This week marks two major milestones for the return of sports in 2020, the start of both the World Series and Big Ten football. While every professional league and collegiate athletic conference has faced numerous challenges related to the safe return to play, MLB and the Big Ten’s journeys have been especially high-profile and dramatic.
After weeks of messy negotiations between MLB and MLBPA that dragged on throughout the winter and spring, baseball’s 60-game schedule was finally approved in late June. The Big Ten faced a tumultuous road to its modified season, originally announcing a full postponement of football for the remainder of 2020, then shifting to a modified schedule after other conferences moved ahead with their scheduled games. President Trump repeatedly called for the conference to reinstate football this fall as well.
The sports media weighed in this week on just how improbable this World Series seemed just a few short months ago, whether or not it’s wise for MLB to be allowing fans to attend the series, and on how the pandemic could threaten the Big Ten schedule.
Paul Sullivan – (Chicago Tribune) @PWSullivan
Sullivan questioned whether or not MLB made the right decision allowing a limited number of fans at the World Series, pointing out that the game functioned just fine with no fan presence during the entire 60-game regular season. He also warned that the move may provide hope to fans wishing to return to their team’s ballpark in 2021, a reality that doesn’t seem possible given the current public health environment.
“Globe Life basically is a petri dish for Major League Baseball, which decided to make 28.5% of the stadium’s capacity available to fans for a possible 14 postseason games, hoping to show it would be safe for fans to return to their favorite parks in 2021.”
“Meanwhile, as baseball opens its doors to fans, the NFL and college football have been forced to postpone games left and right after players, coaches and staff contracted the coronavirus. And the number of COVID-19 cases around the country is once again on the rise, with more than 60,000 new infections reported Thursday, the highest since early August, according to the Washington Post.”
Sullivan celebrated the beginning of the World Series, recalling how fragile the entire season seemed just a few months ago.
“I suppose we just should be happy that baseball made it this far. Remember back in early August when it looked as if we would never get to the postseason, much less the World Series?”
Stephanie Apstein – (Sports Illustrated) @stephapstein
Apstein criticized MLB’s decision to allow fans at the new Globe Life Field for the World Series, arguing that the number of logistical issues with having fans at the ballpark during a pandemic makes it too unrealistic for MLB to ensure that COVID won’t become an issue.
“But how well can officials really enforce these policies? Will they be patrolling the stands, asking pod members to produce utility bills to prove they share a home? And what about the secondary market? StubHub is the league’s official resale partner, so it can require fans to comply, but independent brokers are subject to no such oversight. And who decides where a long pause between bites becomes inactive eating?”
Apstein goes on to credit Commissioner Rob Manfred with getting the early-season COVID outbreak under control, but questions why baseball’s COVID mitigation efforts don’t extend to fans as well.
“And then the team owners saw the opportunity to make some money. They will continue to protect the players; they just care less about the fans.”
Big Ten Football
Pat Forde – (Sports Illustrated) @ByPatForde
Forde discussed how the pandemic could impact the Big Ten schedule, pointing out just how fragile things seem to be heading into the first weekend of games.
“The conference has no room for error. In an effort to get in as many games as possible in a limited window, the Big Ten has built no open dates into the schedule. Through last week, the postponement/cancellation rate nationally has been 10.6%. Apply that to the Big Ten’s 56-game regular season slate and there would be six games lost.”
Forde also discussed how potential game cancellations due to COVID cases could impact the conference’s playoff chances.
“How much COVID-19 could impact both the league race and the league’s College Football Playoff chances largely depends on which teams are affected, and when. If the top teams drop below nine games (eight for the regular season, plus one for everyone in a crossover jamboree thereafter), it could make for a tougher sell alongside those who play up to 11 games.”
Joey Kaufman – (Columbus Dispatch) @joeyrkaufman
Kaufman outlined the seemingly endless list of potential COVID risks for Big Ten teams. Among the biggest concerns is the fact that teams will be traveling from one college town to the next, week after week.
“Outside a bubble, teams also must travel for games. Transit requires them to congregate on buses and planes, in hotel lobbies and smaller visiting locker rooms, raising the possibility of exposure to more people who assist with travel.
The outbreak at Florida, which saw 19 players test positive, occurred days after they traveled for a game at Texas A&M.”
Larry Stone – (Seattle Times) @StoneLarry
Stone acknowledged the inevitability of COVID disrupting the Big Ten’s modified season, but remained hopeful that the conference would be better off than others given its cautious approach and delayed start.
“I think it’s fair to consider if the Pac-12 and Big Ten, so roundly criticized and even ridiculed for remaining shuttered when other conferences sprang back into action, will be vindicated for their cautious approach. They waited until daily, conference-wide rapid testing was available, which should help mitigate breakouts.
“The key word is should. Anyone who presumes to have COVID conquered is setting themselves up for a rude awakening.”
Ivan Maisel – (ESPN) Ivan_Maisel
Maisel provided a reality check for fans who are hopeful that everything will run smoothly for the Big Ten.
“This is not the college football we signed up for. This is the college football we have. It sounds ungrateful to say, when we’re lucky to have any college football at all. But, in reality, this season is discombobulating. It’s difficult to trust in the narrative of the season when we don’t know who’s going to show up on Saturdays, when we can’t look at the calendar and have tradition tell us who is playing.”