in empty ballparks?" Players "want to see details to know if owners are indeed facing the dire financial situation they claim." When asked what happens if the union does not budge from its stance on sticking to the plan for prorated salaries, a source said, "The economics just don't work. I just don’t think there is a good understanding of how devastating this is economically" (SPORTS BUSINESS JOURNAL, 5/25 issue).

THE TIME IS NOW: In Dallas, Evan Grant writes, "All that matters this week is everything." If a baseball season "is to be saved, if MLB is, as it has often said, to be part of the healing of America, then this is the week to either put up or continue to recede from the nation’s consciousness." There is "only one way to win this: to play baseball, providing the coronavirus does not roar back" (DALLAS MORNING NEWS, 5/26). In Minneapolis, La Velle Neal III writes deadlines "can be a good thing," and "perhaps that's what's needed for baseball to begin by early July." Nothing "would approach normalcy like the start of the MLB season -- even if it is in front of empty stadiums -- during the July 4th weekend" (Minneapolis STAR TRIBUNE, 5/26). In Seattle, Larry Stone wrote this next week or so will be the "most significant of a season that will be remembered forever, even if they play just 82 games -- or zero" (SEATTLE TIMES, 5/24). 

ROOM FOR GROWTH? In Boston, Sean McAdam asked, "Why can't Major League Baseball be more like the NBA? Or, put another way, why can't Rob Manfred be more like Adam Silver?" Why is it that while MLB and its players "conduct an embarrassingly public squabble over pay, the NBA boldly moves ahead with designs to stage its postseason without any of the internal rancor, without the tone-deaf proclamations from millionaire players and billionaire owners?" The "answer, it seems to be, can [be] found in the commissioner's office." Silver has "smartly invited the players under the league's tent and let them know that, since they're largely responsible for the game's enormous growth in recent decades, they're also entitled to a say in how the league operates." McAdam: "Could you imagine Manfred doing that? No chance." In his roughly five years on the job, Manfred has "never once shown an inclination to involve the players in solving some of the challenges faced by the game" (BOSTON SPORTS JOURNAL, 5/24).

Vincent said contingency plans have to account for full stadiums, as well as half-full or three-quarters
Photo: chiefs
Vincent said contingency plans have to account for full stadiums, as well as half-full or three-quarters
Photo: chiefs
Vincent said contingency plans have to account for full stadiums, as well as half-full or three-quarters
Photo: chiefs

NFL Exec VP/Football Operations Troy Vincent said that the league is "planning for full stadiums when the season begins," according to Jeff Kerr of CBSSPORTS.com. Vincent on Friday during an appearance on DC-based WTEM-AM's "The Brian Mitchell Show" said, "We are planning to have full stadiums until the medical community tells us otherwise. Now remember when we're talking -- we're talking about August, September. So there's a lot that can happen here. So we're planning for full stadiums." He added, "We also know that we have to plan for half stadiums. Three-quarters. So we're planning for all of these different scenarios. But first and foremost, we're making every effort, working with the medical community, if we can have those stadiums with all people until they tell us otherwise when that time comes, that's our plan. That's our plan of action" (CBSSPORTS.com, 5/24). Dolphins Owner Stephen Ross this morning said he thinks "definitely there will be a football season this year," but the "real question is will there be fans in the stadiums." Ross: "I think right now today we’re planning on having fans in the stadiums, but I think the NFL is looking at and is very flexible so that we will be able to start on time" (“Squawk Box,” CNBC, 5/26).

GETTING COMPLACENT? The NFL recently enacted several changes to the Rooney Rule, and Vincent said that there was a "point during one of the NFL's recent internal diversity meetings when he realized how far the league was from true inclusion." NBCSPORTS.com's Peter King wondered, "How did the NFL get to the point where only six of 64 top football people in the sport -- the 32 head coaches and 32 GMs -- are minorities?" The "simple answer" is that the NFL "got comfortable." The league "trusted owners to do the right thing, year after year." The NFL "worked diligently when the Rooney Rule was adopted" in '03. Vincent: "How can we create an atmosphere where the first time someone is meeting Anthony Lynn is NOT doing a formal interview? (NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell) has pushed us in this particular area -- creating as many of those touchpoint opportunities as we can. Critical. Super critical. And we have not. We have not done that" (NBCSPORTS.com, 5/25). WFAN’s Boomer Esiason said the “most important thing that has come out of this discussion is the fact that now all assistant coaches will be available for interviews if teams want them" (“Boomer and Gio,” CBSSN, 5/26).

