Sports Are Plotting Their Comeback Amid The Pandemic, With Or Without The Fans

Jun 4, 2020

Pandemic or not, for better or worse, organized sports in the U.S. are bounding their way back to a field, court and television near you. For months, sports fans have substituted live sports for Michael Jordan documentaries, celebrity video gaming and competitive cornhole to fill the void. But soon things will be different.

Major League Soccer announced Wednesday that it has agreed to terms with players and teams that will allow it to finish its season with a cup-style tournament starting next month. On Thursday, the National Basketball Association is expected to finalize its own plan to finish its year, inviting 22 of the 30 teams to a mini-tournament to get into the playoffs, and then advance toward the NBA Finals. (All the teams from Texas made the cut, by the way.)

Those soccer and basketball seasons will be held without fans in a controlled environment in what could become the sports mecca under COVID-19: Orlando.

Most of the Austin-area pro teams are minor-league affiliates and have been waiting for these larger dominoes to fall so they can get some clarity about their futures. The Round Rock Express has not been so lucky. There is no deal yet between Major League Baseball and its players, so the Astros’ triple A affiliate continues to wait.

“I’m sitting in the office right now and I’m looking at this beautiful Dell Diamond field and just going, ‘This is the craziest thing that we’re not playing baseball right now,” Chris Almendarez, team president for the Express, said. It is June and because of the disagreement at the major league level about how to move forward, it’s too soon to know what the 2020 season will look like in Round Rock.

“Every day, it’s a different scenario and so while you’re preparing for a season, you’re also trying to come up with ideas so if there’s not a season, you know, what do you do?” he said. "The one thing I will say is it’s going to be devastating.”

Until baseball returns, the Express is hoping summer baseball camps can fill a tiny bit of that financial void.

Back On Track?

Austin’s biggest event on the world sporting stage, Formula One, is not a sure thing, either. F1 has yet to start a race this season because of the pandemic. The Formula One Group, owners of the race series, announced plans this week to resume races only in Europe starting next month. 

“We were so poised to have a great year this year. Formula One’s grown, the interest is growing, and to have the momentum stopped is certainly painful,” Bobby Epstein, chair of Circuit of the Americas (COTA), said. "But there’s so many businesses going through so much pain that you don’t feel alone and you hope for everybody else.”

The COTA race still may happen. F1 revised its schedule only through September. None of those races will be outside Europe, but it's planning additional competitions into December and keeping Austin in the mix. That could include the U.S. Grand Prix.

But COTA still must follow COVID-19 guidelines from Austin Public Health. Interim medical director Dr. Mark Escott said two weeks ago that he's skeptical large events will happen within the city this fall because social distancing would be difficult to maintain.

On The Pitch

Epstein also is a majority stake owner in the Austin Bold. The United Soccer League team was put on hiatus after one game in March because of the virus. The team has started voluntary workouts at COTA with distancing in mind, though Epstein said his team can’t afford to come back until fans can.

“Different teams have different motivations and for our team, we don’t have a big TV contract," he said. "So to play in front of empty stands really provides no value to anyone. And so, until we can get back and have crowds, I’m not sure that it makes sense for this season to go on.”

Head coach Marcelo Serrano said his team is aware the buildup could all be for naught.

“Players are mature enough to understand the situation is different from league ownership, coaching staff, and front office and players,” Serrano said. "It's a difficult time for everybody. ... (There are] a lot of uncertainties, for sure.”

If the team does restart this season, it will do so without its general manager, Roberto Silva – apparently, a cost-cutting casualty due to COVID-19. 

The first top-flight soccer league in Europe to restart, the Bundesliga of Germany, could be providing the way forward for big leagues of all sports. Teams have played for three weeks now without fans in the stands, and facemasks for nonplayers. 

"[The German players are] tested twice a week,” said Claudio Reyna, sporting director for Austin FC. "They were quarantined one week before they played their first game back. ... And you can just see there was a plan in place and everybody supported it. And I think they’ve certainly been the model as far as a big, big soccer league around the world to follow.” 

Reyna is following that league a little closer because his 17-year-old son, Giovanni, plays for the Borussia Dortmund team. 

“I believe that they accelerated other leagues around the world to step up, because ... while they may have different struggles and situations in their country with COVID, they still are able to get the league up and running,” Reyna said. "In those countries, it’s essential to get sports – and soccer in particular – back and running because it’s so important.”

The Financial King Of American Sport

And football is as important in Europe as the other kind of football is here.

Football is the financial king of American sport, and there are indications it will get started back up. The National Football League has OK'd the return of players next month for training camps –leaving teams located in areas with stricter distancing rules to scramble to figure out how to play football and comply. 

Whether college football comes back in the fall is yet to be determined.
Credit Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT

It appears more likely that there will be college football this season. Universities across the country are trying to address budget shortfalls because of the pandemic – and many could find themselves in deeper holes without the sport. It is the financial tide that floats all boats – in some cases literally: Rowing teams, swim coaches, most athletic scholarships in nonrevenue sports are all primarily funded by money raised from football.

Gov. Greg Abbott predicted last month that college football will begin on schedule, with at least some fans in stands. His influence is key if there is to be football on the UT campus – a state entity.

The governor, UT Board of Regents, interim president and school staff all get a say in whether there will be football. But the Big 12, the NCAA and its member institutions have an equal say.

And then there are the players – who risk COVID-19 and spreading it to others.

Despite an uptick in coronavirus cases – averaging nearly 1,500 new cases statewide over the last week – Abbott moved to the latest phase of reopening the state Wednesday. It allows pro and college stadiums to fill to 50 percent capacity.

Got a tip? Email Jimmy Maas at jimmy@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @maasdinero.

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