ESPN’s Jeff Passan recently reported on the possibility of the MLB turning Phoenix into a “bubble city” where the entire league would be “sequestered” for a span of three to four months to play out the 2020 season. The idea has reportedly been considered by the league, and frankly there’s no reason to assume anything is off the table. According to Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic:
“under a plan supported by some leading members of three federal agencies, major leaguers would not sit bunched up together in a dugout but six feet away from each other in the stands, practicing social distancing. They would exist in a sealed environment, moving only between ballparks and hotels.”
I understand if you think that’s an idea that just must be crazy enough to work, but it’s hard to imagine all the vested interests—MLB, MLBPA, the umpires union, the city of Phoenix, the people of the greater Phoenix-area—getting on board with such a radical idea. Zack Wheeler, the newest big name face of the Phillies, shared his thoughts on the topic with the Athletic:
(note: Wheeler and his wife are expecting their first child in July)
“I couldn’t even imagine missing the birth and just not being around and going ‘hey, I’ll see you in December’ or whenever it is,” Wheeler said, “That’s not going to work.”
I can’t imagine Wheeler’s family situation is unique. While not every player has a child due over the summer, they all have families to consider.
Though paradoxically, that’s the same reason why the bubble-city idea is even considered in the first place—these players have families that depend on them playing baseball to support their livelihood.
Thanks to his newly-inked $100 million contract I doubt this is of concern to Wheeler, but the players on rookie contracts or minor league deals and even the veteran minimum don’t have that luxury. While minimum contracts are surely more than you or I make, that doesn’t alter the budgeting realities that most of these athletes face.
Damian Lilliard, VP of the NBA players union, recently estimated that 33% of the NBA lives paycheck to paycheck. While that mark may be a touch high, it underscores the reality that some of the athletes who would rather not risk their lives for a check, or not sacrifice their work-family balance to satisfy our entertainment, may not have much of a choice—just like many Americans today are stuck with that same dilemma.
Truthfully, any plan that attempts to restart sports by isolating an entire league would be doomed to fail in one way or another—that applies whether it’s the ambitious bubble-city, or the NBA playing in empty arenas in the Las Vegas desert. These suggestions more or less spit in the face of what we understand about virality, epidemiology.
All of these leagues understand they’re essentially in purgatory as far as concrete planning goes. They won’t make any substantive decisions until the timetable for this virus becomes more clear, which won’t be for weeks at the earliest.
At the very least we can take this as a sign that the MLB, NBA, NHL and NFL will do whatever necessary to save the 2020 season. Though Wheeler’s response, and the general reaction from some players around these leagues also makes it clear that any decision on when to resume sports will have to be made with the best interest of the players at hand—not the best interest of the owners, TV networks, or even the fans.