By Jacob Erlbaum and Max Hirsch
On March 11th, 2020, the professional sports world was stunned after learning that the Utah Jazz’s center, Rudy Gobert, had tested positive for COVID-19. Four minutes later, the NBA suspended its season until further notice. This set the course of action for sports leagues across the world as they suspended play in the following days. Suddenly, professional sports were gone and questions arose as to when or if the leagues would be able to return and complete their seasons. Talk of a return remained silent at first, but as the summer approached, the different leagues began to devise plans. The MLB and European Soccer decided to test players daily and allow no fans at the games. The NHL, NBA, and MLS took a safer approach, deciding they would create bubbles in order to return to play.
At the time, the idea that these leagues could build bubbles that would successfully block out the COVID-19 disease in the midst of a pandemic was ludicrous. The country was experiencing an all-time high in cases and deaths along with an extreme shortage of tests. Many players expressed their uncertainties and concerns with this idea on social media, with some ultimately deciding to opt-out. However, Adam Silver, Gary Bettman, and Don Garber, commissioners of the NBA, NHL, and MLS, respectively, were adamant that their leagues return. The NBA season would resume, renting out Disney World in Orlando for the teams in playoff contention. The MLS also rented out a portion of Disney’s sports complex in Orlando for a return to play tournament. However, following this tournament, the MLS decided to follow a path similar to that of the MLB and the European Soccer Leagues and play a shortened season with daily testing. The NHL ultimately decided to head north and create two bubbles, one in Edmonton and one in Toronto. All of the leagues made partnerships with testing companies and required all players to get tested daily, a vital reason for their success.
A few weeks after the creation of the bubbles, cases among the players and staff were nonexistent, and that continued throughout the rest of the season, largely due to the strict guidelines. Players weren’t even allowed to leave the bubbles to pick up food to ensure the virus had no way in. If players had to leave for family matters they were required to quarantine and test negative for five consecutive days after returning.
Player morale inside the bubbles was also a key focus of the organizers. Lounges and access to an array of activities within the bubbles gave players something to do outside of focusing on their respective sports. It is clear, the NBA, NHL, and MLS put safety first as well as the comfort of the players; these were the two main contributors to the success of the bubbles. The extreme measures taken were the reason for the success of these bubbles, as both seasons did in fact finish and crown champions.
On the flip side, the leagues that didn’t create bubbles (MLB, NFL, and European Soccer League) faced challenges along the way. Many players tested positive throughout the season, but were responsible and quarantined immediately. In baseball, the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals were among the few teams that had several players and personnel that tested positive early in the season. This exposure to the disease forced them to miss several games, but they were able to make them up through doubleheaders. In the NFL, the Tennessee Titans had the largest outbreak which resulted in their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers being postponed. In both the MLB and the NFL, there were scattered cases throughout the season, likely due to their choices to not quarantine their teams in a bubble. Fortunately for all of the team members who participated throughout the season, significant outbreaks were avoided for the most part.
Ultimately, the bubbles were extremely successful, while the leagues that opted to play outside of the strict quarantine structures struggled along the way, but were able to play out their seasons. In the NBA, players were able to reunite with family late in the playoffs, and the NHL welcomed the parents of players for the Stanley Cup Final. Similarly, leagues like the MLB and European Soccer Leagues were able to overcome hurdles and complete their respective seasons. The sports world has now turned its attention to the NFL and college sports to see if they will be able to complete their seasons. Everyone involved will look to the success of other major sports leagues as guides moving forward.