The NBA has a “deadline” of this Friday for the owners to have “things finalized” as to how and where the league would conclude this season, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst. Right now, "behind the scenes we are seeing a lot of horse trading, haggling and discussion of what they’re going to be able to present to them and what they’re going to put forward to the teams and the union." But the league is "on (track) to get something of a plan by the end of the week" ("The Jump," ESPN, 5/25). In N.Y., Deb & Stein wrote there are still "several hurdles that must be crossed before a resumed season at Walt Disney World becomes a reality." One is the "optics of testing." The league was "criticized when some of its teams were able to obtain tests for their players even though there was a nationwide testing shortage, raising questions of greater accessibility for the wealthy." It is also "unclear what the logistics of such a return would be, such as how many, if any, fans would be allowed into an arena for games, how freely players would be allowed to move around or what kind of testing would take place." The games would "almost assuredly be run without fans in the stands" (N.Y. TIMES, 5/24).

PLAYERS PLAY: NBPA Exec Dir Michele Roberts said the "overwhelming" sentiment among players during team-by-team virtual calls conducted over the past week has been that "they really want to play" and resume the '19-20 season, most likely in late July at Disney's ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando. Roberts said that she "plans to speak with players on all 30 teams over the next week and gauge their reaction to the NBA's plans for re-opening." ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne notes a joint task force between the NBA and NBPA has been "negotiating plans for a resumption of the NBA's season." The NBA BOG has a meeting on Friday, which is "expected to provide further clarity on plans to return." Roberts believes that the union "will be able to give feedback on those plans soon after the league issues those new guidelines." Shelburne notes the NBPA "does not necessarily need to hold a vote on the league's plans." Roberts: "If we thought we needed a vote, we would. If we're ratifying a CBA, we need a vote. But our preferred method is talking to people or just having them talk to us. Then if we get a sense of what the sentiment is then we can move forward. We [will] talk to our players and figure it out." Roberts said that she has been "encouraging the league to provide as much detail as it can now, so that players can react quickly to those plans" (ESPN.com, 5/26).

COLLECTING INFORMATION: In Houston, Jonathan Feigen reported the NBA "will poll general managers on their thoughts about moving directly to the playoffs, playing a limited regular-season schedule with all 30 teams, holding a play-in tournament to determine the final teams in the playoffs and even replacing the first-round with a group stage of games similar to international tournaments." Games would "likely be played throughout each day, as with the Las Vegas summer league or G League showcase, with one venue designated for national broadcasts of premier games" (HOUSTON CHRONICLE, 5/24).

Wild player rep Devan Dubnyk said it is important for the union to discuss various scenarios with players
Photo: getty images
Wild player rep Devan Dubnyk said it is important for the union to discuss various scenarios with players
Photo: getty images
Wild player rep Devan Dubnyk said it is important for the union to discuss various scenarios with players
Photo: getty images

The NHL as early as today is "expected to announce exactly how the 24-team return to play format will work" after the NHLPA exec board voted to approve it, but Wild G and union player rep Devan Dubnyk "made clear that another vote will 'absolutely' be necessary by the players," according to Michael Russo of THE ATHLETIC. Dubnyk said, "It's really important to start having these conversations with as many players as we can about, 'Guys, what scenarios are we OK with?'" He added, "It's going to be some sort of hub city scenario, so we’ve got to talk about that. How long are guys OK with being away for?" An NHLPA spokesperson confirmed that it will be "up to the executive board to determine if there’s another vote, and there’s a good chance of that happening." Several NHL players "concurred with Dubnyk’s assessment that another vote is a must" (THEATHLETIC.com, 5/25). 

