Sports' COVID-19 Comeback: Complete Guide to U.S. Leagues' Pandemic Responses

*Cover Photo Credit: AP Photo/John Raoux

For my birthday, my wife gave me tickets to go see the El Paso Chihuahuas play the Salt Lake Bees. I was so excited to finally attend a minor league baseball game with her since being married. Five days later at an NBA game, COVID-19 caused a domino effect that shut down professional sports for the foreseeable future. My ballpark adventure was put on pause.

Two and half months later, I am seeing signs of sports making their COVID-19 comeback. U.S. professional leagues are starting to open up as states relax restrictions. However, leagues are still considering the best option to begin playing again. From each of the major sports leagues, I have listed where each stands in their pandemic.

NBA (National Basketball Association)

March 11, 2020 will forever be dubbed, "The Day Sports Stood Still." Before a game between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder, Rudy Gobert (Jazz Center) tested positive for COVID-19. (Rapp, Bleacher Report) Right as the teams were about to tip off, officials called off the game, and the league immediately suspended the season indefinitely. With the NBA's response, every major US sports league began to cancel or suspend their seasons.

After leading the COVID-19 charge, what has the NBA been saying about returning to play?

Return Date: Not Released Yet

Playing Plan: Options include (1) taking the top ranked eight teams in each conference and going straight into the playoffs, (2) taking the top twelve teams in each conference to the playoffs, (3) having the original eight top-ranked teams per conference with an additional four Western Conference "bubble" teams in the playoffs, or (4) having all 30 teams participate in pool style play with a knockout tournament afterwards. (Quinn, CBS Sports

Potential Playing Site: Orlando, Florida (O'Connor, The Ringer)

Updates: As of now, the NBA is considering everything on the table. One thing they seem to stand by is having no fans attend the games except for players' families. Other good news includes 11 teams that have reopened their practice facilities with more teams opening soon. 

MLB (Major League Baseball)

Major League Baseball is America's summer sport. With COVID-19 however, summer will be looking a little different. From seeing what South Korea's Baseball League (KBO) has been doing with absent fans, the league is working on coming back.

Return Date: Not Released Yet

Playing Plan: Proposals include reduced number of games (82 or 100+) with pay cuts to players. 

Potential Playing Sites: Three Hubs for Teams: Arizona, Texas, Florida (Anderson, CBS Sports)

Updates: Currently, the MLBPA and league are working out what a return to play plan would look like. The MLB's proposal stands at an 82 game season with a second pay cut for players. The MLBPA is expected to counter with a 100 or more game season with no further pay cuts after agreeing to initial cuts in late March. (Passan, ESPN)

The Korean Baseball League has also given the league ideas on how to engage fans. They have used cardboard cutouts and synced games' streaming viewers to be featured on stadium video boards. MLB teams will have the final say in whether they adopt these ideas into their stadiums.

KBO League's Cardboard Fan CutoutsPhoto Credit: Hector Diaz, SB Nation

NHL (National Hockey League)

COVID-19 postponed the regular season's finish and start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I miss rooting for my Washington Capitals now, but I look forward to what the NHL is planning below.

Return Date: Not Released Yet

Playing Plan: On May 26, the league announced that if play can resume, 24 teams, instead of a regular 16, would immediately start playoff play. The tournament would begin with, "A 16-team, eight-series Qualifying Round and a Seeding Round Robin among the top four teams in each conference to determine seeds for the Stanley Cup Playoffs." (Gulitti,

Potential Playing Sites: Two hub cities will be chosen for Qualifying and Seeding Rounds with one hub for each conference: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pittsburgh, and Toronto. Official playoff rounds might be played at teams' home rinks.

Updates: While there is no date on when they can play, the league and player's association seem to be on par with how to return. As a hockey aficionado, I am glad to see this new playoff format. The league will continue to monitor the situation to when they can begin playing again.

NFL (National Football League)

While its season ended a month before COVID-19's widespread effect, the NFL's new season starts in the fall and may have to adapt to the virus' prolonged presence. As of now, the NFL has released their schedule and is looking to play without any delays.

Return Date: September 10, 2020

Playing Plan: Playing as if a normal season without the virus

Potential Playing Sites: All home stadiums for teams as scheduled

Updates: While the NFL will continue to plan on a normal season, Dr. Fauci, tleading figure on America's COVID-19 response, has stated that the NFL may have to play in empty stadiums or postpone the season depending on the virus. (McCarriston, CBS Sports) The NFL has not acknowledged any change thus far, and I assume they will continue to ride this out until the season comes closer.

MLS (Major League Soccer)

Major League Soccer was only a few games into their season when they decided to postpone the league for 30 days (Carlisle, ESPN). After COVID-19 continued to get bigger, the league extended their suspension. (MLS Soccer). Now, with a few months gone, MLS is looking for their return to the pitch.

Return Date: Not Yet Released

Playing Plan: Proposal has been presented for teams to play five group stage matches followed by a knockout tournament. The matches that were played before the league's postponement would be added to the group stage record. 

