On March 10th, the NBA and NHL were entering the home stretch of their respective regular seasons, as teams jockeyed for playoff positioning and qualifying. Major League Baseball teams were in the middle of their Cactus and Grapefruit league Spring Training schedules, with the earliest opening day in league history set to take place later that month on March 26th.
On the morning of March 11th, Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz was the first North American pro athlete to test positive for Covid-19. Later that day, the NBA suspended their season indefinitely for health and safety reasons. The NHL and MLB followed suit the next day, announcing the suspensions of their seasons on March 12th. As the calendar advances to early June, all three leagues have remained sidelined.
Return or No Return: Major League Baseball’s Dilemma
But sidelined has not necessarily meant seasons have been canceled. “Return-to-play” has been the phrase of choice by sports leagues as they each work with their players to negotiate the terms, guidelines, protocol, and logistics for the resumption of their respective seasons.
On May 26th, the NHL became the first of the three leagues to formally announce their return to play plan, ending the regular season but expanding the playoff pool to 24 teams. The NHL will ultimately choose two hub cities that will host each conference’s playoff rounds. The NHL tentative return date is late July.
On Thursday, the NBA announced a different approach for their return to play, eliminating the bottom eight teams from resuming play, while instituting an eight-game seeding schedule to determine the final makeup of the league’s traditional 16-team playoff format. The NBA is looking to finalize an agreement with The Walt Disney Company to utilize Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando as their operating base. The NBA is hoping to restart on July 31st.
And then there’s Major League Baseball.
Will Baseball Return, Or Take Their Ball and Go Home?
MLB owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) have figuratively dropped the ball as they attempt to put together their own return to play plan. The league and the players are nowhere close to an agreement on the specifics for a return, and, as is usually the case with baseball, money is at the forefront of the negotiation hurdles. A tradition like no other, indeed.
MLB had been floating several unofficial return-to-play scenarios throughout the pandemic shutdown to any baseball scribe that would listen, in the hopes certain writers would take them and run with it. This served a dual-purpose for the league. First, it kept baseball in the sports news cycle by having writers post and Tweet various theoretical proposals, allowing the sport to carry the day so to speak from a fan interest standpoint. During a pandemic shutdown, there was not much competition for sports media exposure that the league had to worry about.
The second reason for the leaked concept proposals was to serve as a sort of a trial balloon to gauge player feedback and response. In the age of social media, when a writer puts something out there that has implications to players, you can be sure that those associated with the game will respond.
The first official proposal by the owners to the players union did not take place until May 12th. At a high level, the proposal called for an 82-game regular-season schedule starting the first week of July, with teams playing only their division counterparts in both leagues, as a measure to mitigate COVID-19 related health concerns over prolonged travel.
Additionally, the proposal also called for expanding the playoffs from 10 to 14 teams in total, as well as implement a “universal” designated hitter in both leagues. And while the proposal provided comprehensive details regarding protocols for protecting players, team, and stadium personnel from COVID-19 infection and transmission, the financial component was not included in the initial presentation of the MBL proposal. But rumors of a significantly reduced compensation structure were already swirling, and that immediately became a sticking point for the players and the union.
Baseball’s Return To Play Battle – How Did We Get Here?
Back on March 27th, the owners and players agreed to an initial framework that, among other things, guaranteed the players a pro-rated payout of their full 2020 salaries based on the number of regular-season games played. For example, if the league wound up playing half of the normal 162-game regular season, the players would receive a 50% payout of their full 2020 salary. There was also a 50-50 post-season revenue sharing feature included in the original framework. At the time that seemed significant, as baseball has never had a revenue-sharing plan between owners and players, like the NFL, NHL, and NBA all have, in varying formats.
The owners are contending that at the time the initial agreement was reached, there was not enough information available about the rate of expansion of COVID-19 infections, and the subsequent safety measurements and guidelines that were implemented by Federal and State governmental agencies to combat the spread. Key among those measurements were restrictions placed on mass gatherings of 50 or more people at events, including sporting events. That restriction prevented the possibility of fans being able to attend baseball games for the foreseeable future, thus eliminating revenue streams for the teams from gate receipts, parking, concessions, and merchandise sales.