PROBLEMS & OPPOSITION: In St. Louis, Tom Timmermann wrote the 24-team format also is a "calendar without numbers." There is "still no clear idea of when games would resume and with the players wanting at least a three-week training camp, it is still at best more than a month away" (ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH, 5/25). In Raleigh, Chip Alexander reports the Hurricanes were "one of two NHL teams to vote against" the 24-team return-to-play format. Hurricanes C and NHLPA player rep Jordan Martinook yesterday said that the Canes "believed an extra play-in round, as proposed, would not only lengthen the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs but also the odds against them winning the Cup." Martinook: "It wasn’t like we didn’t want to play or anything. It was just this particular option maybe didn’t benefit us. It’s just kind of the stance we took" (Raleigh NEWS & OBSERVER, 5/26). 

SMALL STEPS TOWARD A RETURN: ESPN.com’s Emily Kaplan reported the NHL is "ready to move to Phase 2 of its plan to return to play, and will soon allow players to train in small groups at team facilities.” The NHL "didn't put an exact date on when Phase 2 will go into effect, though it said it was targeting early June." The new protocols would "allow for a maximum of six players to train at the team facilities at once." On-ice sessions are "for players only, with no coaches or other team personnel allowed on the ice." Players must "wear face coverings at all times, except when they are exercising or on the ice." The NHL "stressed that participation in Phase 2 is 'strictly voluntary' and teams should not require players to return to their playing city yet." Phase 2 is a "crucial step for the NHL as it aims to complete the 2019-20 season and award a Stanley Cup this summer" (ESPN.com, 5/25). THE ATHLETIC's Scott Burnside lays out the "key points" to Phase 2 (5/25).

DAUNTING ROAD AHEAD: In L.A., Helene Elliott writes the NHL and NHLPA's memo regarding Phase 2 acts as a "careful and sobering plan for the next phase of a return to play" (L.A. TIMES, 5/26). In Boston, Steve Conroy writes yesterday's memo "was a tad sobering, especially with the warning in the introduction that the extensive protocol 'cannot mitigate all risk. A range of clinical scenarios exist, from very mild to fatal outcome'" (BOSTON HERALD, 5/26). The TIMES' Elliott notes anyone who "plans to visit a club training facility must undergo testing 48 hours in advance and receive a negative test result." Clubs were "told to contact local health authorities to determine whether asymptomatic players and personnel are eligible for such tests." If testing "isn’t available, players and personnel would have to self-quarantine for 14 days before they could use training facilities, unless they can certify they had already served a 14-day quarantine" (L.A. TIMES, 5/26). 

NO, CANADA? In N.Y., Larry Brooks reported for the NHL's hub plan, the league "will not select a Canadian city unless the Canadian government grants the NHL an exception to its 14-day quarantine requirement for folks crossing the border." It would "essentially be impossible to have teams train in their U.S. home cities for up to five weeks (two weeks of informal skates followed by a three-week training camp) then go into quarantine for two weeks prior to the tournament" (N.Y. POST, 5/24).

WRITERS' REAX: In Pittsburgh, Tim Benz is not a fan of the 24-team format, writing under the header, "Sorry, Penguins Fans. A 2020 NHL Relaunch Was Never Going To Be Perfect" (TRIBLIVE.com, 5/26). The GLOBE & MAIL's Cathal Kelly asked, "Will it work? Well, define 'work'. It will get done because there are too many financial incentives (or disincentives, depending how you look at it) for it not to." Kelly: "What’s not being considered in this rush to restart is how pandemic hockey affects the NHL next season and beyond" (GLOBE & MAIL, 5/23). ESPN's Michael Wilbon said, “You are giving the bottom feeders a greater chance once they play the best teams in your league. That's just dumb to me. I don't even like the 24-team thing” (“PTI,” ESPN, 5/25).

