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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 12, No. 28
June 5, 2020
Sports stopped, depending on how strict you want to be, on March 11 or March 12. On March 11, Rudy Gobert of the NBA’s Utah Jazz tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, causing the NBA to first call off the team’s game in Oklahoma City that night, and shortly thereafter to suspend the season. The next day, there were MLB exhibition games played, but by the end of the day on the 12th, major U.S. team sports were done. Stopping on that day had disproportionate effects on the major U.S. leagues.
MLB is risking relegating itself to stepchild status compared to NFL, NBA
On that day, MLB had 2,430 games left in its season, plus the remainder of its preseason, plus the postseason, games that were scheduled over the next 7 1/2 months. The NBA had 259 games left, plus playoffs, games that were scheduled over approximately ten weeks, pending the length of the best-of-seven Finals. The NHL had 184 games remaining, plus playoffs, over approximately nine weeks. The NFL had no games scheduled until August 6, and no regular-season games scheduled until September 10 -- just shy of six months from the date the sports world shut down.
“The NHL is going to play. The NBA is on the road to figuring out a way to play.”
When sports shut down, most baseball players hadn’t received a paycheck since October. Some got playoff shares, many have endorsement income, but players are paid only a per diem in the spring. Their regular paychecks were a few weeks from kicking in. NBA players are paid on the first and 15th of the month during the season; players received their regular paychecks through April 15. A subsequent negotiation, triggered by force majeure clauses in the standard player contract, leaves open the possibility that NBA players could lose a quarter of their 2019-20 salaries with considerable notice beforehand. By any calculation, NBA players have received most of the compensation to which they were entitled for the current season. NHL players received their final three paychecks as scheduled. There is already an aggressive escrow structure in place to ensure a 50-50 revenue split.
Because teams in the two winter leagues had played most of their schedules, they'd banked arena revenue, national-TV money, local-TV money, and corporate sponsorship money for five months. There are contract clauses that put some of that local-TV money at risk, but by any account, the hit to the teams’ pocketbooks by the loss of late-season home dates is small. MLB teams, on the other hand, will lose almost all of their ballpark revenue and a significant part of their television revenue.
”Compare that with the NBA, where reports leaked Wednesday of a proposal for a resumption of play that would include eight regular-season games and a 22-team playoff.”
The NBA’s return plan leaves eight teams, well, not returning. It takes the remaining 22 and ensconces them in the Walt Disney Resort in Florida, where they will practice, play eight “regular season” games each -- a nod to the need to ramp up and a sop to teams with mathematical playoff chances -- and then launch into an expanded playoff format. From touchdown to return, the remaining season would take about three months; most players would be out of the “bubble” in six weeks. With 22 teams carrying 15 players each, that’s 330 players needed to finish the season, and just 60 of those in Orlando for more than two months.
The NHL’s return-to-play plan leaves seven teams on the outside looking in and does away with the regular season entirely in favor of expanded playoffs. Like the NBA, the NHL is using a bubble plan that will bring a maximum of 28 players per team to an as-yet-undetermined number of “bubble” cities, believed to be two to four. That’s 672 players, two-thirds of whom will be done maybe four weeks into this plan. Just more than 100 players will be around for longer than two months.
MLB looked into a “bubble” plan, playing out a modified schedule in Florida and Arizona, but the plan never got off the ground. It would have required at least 40 players per team, 1200 total, and probably more. (A 50-man eligible roster is currently under consideration.) Half a season plus expanded playoffs would have required three to four weeks of ramp-up, three months of regular-season play, and five weeks of playoffs. At minimum, those 1200 players would have been in the “bubble” for nearly four months, and some for up to five months. Needing more space for its games than basketball and hockey require, MLB’s bubble plans would have involved playing outdoors in Arizona and Florida nearly every day in July and August, an absurd notion on its face.
I appreciate the desire many people have to see baseball be played. The facile comparisons to the winter-sports leagues, however, are deceptive. They actively make people less informed about the challenges involved. It’s getting mad at your 11th-grader for taking a long time on his trigonometry homework by comparing him to your third-grader who has completed her multiplication tables already. It’s not apples and oranges; it’s apples and Volkswagens.
Using the return plans of the NBA and NHL -- and for that matter, dragging the NFL into the argument -- turns an accident of timing into a fault of character. SARS-CoV-2 jumped from animals to humans some time in late 2019 and reached American shores early in 2020. By March, it was spreading so widely that sports shut down. There was nothing MLB, the NBA, the NHL or the NFL could do about the timing; if the novel coronavirus reaches U.S. shores six months earlier or six months later, it’s the NFL and its indoor brethren facing the hard questions, while MLB would be free to leave a few hundred players behind and move to its playoffs.
Comparing the leagues in this moment is like blaming someone for not winning the lottery. The NBA, NHL, and NFL caught a break with the virus’s timing, and MLB didn’t.