The owners have been referencing an “economic feasibility” clause in the March agreement that, per MLB, was intended to re-open the financial arrangement previously agreed to by players and owners for 2020 return to play if fans were not allowed to attend games. As one might imagine, the players, the union, and their lawyers have a different interpretation of that language, and so far have not been willing to budge off the pro-ration provision of the initial agreement.
When the owners finally presented their amended compensation plan on May 26th, the union and players roundly rejected the proposal publicly. The plan called for a sliding scale of reductions based on player salary, with higher-salaried stars having to bear the brunt of the salary reductions versus players making the league minimum or in-between. Overall player compensation would have been reduced from $4 billion to $1.2 billion.
The players countered with their own proposal on May 31st. In it, they re-affirmed their position on maintaining the original pro-ration formula. They also proposed an increased 114-game schedule. This would have meant the players achieve a 70% pro-ration of their 2020 salaries or $2.8 billion of the initial $4 billion player pool. MLB has since rejected that proposal, and, although not formally providing a counter-offer, it is rumored that the league is discussing implementing a 48-50 game schedule without fans.
Return To Play Or Risk Permanently Harming The Game
Given the state of a national economy ravaged by COVID-19, with millions of Americans losing their jobs, the optics of Major League Baseball owners and players fighting over billions of dollars look bad. The initial optimism that the “boys of summer” would take center-stage and be the first major North American professional sports league to return to action in early July has quickly waned and has left fans wondering if there will be a season at all.
If that were to happen, it would be more than bad optics at play for the game. Baseball entered 2020 having already endured a rough off-season, in which two of the league’s premier teams, the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox, were implicated in sign-stealing scandals. Both fans and players alike were angry at how blatant the level of cheating was at its peak. And both were equally frustrated that Astros and Red Sox players were given immunity from punishment, in effect, for their cooperation during the separate investigations.
If baseball were to compound things by not being able to reach an agreement between the league and its players for a return to play for 2020, and have to cancel the entire season, this could have a lasting, negative impact on the growth of the game.
Baseball Needs To Find Its Next Generation Of Fans
Baseball has made it clear it wants to capture the interest of the younger generation to help expand their market share and ensure a replacement demographic for baby boomers is in place to carry the sport moving forward. To that end, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has been working almost maniacally to find creative ways to speed up the game through pace-of-play initiatives. Reducing the average length of games to zero through the cancellation of the season was probably not what he was intending. You cannot capture the imagination of the younger generation by giving them a bag of air.
Assuming the league could resume from a health and safety standpoint – and that’s a big if – the owners and players are blowing a tremendous opportunity to capture the interest of both hard-core and casual sports fans alike who are starving for live sports. How perfect would it be for baseball to return to play Fourth of July weekend? A nation reeling from the impact of COVID-19, and now boiling over with the uprising and protests regarding the murder of George Floyd, racism, and police brutality might welcome a three-hour distraction in their lives.
Sadly, it does not look like a resolution to the negotiations is anywhere in sight. The rhetoric between the owners and players is as off-putting as it has ever been. The mighty dollar is once again the anchor that weighs down and submerges both sides.
In the short-term, baseball is facing an 18-month hiatus between seasons if the 2020 season gets scrubbed. If that were not depressing enough, consider that the current labor agreement expires in December 2021. That opens up possible scenarios of a lockout by the owners, or a strike by the players if the current discord between the two sides cannot get resolved by next year.
There is so much at stake for both sides. Unfortunately, they both seem content to stand their ground, ultimately taking themselves and the game of baseball with them off the cliff and out of sight, out of mind.
But do not worry, the boys of summer will hopefully be returning this year, to a sheet of ice or a hardwood court near you.
March 11th, 2020 will forever be known as the day the world stood still, the day that sports stopped. It’s been a little under 3 weeks (21 loooooong days) since the NBA shut down amid the coronavirus, aka COVID-19, aka code-19 pandemic. I know this has put one big thing in perspective, what the world looks like without sports, and I don’t like it one bit.
