Sports Leagues in the U.S. Resume Amidst Pandemic, With Varying Results

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Four months after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, domestic sports leagues have once again begun play.

As coronavirus cases continue their rise, leagues have been forced to undertake a variety of measures to shield players, coaches, and staff from contracting and spreading COVID-19. Of these, the most popular and inventive approach has been creating league bubbles: teams compete in an enclosed environment, with no one permitted to exit and reenter the bubble until the season has ended. The plan, although not without holes, has proved, at least initially, to be successful in protecting players from the ongoing pandemic.

Among the success stories of league bubbles is that of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). On July 27, it became the first U.S. sports league to complete its season amidst the coronavirus pandemic with a month-long Challenge Cup tournament. Although the season was on the verge of being derailed due to a coronavirus outbreak within the Orlando Pride prior to the restart, the tournament ultimately concluded without issue. Throughout the tournament, which took place in a bubble-like environment in Utah, not a single individual in the NWSL bubble tested positive for COVID-19.

Following the NWSL’s restart tournament, Major League Soccer (MLS) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) have sought to replicate its success. A rash of positive COVID-19 tests plagued the first few days in the ‘MLS is Back’ tournament bubble, but since July 12 —after the withdrawal of two teams —a total of 9,235 tests conducted on players, coaches, and staff in the Orlando-based bubble have all come back negative. Similarly, the NBA, which established its bubble on July 21, has yet to have an individual contract COVID-19.

Although evidently successful in keeping the coronavirus at bay, league bubbles are not without their faults. Most notably, the approach brings exorbitant costs, with the NBA spending $150 million to operate their bubble. That being said, fans have so far been satisfied with the effectiveness and enjoyability of games within bubble-like environments.

“I think [league bubbles have] been incredibly effective compared to every other possibility besides a complete shutdown. And I think the [game] hype is still there,” Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology junior Arjuna Bazaz said.

However, while the NWSL, MLB, and MLS have experienced initial success with bubble-like environments, other domestic sports leagues such as Major League Baseball (MLB) have taken a different approach. With commissioner Rob Manfred arguing that MLB couldn’t have made a bubble-like environment work due to the league’s duration and size, the league has instead resorted to a shortened season and various social distancing measures to protect its players and staff from COVID-19. But without the security of a bubble-like environment, teams have struggled to contain outbreaks of the coronavirus.

Days after the MLB season restart, the Miami Marlins reported that 11 players had tested positive for COVID-19. Soon after, seven St. Louis Cardinals players and five Philadelphia Phillies players also returned positive tests. Manfred assured fans that the season would continue, but the recent outbreaks have nonetheless cast a cloud of uncertainty over the new season.

I’m not that surprised with the outbreaks given the MLB doesn’t have a bubble like the NBA. I hope the league will be able to complete the season, but I don’t think it will be possible. There are already two teams with outbreaks within the first couple weeks and COVID-19 isn’t going away any time soon,” Thomas Jefferson High School junior Will Hancock said.

Even as the MLB-season appears further in doubt, the National Football League (NFL) will aim to start its season a month from now, on September 10, without a bubble-like environment. However, players remain skeptical of the league’s ability to control COVID-19 outbreaks. As of August 3, 45 players have opted out of the new season. “We’re not ready for football season. So why are we trying to push forward?” star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

Through Teen Lenses: Do you feel that sports leagues as a whole have successfully resumed play amidst the pandemic? Why or why not?

“I think that they’re making the best with what they can. Especially with the pandemic and whatnot there’s a lot of things that they have to work with, so obviously it’s not always gonna be the same. But I think that right now, they’re working with what they have to gradually dip their toe back in the water, so to speak.” Nathan Ma, Rising Freshman at Purdue University, Vienna, Virginia
“I’m very disappointed at how sports leagues around the world have failed to properly resume play in the midst of the pandemic. Just looking at the US: the MLS is Back tournament has seen two teams withdraw from the competition, which to me invalidates the result of the whole thing. In the MLB, several games have been postponed because players all over the league have tested positive for COVID-19. In fact, Miami is dealing with a full-blown outbreak in their clubhouse. I’m a very big believer in ‘sports is nothing without the fans’. A lot of matches played behind closed doors feel dull and unexciting because there are no ultras chanting in the stands or crowds cheering after goals are scored. And the fake crowd noise/virtual fans are ridiculous.” Elliott Lee, Rising Junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, McLean, Virginia
“I don’t think that sports as a whole have successfully resumed play amidst the pandemic because there are still residual constrictions. For example, NBA players, even those who didn’t test positive, were kept in bubbles and not allowed to visit families.” Sreenidhi Sankararaman, Rising Senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Herndon, Virginia

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