Just days after Major League Soccer sent FC Dallas and Nashville SC home from its MLS is Back Tournament (Dallas had 11 players test positive for COVID-19, Nashville had nine), a positive test forced the postponement of a game between Toronto FC and D.C. United (the game has since been made up). Despite the health and safety issues that have dogged the league’s return through the first week, MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott reiterated on a conference call Sunday morning the league’s intent to press forward and their the belief the remainder of the matches “can [still] be carried out safely.” While that remains to be seen, with more than 20 players across four teams having tested positive inside ‘the bubble’—and it proving difficult for the league to pivot once an outbreak occurs within the controlled environment—it’s reasonable to wonder if the ‘bubble approach’ really gives pro sports leagues the best chance to complete their seasons. After talking through the litany of advantages and drawbacks, one senior MLS team executive suggested, “Maybe ‘the bubble’ [idea] is stupid. Maybe the way to go is playing in empty stadiums with a ton of testing [as MLB and the NFL intend to do].”
Our Take: In theory, the logic behind ‘the bubble’ makes sense. If a pro sports league could create an environment free of the contagion, no one (think: athletes, coaches, administrators) would get sick and the games could be played without interruption. The problem is to truly establish a ‘bubble’, leagues—which are already suffering financially this season—would need to also quarantine service personnel for an extended period of time (a costly endeavor). None has been willing to invest those resources to date, and as a result, a large number of potentially virus-carrying employees enter ‘the bubble’ daily.
It could be argued—as one MLB club owner did—that professional athletes aren’t any safer in a leaky ‘bubble’ than they would be at home. “If [an individual] has been living at home for the last 4 months and hasn’t contracted the virus, [he/she] must be acting fairly responsibly. And if [he/she] continues to stay home most of the time, other than when at the ballpark, they would continue with the behavior that has been established [and worked thus far].” While that’s probably true, much of the risk in the home-city model is believed to be associated with the travel between cities (and hotel rooms)—not the travel between home and the stadium. It’s worth mentioning, as the MLS club exec did, that European soccer leagues “are not in a ‘bubble’, are playing a lot of games in a lot of different cities, and no one is really testing positive.” Of course, Europe, as a whole, has done a far better job of ‘flattening the curve’ than we have stateside.
Rick Burton believes that controlling as many elements as possible is in a pro league’s best interest, and thus he’s a believer in ‘the bubble’ concept that’s been adopted by the NBA, NHL and MLS. But the distinguished professor of sport management (Syracuse University) acknowledges it’s not a perfect solution and “once ‘the bubble’ has been penetrated [by someone with the virus], the league has a lot of problems” (as we’ve seen with MLS). One problem is the inherent lack of scheduling flexibility in the strategy. Remember, teams are staying in hotels and away from their families. The players’ unions have agreed to go into ‘the bubble’ for a specific period of time (the MLBPA really did not want to do this for 3–4 months, which is among the reasons they pushed for the home-city plan). It’s simply not feasible for the league to postpone games indefinitely should a team-wide outbreak occur. The MLS team executive suggested if there had been more wiggle room in the schedule—as there would be with a home-city model—“[Dallas and Nashville] would have been able to quarantine the right people and get [their rosters] figured out.”
The other big problem with ‘the bubble’ is that the safety measures intended to keep those inside healthy (think: quarantine period for new entrants) prevent teams from calling on replacement players in the event of a large outbreak. So, while MLB teams will have the luxury of tapping into locally operated 30-man taxi squad should a subset of their roster fall ill, if a significant portion of a team inside a ‘bubble’ becomes infected—as we’ve seen in MLS—there’s simply no way they can continue.
MLS’ willingness to continue the tournament without two clubs is indicative of the ‘show must go on’ mentality that is bound to permeate every pro league in its return from the sports hiatus—regardless of the approach taken. Burton explained that once play resumes, “What the Commissioner has essentially done is say, ‘We think we can do this.’ To pull back would make it look like things weren’t under control.” The former NBL Commissioner added that the leagues really want to keep their word with their “fans, sponsors and network partners, and if that means losing a team, they’re still going to try to pull off [the balance of the scheduled games].”
JohnWallStreet Index: 3,221.63 (+1.48%)
NASDAQ: 10,488.58 (+0.94%)
S&P: 3,197.52 (+1.34%)
DJI: 26,642.59 (+2.13%)