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's "support to get sports back up and running took another step forward on Sunday, as he encouraged New York's professional sports teams to begin working out" in the state, according to Deesha Thosar of the N.Y. DAILY NEWS. Cuomo during a press conference said that all N.Y. pro sports teams -- including the Yankees, Mets, Knicks, Nets, Rangers, Islanders and Bills -- "can start training in the state beginning immediately." But sources said that both the Yankees and Mets "plan to begin spring training at their respective facilities in Florida, instead of New York." Cuomo's permission "doesn't mean much for the Knicks and Nets, either," as most of those teams' players have "left the area during the coronavirus pandemic." Cuomo said, "I believe sports can come back without having people in the stadium, without having people in the arena. Do it! Do it! Work out the economics if you can. We want you up." He added, "We want people to be able to watch sports to the extent people are still staying home. It gives people something to do. It’s a return to normalcy. So we are working and encouraging all sports teams to start their training camps as soon as possible, and we'll work with them to make sure that can happen" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 5/25). Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy today tweeted, "Professional sports teams in NJ may return to training and even competition -- if their leagues choose to move in that direction" (TWITTER.com, 5/26).

WAIT-AND-SEE APPROACH? On Long Island, Gross & Logan noted the Nets in response to Cuomo's statement announced they would "re-open their Brooklyn practice facility" tomorrow. The players who report to the Nets' facility "must follow the established NBA protocols." While the Nets are "taking advantage of the state's green light, it's not clear yet whether Cuomo's comments will open a floodgate of professional teams training in the state." For the "most part, New York's professional teams are looking to their respective leagues for guidance or are planning to train elsewhere." The Islanders, who train in East Meadow, and the Rangers, who have a facility in Greenburgh, "must get the NHL's approval to re-open their practice rinks." NYCFC has a practice facility in Orangeburg, but also is "awaiting guidance from MLS" (NEWSDAY, 5/25). In N.Y., Braziller & Berman wrote it "remains to be seen how many of the players plan to take advantage" of being able to work out in the state, since "many of them aren’t in the area and instead with their families" during the pandemic. It was previously reported that a few Knicks players were "wary of returning to New York because of the virus that has ravaged the city, though it has seen declining deaths and fewer cases in recent weeks" (N.Y. POST, 5/25).

BACK TO WORK: On Long Island, Andrew Gross reported construction of the Islanders' new arena at Belmont Park, halted since March 27 in response to the ongoing pandemic, "should be able to resume on Wednesday" as Cuomo "continues to follow a phased reopening of the state's businesses." Cuomo said that Long Island "remains on track for Phase 1 re-opening on Wednesday." Construction, along with limited retail sales, manufacturing, wholesale trade and agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting are "included as businesses that can re-open in Phase 1." The work on the Belmont Park arena was "deemed non-essential when it was halted." The Islanders hope to open their new arena in October '21, and team officials have "expressed confidence through the construction delay that the target date will not be affected" (NEWSDAY, 5/25).

Ticket sales and concessions at Wrigley Field help make up 70% of the Cubs' revenue
Photo: getty images
Ticket sales and concessions at Wrigley Field help make up 70% of the Cubs' revenue
Photo: getty images
Ticket sales and concessions at Wrigley Field help make up 70% of the Cubs' revenue
Photo: getty images

The coronavirus pandemic has put the Cubs and their owners in a "most untenable position," according to Paul Sullivan of the CHICAGO TRIBUNE. The MLB season is "entering the third month of a shutdown, which coincided with the debut of their long-awaited TV channel, Marquee Sports Network." The Hotel Zachary, a "few restaurants and another building built by their real estate arm, Hickory Street Capital, are either empty or only in partial use because of the state's shutdown order." Gallagher Way, their "profitable gathering spot next to Wrigley, is closed, as are the 11 rooftop clubs the Cubs bought to gain a stranglehold on the rooftop business." The Cubs are "likely to lose a ton of money even if the season begins in empty ballparks in July, as MLB has proposed." A report from the AP had the Cubs' losses at as much as $199M. One source said that the club "would be better off financially, at least in the short term, if the season was canceled than if their players received pro-rated salaries combining for more than $100 million -- or about half of the 2020 payroll." Around the league, some "believe the Cubs’ owners face a more dire forecast than most of their peers because of their investments in Wrigleyville, the Marquee Sports Network and the rooftops." The Cubs say 70% of their revenue "stems from ticket sales, concessions, parking, in-house corporate partnerships and the like" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 5/24).

