MINNEAPOLIS — Earth’s evil interloper still was being referred to as the coronavirus in mid-March, and our apprehension was such that one positive test, by Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz, basically shut down American sports.
The NBA put its schedule on halt after the games of March 11, and sports at all levels — from youth to the Tokyo Olympics with $12.6 billion in expenditures — were soon being postponed.
Eight months later, North America has crowned champions of the World Series, NBA, WNBA and NHL. On Friday and Saturday, the Breeders’ Cup provided the traditional finish of the major thoroughbred racing season, and on Sunday, NASCAR winds up a full schedule of Cup races with the Season Finale in Phoenix.
The Masters will complete the three U. S.-based major golf tournaments next week at Augusta National.
The financial hits have been onerous and TV ratings plunged, but how have the sports entities handled holding competition at a time when the biggest foe has been The Virus?
Here’s a review, with grades.
— NHL: The league created 12-team bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton. Teams headed into their Canadian shells on the weekend of July 25-26. Two months later, on Sept. 28, Tampa Bay defeated Dallas in a six-game Stanley Cup Final in Edmonton, and the NHL had accomplished five rounds of playoffs without a positive COVID test.
Pat Micheletti, watching back in Minnesota, was asked for an assessment.
“It took a few games for players to regain their sharpness,” the former Gophers standout said. “After a while, the quality looked normal, although I’m not sure they ever reached the same intensity — that little extra push from having an arena filled with screaming fans.
“It was a good Stanley Cup, not a great one. The winner was the right team. Tampa Bay was way better than Dallas.”
— NBA: The 22 teams that were in the playoffs or considered contenders entered the Orlando bubble on July 7. The Los Angeles Lakers won their 17th NBA title in six games over upstart Miami and the great Jimmy Butler on Oct. 11. Three-plus months bubbled-up, without a positive COVID test.
Ryan Saunders is the coach of the Timberwolves, one of eight teams not in Orlando. What he did do was watch continually.
“I thought there was definitely a level of competition a notch above what we see during a normal season,” Saunders said. “I’ve talked to coaches and others who were there and they credited that to a singular focus on basketball by the players.
“And in a bubble, what else was there?”
— Major League Baseball: This sport took on the toughest challenge vs. The Virus — playing 60-game schedules in 30 different ballparks. The early outbreaks with Miami and St. Louis had the self-righteous sports pundits shouting, “This can’t work. Shut it down.”
Games started in late July, with all but two regular-season games being played (with the help of seven-inning games in doubleheaders). The L.A. Dodgers finished off Tampa Bay in six games on Oct. 27 for their first World Series title since 1988.
Marc Topkin, the baseball writer from the Tampa Bay Times, was in San Diego for two winning Rays series and then in Texas for the World Series.
“MLB tried to do a few World Series things, but it’s not the same covering when you get a great moment or a controversy, and all interviews are on Zoom,” Topkin said. “There were some fans for the Series, so that was an upgrade.”
Reaction to actually seeing a World Series, after the way the virus battle started for MLB? “Amazing,” he said.
— WNBA: The league’s 12 teams moved into a bubble at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., in early July and successfully handled COVID-19. They played 22-game schedules and then the playoffs. The general lack of sports options put more games on national TV, the ratings were up a tick, and in the Star Tribune, at least, the volume of Lynx coverage was monumental.
What was missing were a high number of WNBA standouts who opted out because of virus concerns.
— NASCAR: The Cup Series was shut down after its fourth race on March 8 in Phoenix. Eight months later, a full season — including midweek races and a couple of Saturday-Sunday doubleheaders — will be completed back in Phoenix.
There were only two positive tests among drivers, Jimmy Johnson and Austin Dillon, and TV ratings have been OK. What’s absurd is NASCAR’s desperation to have a playoff system is such that somehow Kevin Harvick, with a Cup-leading nine wins, wasn’t among the four drivers with a chance to win the title on Sunday.
— Horse racing: The Breeders’ Cup’s 14 races were held over two days at tradition-rich Keeneland in Lexington, Ky. Robust wagering was anticipated with simulcasting at Canterbury Park and around the country,
Horse racing never shut down completely. It was supported by ADW — advanced deposit wagering — through several digital outlets.
Canterbury Park ran 53 days, rather than 65, with limited spectators. Jeff Maday, the track’s veteran media director, said:
“The daily betting handle for our races actually increased over 2019. What we did miss greatly were the usual crowds — both in atmosphere and revenue from admissions, concessions and beverages.
“Racing did get more attention nationally on TV. There were nightly shows that gained an audience when other sports were shut down.”
— Golf: Maybe you missed the fans shouting, “In the hole.” I had no trouble with golf being played with minimal galleries.
Still, it’s been a tough year for us old-school golf fans, as we watched Bryson DeChambeau make the concept of thick U.S. Open rough obsolete in winning at Winged Foot. His 380-yard drives might reduce Augusta National’s proud members to tears this week.
— Boxing: There aren’t many sports where containing personal mist and maintaining social distancing are more difficult than the Sweet Science of fisticuffs. Luis De Cubas, manager of Warriors Boxing, was asked how his sport has done against the virus.
“Toughest thing is two boxers from Minneapolis — hometown guy Jamal James and David Morrell, living there now — won WBA titles in August, and we had to have the fights in a TV studio in Los Angeles rather than the Minneapolis Armory,” he said. “We’ve signed another great kid, Armando Resendiz, 11-0 from Mexico, and he also will be training there at the Circle of Discipline with Morrell. Same weight as Morrell. It will be great for both of them.”
De Cubas predicted boxing cards will return to the Armory this summer, with James, Morrell and Resendiz as main attractions in a crowded arena.
— Soccer: MLS had to dismiss Dallas and Nashville from its Orlando bubble, then did OK with the virus. Since returning to its home sites, it has been a COVID mess.
And when it’s not the virus, the number of injuries — the Loons being Example A — has been ridiculous. MLS should have played a bit longer in Orlando and said, “See you in 2021 (perhaps).”
— Football: The NFL has been able to flip the schedule around a bit after regular COVID positives, but college football — and the Big Ten right now with the Wisconsin mess — has been an abomination. The quality of play is suspect, the officiating and constant replays reek, and these knuckleheads are planning to go ahead with third- and fourth-rate bowl games.
©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)