Living in a No Sports Zone with COVID-19
Baby, Come Back!
This is showing us how important sports are to our lives. You know how you’ve got that empty, pit drop in your stomach feeling after losing your first love? That’s how it felt hearing the announcement NBA was suspended indefinitely after Utah Jazz C Rudy Gobert tested positive for that ‘Rona.
Since that discovery, the COVID-19 pandemic has made its rounds in the sports world getting to several well-known athletes and even our favorite announcers. Reaching the likes of New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant and ESPN’s beloved NBA analyst Doris Burke. So, this thing is real!
I’ve been watching sports since the tender age of eight, (I’m 43 now), when my father introduced me to football. It was Super Bowl XX Sunday when the Chicago Bears defeated the New England Patriots 46-10. Like for everyone, in those 30-plus years since we’ve never seen anything like this. So, what does one do when you’re quarantined and stuck in the “No Sports Zone?” (For those that remember, that’s an ode to the Twilight Zone intro).
Finding an Alternative
Well if you’re like me, you get familiar with that lady in the house. Oh, that’s my wife, and it turns out she’s very interesting. I also finally have time to catch up with all those Netflix shows and movies I promised myself I would watch. My personal fave is The Ozarks with Jason Bateman, I’m already ready for season four! Another one to check out is the documentary, Tiger King, all I can say is whoa!
How about some personal gains, I have a language self-learning disc set I’ve had for the last five years. I think it’s time to crack that open. Hopefully, when we come out of this quarantine I’ll be a new, Spanish-speaking me (I wonder what my Vegas odds are). But this is a sports column so let’s get back to the business at hand.
Not All In
You know who else is going on as business as usual? The NFL, commissioner Roger Goodell said let’s keep the party going, starting with one of the most exciting free agents periods in recent memory. Maybe it’s sports being halted and what we’re going through that added to the excitement but none the less it is.
By the way, the 2020 NFL Draft is still going as scheduled, April 23rd-25th. This was truly a free agent frenzy. We wondered what the Bears were going to do, after 20 years of dominance in the AFC East Tom Brady left New England, Drew Brees coming back to the big easy & more.
Obviously, the biggest signing was Brady with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but this is Chicago, so let’s look at our hometown Bears. In my opinion there free agent moves were, meh, we’ll delve into particulars at a later time, for now here are the key signings. EDGE Robert Quinn, (an upgrade from former first-round pick Leonard Floyd), tight end Jimmy Graham, bringing back linebacker Danny Trevathan, and trading for Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles.
Hang In There
Though we’re in a “No Sports Zone” now, we can use our time to reset and come out refreshed on the other side. One good thing that came of this is the Michael Jordan documentary, The Last Dance, is being released early so, yay! Now if the NFL season becomes in jeopardy of being canceled, then some panic may set in. Until then, let’s be safe and keep the positive vibes.
The calendar has turned to March and the madness is about to begin. Yes, that might have been a reference to college basketball but that still doesn’t change for the NBA. Last week I covered the Eastern Conference.
The playoffs bracket in the West is closer in terms of playoff positioning, but the Los Angeles Lakers sit at the top led by all-time great LeBron James. Can we consider LeBron a legend even though he is still active? We can get to that next week when I’ll be diving into some of the more debatable topics this league provides its fans.
Previewing the Western Conference Playoffs
The Lakers have a sturdy 5.5-game lead on the Los Angeles Clippers who many consider the favorite to come out of the West. The Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Dallas Mavericks are all separated by 5.5 games. These last few weeks could help win homecourt advantage for certain teams that thrive in there home arena.
Home-court advantage is going to be critical. If Denver gets home court over the Thunder (which would happen if the playoffs started today). Both teams are significantly better at home than on the road. Think about if Oklahoma City stole home-court advantage and was able to win their first-round series. That could change the outlook on the franchise.
The current seventh-seeded Mavericks actually boast a 21-11 road record, so they could play spoiler in a series. Luka Doncic is built for the playoffs. They might lose their first-round series, but there will be fireworks because of the Mavericks averaging 116 PPG, which ranks third in the NBA.
