On April 3, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that it is likely that the National Basketball Association (NBA) will decide to cancel the 2019-2020 season outright. He suggested that the likeliest option at this point is that the current season will be abandoned entirely and the league will simply wait until the start of next season to play professional basketball again.
This option, while unfortunately somewhat rational given the tragic situation the world is currently in, raises an interesting sporting question.
In theory, two sporting seasons are entirely equal. For example, nobody values the individual championship of the Kansas City Chiefs from this past Super Bowl more than they do the victory of the New England Patriots over the Los Angeles Rams from the year before, or rather more than when the Las Vegas Raiders beat the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI back in 1977.
Unless there are extenuating circumstances (see the 2017 and 2018 renditions of Major League Baseball), a season is a season, and a championship is a championship. Even after the most recent National Hockey League lockout or the “Replacement Refs” saga in the National Football League (NFL), the overall season itself remains acknowledged.
This time, that may not be the case. With the basketball and hockey seasons in jeopardy, the planned beginning of the baseball season getting later and later every day, Major League Soccer frozen in place after just three games played and the NFL pretending that everything is fine, a bizarre and unprecedented question must be asked: Which season matters more? Do we kill this season to save the next, or do we fight to finish this year’s competition at the expense of future ones?
Perhaps this question is most relevant when it comes to European soccer. There, the stakes are the highest. Club soccer has an approximately 10-month long season annually, with the first matches happening in August and the season finishing up in May. This isn’t including international competitions like the European Championships that occur during the summer months in between (the European Championship happens once every four years and was scheduled to take place this summer, but it has already been moved to next year).
The governing body of European soccer, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), has declared unequivocally that the current season must be finished. They’ve moved the date that they demand it be finished by several times already — the current timeline orders a finish to all European domestic leagues by August, when it was initially June 1st — but the obsession with finishing the current season remains. They’ve even threatened to exclude teams from the lucrative Champions League if those teams come from nations where the season ended prematurely. This could cost a team like Club Brugge, who were awarded their league title by the soccer association of Belgium last week, up to $100 million.
And the problem is exactly that: In soccer, where you finish in the standings matters a lot. Take England, for example. A team in the top tier makes significantly more money from television contracts alone than a team in the second tier. So, to call off the competition would either mean awarding some teams promotion or punishing other teams with relegation that could cost them nine figures with almost a third of games left to go.
Such an unfair solution has been called for by some people in the world of English soccer, such as the vice-chairman of West Ham United F.C., who conveniently sit one place in the standings above the relegation zone at the moment.
However, finishing this season isn’t exactly a perfect answer. Ignoring for the moment the legally complex and glaring issues of contracts set to expire long before seasons will be finished, completing the current season could do a number on the next one. Perhaps the next season will have to be shorter, or certain competitions not played so that other tournaments will have more time to play the same amount of games in a shorter time period. Think about baseball, who are currently discussing playing postseason series as late as December. Baseball can’t be played in the snow, so what does that mean? Will the World Series be played in a neutral location, wiping away any vestige of home field advantage? Will the MLB put some form of asterisk on this season, punishing players more for playing during a pandemic than it did for cheating?
Not to mention the time that professional athletes need to practice and train in order to be physically ready to compete again. What if the NBA did resume, but because of a lack of fitness LeBron James tore his ACL and missed both the remainder of this season as well as next season? Would that be worth it? On the other hand, James isn’t getting any younger. Shouldn’t the NBA prioritize getting as many more games out of their most marketable star as possible?
These questions are not easy to answer, and they cut to the core of what sports are about. Should leagues around the world do what they can to salvage this season or do everything possible to protect the next one? Last month, David Ornstein of The Athletic reported that soccer teams in the English Premier League would have to collectively pay a total of up to $800 million dollars in lost television revenue alone if they can’t finish the season. That price tag could bankrupt smaller clubs entirely.
The MLB draft, in contrast, has gone from 40 rounds to only five this year. What happens to the over 900 players that normally would have been drafted in those remaining 35 rounds? Cutting things because of the pandemic is certainly a necessary decision, but that does not make it a victimless one.
Personally, I do think that the current seasons must be saved and that the potential choice of the NBA to cancel this year’s competition would be a mistake. I believe that sports do a tremendous amount of good in the world, and that the sooner they are able to return, the sooner they will be able to help people suffering during this epidemic and global shutdown we are all currently experiencing.
However, if bringing sports back too early means potentially reviving the disease once it’s calmed down, if it means risking more lives, then surely it is not worth it. Liverpool F.C.’s manager Jurgen Klopp once called soccer (and all sports by proxy) “the most important of unimportant things.”
There can be no question: if lives are still at stake, the current seasons must be cancelled in their entirety. We can only hope that the next season will be able to escape this unscathed.