There has been much discussion during the coronavirus pandemic about when and how professional sports can return, but one thing has become increasingly clear: The likelihood of packing arenas with tens of thousands of fans any time in the near future, if at all this year, is fast approaching near-zero percent.
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, NBA executives and “many in sports” believe not only that leagues cannot open their doors until there is widespread availability of rapid-response testing, but that those doors will not be opened to fans until the development of a similarly accessible COVID-19 vaccine.
“Economically, it may bankrupt them not to play, but in the end I don’t think it’s going to be their decision,” Wojnarowski told Scott Van Pelt on “SportsCenter” on Thursday night. “This pandemic is going to decide.”
How do leagues plan to address this issue with fans?
This only reinforces the stark contrast between the NBA and NFL responses to the pandemic.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has instructed his charges to virtually conduct business as usual in silence, and the league is planning to start the 2020 season on schedule with fans filling stadiums as early as the Aug. 6 Hall of Fame Game and no contingencies currently in place. Conversely, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has conceded that this season could be lost entirely and next season impacted as well, all as the league office considers alternatives, such as finishing its 2020 campaign without fans at a single site.
Granted, the NBA was in the midst of its season when the coronavirus began to spread across the United States, and the NFL will be the last of the major American sports leagues needing to make firm decisions about its 2020 season. But the thought of fans packing stands seems so far from a possibility right now.
When will a vaccine become available?
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, has maintained his projection that the development of a vaccine will likely take between 12 and 18 months due to a lengthy trial phase. Oddly enough, Fauci addressed this issue during an Instagram Live Q&A with Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry late last month.
“We have started on the development of a vaccine faster than ever in the history of any virus, from the time it was discovered to the time we actually made it and put it into a trial,” Fauci told Curry. “But when you test the vaccine it takes multiple phases. The first thing you got to do is make sure it’s safe. We started that a couple of weeks ago. … Phase 2 is pretrial to determine if it works. That’s the thing that’s going to take an additional eight months or so. So when you add up the three or four months for Phase 1 plus the seven or eight months, you get about a year to a year and a half.
“If we really push, we hope that we will know by the time we get into next winter whether or not we have something that works. A vaccine is going to be totally relevant if it cycles into another season, which quite frankly I think it’s going to do because this virus is very, very transmissible. … I cannot imagine it’s just going to disappear. So vaccines are going to be important the next time around, not for what we’re dealing with now.”
Medical experts abroad have called for relaxed testing regulations to expedite the development of a vaccine by several months, and President Donald Trump has pledged to “slash red tape like nobody has ever done it before” when it comes to getting “very important things to the market — medical.” Some U.S. health officials have cautioned against fast-tracking a vaccine, citing past cases and unknown side effects.
Even the earliest possible authorization of a vaccine that has not been fully tested would extend into the projected drop-dead date for the current NBA season and the start of the NFL season. That such a vaccine could be administered widely enough to start filling arenas this summer and fall seems wildly unrealistic.
What does this mean for the 2020-21 NBA season?
The NBA and its players’ association are monitoring the release of rapid-response testing of the coronavirus as a means to resuming this season, according to ESPN’s Baxter Holmes. Silver has expressed concern about continued testing if such options are not also widely available to the general public, but the possibility of assessing the health of players in less than 15 minutes at least opens the door to a potential return.
However, should leagues be unwilling to put fans at risk until there is a vaccine, the 12-to-18-month timeline would mean the NBA may have to consider playing the entire 2020-21 campaign inside fan-less venues.
Silver even raised the possibility of limited crowds in his appearance on a Twitter Q&A earlier this week.
“I’m hoping, at least, that those are short-term issues where we might have to put in effect some sort of social distancing when people first come back to arenas,” Silver said. “I think a lot of that is specific to this virus and when there might be a vaccine, and if there’s an interim period, even when we’re back to work, where there’s not a vaccine yet — there’s concern about a second wave, what will we need to do?”
The answer to that question may be out of Silver’s hands entirely. Look no further than UFC president Dana White’s difficulty in trying to host a pay-per-view event scheduled for April 18, despite multiple athletes pulling out of their fights. White moved UFC 249 from Brooklyn’s Barclays Center to a casino resort on Central California tribal land, where he intended to evade government regulations. Facing public pressure from California politicians, ESPN and its parent company, Disney, urged White to cancel the event. He did.
Likewise, California Gov. Gavin Newsom cautioned against optimism from both Trump and the NFL that football could begin with fans as usual this fall, saying, “I’m not anticipating that happening in this state.”
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