Last, Not Least
Other potential suitors for that eighth and coveted spot are the Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, and New Orleans Pelicans. All of these teams sit no more than four games back. The most compelling story is the upstart Pelicans who are led by rookie sensation Zion Williamson. But we have to respect what Memphis has done here. Their schedule after the all-star break was second in difficulty, and with a little over a month to go, they have a solid three-game lead. The Grizzlies are led by another rookie sensation in Ja Morant.
Look at the top-seeded Lakers. They have two of the top-five players in the league. Some are here to argue that Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best in the league and I have no qualms about it. I would be remiss to say that LeBron is still the number one player in the world given his incredible IQ, distribution, and understanding of the game and what needs to be done to win a title.
Still Up There
At this point, we are tired of LeBron and it skews our view on him in terms of greatness. In any best-of-seven series, the Lakers will have an all-time great as the best player on the floor. But will his supporting cast be able to do enough to get him to the finals?
The number-one threat to the Lakers returning the NBA Finals is the Clippers. After an intense six-game series where the upstart Clippers pushed the Warriors to the brink with inspiring play, free-agency ended with them having acquired the defending Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, a two-way superstar who could help the Clipper reach the promised land. The Clippers have the star power and defensive prowess to wear the Lakers down and are 2-0 against their cross-town foe.
But this reporter has seen this before. Who remembers when the 2011 Chicago Bulls went against the Lebron James led heat? Yes I know, we have different levels of stars. And Leonard and George are lengthy defenders who can combat LeBron. But when it comes down to it in a best-of-seven, give me LeBron.
Keep an Eye On
The Nuggets and Rockets are third and fourth in the Western Conference. The Nuggets main question still remains. Do they have the star power to get to the finals? Simple answer. No.
Denver is a good team, don’t me wrong. But right now they would face the Thunder in the first round; no easy out. In the second round, they would face the Clippers. They don’t have the bodies to guard the likes of Leonard and George. The athleticism of the Clippers would be too much.
The Rockets are a gimmicky team trying to beat you by spreading the floor and being unconscious from the three-point line. They have the superstar power to get to the Western Conference Finals but those stars haven’t punched their ticket to finals since 2012. That was when James Harden and Russell Westbrook were with the Thunder.
How It Plays Out
Throughout a seven-game series, the Rockets will be worn down. If they come out of the first round, they’ll be minced meat for either the Lakers or Clippers. The bottom-four teams in the playoffs have young (to a degree), up-and-coming teams that will have their title window soon. Just not quite yet. The Thunder are the surprise of the season.
After trading Westbrook and George, everyone thought the team would tank to hopefully draft their next superstar. That is not the case. Chris Paul and company are having a fantastic season and look to ruffle some feathers in the first round. Utah is a defensive dynamo led by Rudy Gobert. Unfortunately, they do not have enough pop to get to the finals. Hopefully, they’ll see Donovan Mitchell pop in the playoffs again. The Jazz are just hoping to advance to the second round.
As for the Mavericks and the Grizzlies, the only thing I want to see is the blossoming of Doncic and Morant. These two young players are on another level, and I hope to see them raise their game in the playoffs. Doncic has been in big moments for nearly a decade and you can tell in his early career he has the makings of being something special. He is currently averaging 28.5 points per game, 8.8 assists, and 9.3 rebounds.
One for the Road
Ja Morant is the Rookie of the Year in my opinion. Trust me I love Zion just as much as the next guy. But Ja has been nothing short of special for this upstart Memphis bunch and a playoff appearance in his rookie season is nothing but a sign of great things to come.
It is March and that can only mean one thing. The basketball world will come into the focus with the NCAA tournament and the NBA playoffs to follow shortly after. These are all the things I am looking for in this year’s playoffs. If you read last week’s article I chose the Boston Celtics, and for this week. I believe the Lakers will meet them in the NBA Finals, and the winner will be in next week’s article.
If you have anything you want to discuss you can hit me up on twitter @illiniRyan7