If German soccer can't welcome back fans until next spring, where does that leave the NFL, NBA and MLB?

Doug McIntyre
·3 min read

So Germany’s top two soccer leagues are cautiously going forward with plans to restart their coronavirus-paused seasons on May 9, provided they gain the approval of local governments. That’s a big if, to be sure.

But while announcing Thursday that clubs had agreed to resume play in near-empty stadiums on that date or whenever health officials give the green light, league CEO Christian Seifert said something that ought to make every sports executive in the United States’ blood run cold.

“We don’t know if there will be games without fans in February or March still,” Seifert said, according to the AP.

The lack of certainty is understandable. If we’ve learned anything in almost two months since the COVID-19 pandemic stopped regular life as we know it, it’s that when it comes to this disease, there are far more questions than answers. Nobody, not even the experts, is able to predict with any degree of accuracy what things might look like many months from now. The message has been to prepare for worst and hope for the best.

But while the federal government in the U.S. was busy issuing vague guidelines on the steps states can take toward reopening parts of the economy, governors and other local politicians have tried hard to manage expectations of when sports with paying customers in attendance might realistically be able to return.

Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifert suggested Thursday that COVID-19 could keep fans out of German soccer stadiums well into 2021. (Jorg Schüler/Getty)
Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifert suggested Thursday that COVID-19 could keep fans out of German soccer stadiums well into 2021. (Jorg Schüler/Getty)

Still, next to nobody in America is talking about the possibility that fan-less games could continue well into the next calendar year. While more and more people are beginning to come to grips with the fact that NFL games in September and October will almost certainly have to be played minus supporters — if they can be played at all — the idea of a closed-door Super Bowl next February seems, at this point anyway, too upsetting to publicly consider.

Would fall-to-spring sports leagues like the NHL and NBA really bar fans for almost all of the 2020-21 season, too? So far, those competitions and other top European soccer leagues have been preoccupied with trying to finish their respective 2019-20 campaigns (and satisfying their contractual obligations) sometime over the summer. Multiple reports this week said that the NHL is aiming for July, with regular-season and playoff games staged in empty arenas in four cities. As much as it makes sense to try and solve the most pressing problems first, the possibility that next season will be heavily impacted too will have to be given serious consideration sooner or later.

Seifert’s take is even more sobering when you dig a little deeper. It’s no coincidence that Germany is the only major nation even considering an imminent return to big-time sports; the country’s handling of its outbreak has been universally praised. Germany has set a high bar for other countries, and yet even the Bundesliga’s detailed and extensive plan to resume — one that includes everything from widespread swab testing to players washing their own uniforms — could well turn out to be overly ambitious. Teams still haven’t gotten the OK to begin full training sessions yet. Practices continue to be limited to small groups of players working mostly on maintaining fitness and individual skills.

Even by that comparison, the U.S. lags far behind. It remains the current epicenter of the crisis. The federal response has been disjointed and insufficient, to put it kindly. If the possibility exists that even German soccer won’t be safe enough to welcome fans back though its doors nearly a year from now, it’s impossible to see any U.S.-based sports league faring better.

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