The Angels' approach to the coronavirus pandemic is "raising eyebrows throughout the industry," as the club is "furloughing employees more aggressively than most teams and weakening its amateur scouting department heading into the draft," according to Ken Rosenthal of THE ATHLETIC. Sources said that the Angels will "furlough the area scouts who spent the past year evaluating draft-eligible players in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico." Seventeen such scouts are "listed in the Angels 2020 media guide," and their furloughs were "part of a sweeping reductions in every division of the franchise's operation except the major-league coaching staff." The reduction in manpower "runs counter to the Angels' emphasis on rebuilding their farm system" under GM Billy Eppler. Meanwhile, sources said that other teams, including several in seemingly weaker financial positions than the Angels, are "making greater commitments to keeping staffers employed." The Phillies announced they "will retain all their employees through October; the Giants and Blue Jays made the same pledge through Oct. 1, and the Brewers ensured their baseball-operations staff will stay intact for the entire season." The Twins, Cardinals and White Sox are "retaining all their employees through June 30" (THEATHLETIC.com, 5/22).

Some schools plan to bring football players back by June 1; Michigan has announced no such plans
Photo: getty images
Some schools plan to bring football players back by June 1; Michigan has announced no such plans
Photo: getty images
Some schools plan to bring football players back by June 1; Michigan has announced no such plans
Photo: getty images

The Univ. of Michigan will not have a football season this fall unless all students are able to be back on campus for classes, and UM President Mark Schlissel noted that "isn't a sure thing," according to Korn & Higgins of the WALL STREET JOURNAL. Schlissel said of a decision on the school year, "Any decision we make for this coming fall is likely going to be the case for the whole academic year. What’s going to be different in January?" Korn & Higgins noted though some other schools are "planning to bring football players back for voluntary training as early as June 1, Michigan hasn’t announced any such plans for its athletes." Schlissel said that the team and associated staff could be "tested regularly, if or when they do return." Schlissel: “If there is no on-campus instruction then there won’t be intercollegiate athletics, at least for Michigan." He noted he had “some degree of doubt as to whether there will be college athletics (anywhere), at least in the fall.” Schlissel: "I can't imagine a way to do that safely" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 5/25).

UPDATE FROM THE DESERT: Univ. of New Mexico President Garnett Stokes said there is a "continuing future for college athletics" amid the pandemic, but added it is "going to be some tough times." Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson recently said that it would be "difficult to imagine other sports being played if the football season isn’t held," as he noted football accounts for about 85% of the conference’s revenues. UNM AD Eddie Nunez said that the financial losses "will total in the millions for each Mountain West school." His department is "already reporting" a deficit of $2.25M with a year-ending projection that will see it climb well over $3M (SANTA FE NEW MEXICAN, 5/24).

The knockout tournament would begin on Sunday, July 19, and conclude nine days later
Photo: nwsl
The knockout tournament would begin on Sunday, July 19, and conclude nine days later
Photo: nwsl
The knockout tournament would begin on Sunday, July 19, and conclude nine days later
Photo: nwsl

The NWSL season could "begin on June 29th," though it is not entirely clear whether the league's nine teams "would be gathered in a single group as usual or split into smaller ones," according to internal documents obtained by Linehan & Maurer of THE ATHLETIC. Each team "would play four group stage games; after the conclusion of group play, only the last-place team would be eliminated, at which point the remaining eight would advance into a knockout-style competition." The knockout tournament "would begin on Sunday, July 19th and conclude on the 28th of that month." The NWSL is "eyeing a pair of venues for the competition: Zions Bank Stadium, which it will use for preseason, the group stage and quarterfinals, and Rio Tinto Stadium, which it will use for the semifinals and final." The "general consensus with stakeholders" in the league is that the NWSL is "not in explicit danger of shuttering if no games take place in 2020, though certain clubs may face a greater risk of surviving into 2021." State officials in Utah have "already given the green light for the tournament, as has a medical task force assembled by the league." It is still "unclear if the players have formally agreed to play in the proposed tournament," but the NWSLPA has been "working in the meantime to get a better understanding of player sentiment and willingness to play" (THEATHLETIC.com, 5/25).