Potential Playing Sites: Orlando, Flordia

Updates: While proposals for a return to play tournament have been included, MLS and the player's association are still negotiating cuts to player compensation. I am sure this will factor in whether the proposed playing plan will be accepted. The league has allowed for teams to begin voluntary small group training sessions. Teams will also remain in their markets until at least June 21. (Carlisle, ESPN)

NWSL (National Women's Soccer League)

This is the first U.S. team sport to announce a date and complete schedule since postponing their season from COVID-19. While it is not as big as the five major leagues, the NWSL's plan can provide good insight for others on how to return. Their return is named the NWSL Challenge Cup.

Return Date: June 27, 2020

Playing Plan: All nine teams in the league will participate in a month-long, 25 game tournament. Each team will play four games in the preliminary rounds to determine seeding, and then the top eight teams will advance to the knockout stages. (NWSL)

Playing Sites: Herriman and Sandy, Utah

Updates: The preliminary and quarterfinal rounds will be played at Zions Bank Stadium, the home of the USL Real Monarchs while the semifinal and final rounds will be played at Rio Tinto Stadium, home of Real Salt Lake. While no fans are allowed to attend, this is a good chance for the NWSL to continue to expand their reach. We will have to wait and see if the competition has any further hiccups from the virus.

Photo Credit: National Women's Soccer League


Unlike other team sports, NASCAR has had the privilege to start races again. With no spectators in attendance, but streaming services available, NASCAR fans have enjoyed their sport for the past month. 

Return Date: May 17, 2020

Racing Plan: Seven events were hosted from May 17-27 to restart racing season. Future races are also going ahead as planned. (McCarriston, CBS Sports)

Racing Sites: Darlington Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway

Updates: On June 7-14, three races are being held in Atlanta, GA, Martinsville, VA, and Homestead, FL. (NASCAR) As of now, there are no further cancellations or delays due to COVID-19.

PGA Tour

While noncompetitive golf seems to have never stopped with the outbreak, the PGA Tour season was suspended. With new updates though, the season will continue in mid-June with a condensed tournament schedule.

Return Date: June 11, 2020

Playing Plan: The Tour will begin at the Charles Schwab Challenge. (Everill, PGA Tour) Then, three more major tournaments including the RBC Heritage, Travelers Championship, and Rocket Mortgage Classic will follow in the next 21 days. (Wacker, Golf Digest)

Playing Sites: Fort Worth, TX, Hilton Head Island, SC, Cromwell, CT, Detroit, MI

Updates: With tournaments scheduled, there will be no fans in attendance. Fall tournaments are also going forward as planned.

UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship)

Like NASCAR and the PGA Tour where players compete as individuals, UFC has started fights again. Fighters were eager to start competing again, since they are paid based on their number of fights instead of a yearly salary. Because of this, UFC has been the most aggressive in resuming events. (Shelton, CBC

Return Date: May 9, 2020

Playing Plan: Individual fights will continue to go forward with no fans in attendance.

Fight Sites: Jacksonville, Florida

Updates: With fights resuming, UFC is in full swing even without fans. A day after resuming, notable fights happened including Justin Gaethje's victory over Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight championship, and Henry Cejudo defending his bantamweight title preceding his retirement announcement. (Head, BBC Sports)

Justin Gaethje vs. Tony Ferguson in Fan-Free UFC FightPhoto Credit: Mark Long, Sydney Morning Herald, Getty Images

MLR (Major League Rugby)

While many leagues postponed their games, Major League Rugby cancelled the remainder of the season. (MLR) By being the only league to cancel thus far, MLR did well in providing an alternative eSports tournament for fans to watch.

Return Date: February 2021

Play Plan: Remainder of 2020 season cancelled. 2021 season will resume in February with normal fan involvement.

Playing Sites: Home venues of MLR teams

Updates: With the season cancelled, MLR has stayed relevant through their virtual tournament and with the first MLR Collegiate Draft taking place on June 13, 2020. The league has also announced two new expansion franchises joining the league: Dallas and Los Angeles

PLL (Premier Lacrosse League)

While there are three national lacrosse leagues, PLL is the up and rising league where seven teams travel to major market cities to compete against each other. PLL had games scheduled in certain cities for the summer, but have adapted to COVID-19 conditions.

Return Date: July 25, 2020

Play Plan: Holding a 16-day Championship Series tournament where 14 group games will be played followed by a single-elimination tournament. 

Playing Sites: Not Available Yet

Updates: While the league is still in its infancy, fans have started to support them in big numbers like the National Lacrosse League and Major League Lacrosse. The Championship Series will be on NBC channels in time slots where the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics were slated helping the league gain critical exposure. No fans will be allowed to attend any matches. (Baker, Axios)

Sports Comeback

COVID-19 has thrown the sports world upside down. From, "The Day Sports Stood Still," to current conditions, sports will be changed for the rest of the year and possibly beyond. While my family ballpark adventure may have to wait until next summer, at least I know that sports are doing what they can to provide fans great experiences again.

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