No fans and no high-fives as some pro sports leagues return to play

This is one of the best times of year to be a sports fan.

The end of April is when playoffs are kicking into high gear at all levels of hockey, and in the NBA. It's when baseball fans are starting to figure out if their teams will be any good this year, European soccer aficionados are primed for thrilling conclusions to their seasons, and NFL and CFL supporters are getting excited about what's to come – not to mention the ongoing drama of the professional tennis, golf and auto racing circuits.

But not this year. Ever since Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, professional sports in North America have been in a holding pattern.

Seven weeks after the NBA abruptly became the first major U.S.-based league to suspend its season – less than an hour before Gobert's team was scheduled to take the court, no less – attention is starting to turn to when play might resume and what that might look like.

NO FANS IN THE STANDS

While ideas about what might constitute a safe return to play vary from sport to sport and country to country, one thing seems clear: There is little to no appetite for having tens of thousands of fans pack arenas to watch the games take place.

Asked about that possibility, Canada's chief public health officer said that sports crowds would be one of many factors to be regularly reconsidered as the cloud of the pandemic begins to lift, but likely one of the last public activities to be allowed.

"I cannot see a single chief medical officer of health across this country who's going to say that these mass gatherings are going to be there," Dr. Theresa Tam said Wednesday at a press conference in Ottawa.

"When we say we're easing into it, that is definitely not easing into it – so mass gatherings will not be part of our lives for a while."

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, a well-known sports fan, sounded a similar tone when he was asked at a separate press conference about the possibility of fans attending games.

"I don't believe when sports come back, they're going to come back with a full stadium anywhere in North America," he said Monday in Toronto.

Of course, there is the possibility that diehard fans may try to find a way to watch games in-person even if they are legally barred from doing so. Nicaragua's pro soccer league has been continuing play, without selling any tickets – but ESPN reported this week that some fans discovered the games were being played outdoors and showed up to watch.

WHAT'S STILL BEING PLAYED?

Nicaragua is one of only a handful of countries in which professional sports leagues have been allowed to continue play.

Also prominent on that list are Belarus and Turkmenistan – two countries that have generally defied the global consensus on shutting down public life to stem the tide of the pandemic. In Belarus, at least, fans have been staying away in such numbers that one team has taken to placing mannequins in the stands.

For well-seasoned sports-lovers in North America, the games taking places in Nicaragua, Belarus and Turkmenistan might not make for a great viewing experience. None of those countries are major sporting powers, and the standard of play is far beyond what fans here are used to.

For something closer to a familiar level of competition, those missing the major North American leagues might want to turn their attention toward South Korea and Taiwan.

In those places, the COVID-19 curve has been flattened to the point that authorities feel it is now reasonable to resume organized sports, albeit with some restrictions.

Taiwan's Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) started its season April 11 – about a month behind schedule. Stadiums are not open to the public, but the league's unusual dominance of the active sports world has left it receiving an unprecedented amount of international attention. It has started streaming its games in English, and one rights holder claims to have drawn five million viewers to those new broadcasts.

According to NBC News, CPBL players are living together in dorm-style housing and are not allowed to travel anywhere except for ballparks.

An even higher level of baseball is about to get underway in South Korea, with the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) planning to start regular season play May 5. Some of the best players in the KBO end up plying their trade in Canada and the U.S., including Hyun-jin Ryu, who was recently acquired by the Toronto Blue Jays to be their top starting pitcher.

In addition to not having fans present to cheer them on, players in the Korean league will also have to abide by unique restrictions aimed at avoiding any chance of spreading COVID-19, reportedly including bans on spitting and high-fives. Additionally, umpires have been ordered to wear masks and gloves.

South Korea's top soccer league, the K-League, will start its own season three days later. Restrictions there include bans on handshakes and even on talking to other players on the field.

Horse racing has continued through the pandemic at a small number of tracks in Florida and Arkansas, and some American auto raceways are moving toward reopening.

FUTURE PROBLEMS IN SIGHT

In North America and western Europe, though, it's still far from clear when major team sports play may resume.

The National Hockey League's most optimistic plan calls for players to resume training in mid-May and the regular season to pick back up in July, leading to playoffs in August and the Stanley Cup being awarded in September, a source told The Associated Press on Wednesday. In this scenario, four NHL arenas would likely be used as centralized hubs for all games.

Soccer players are starting to return to training grounds in Europe, although nothing has been said definitively about when play might resume. Some leagues have decided to call off their seasons altogether, while England's Premier League is currently targeting a June return and Germany's Bundesliga wants the government to give it the greenlight to be back in action as soon as May 16.

Major League Baseball is not expected to begin its season until mid-May at the absolute earliest, possibly with all games being held in Florida, Arizona and/or Texas. The NBA may reopen its practice facilities as early as May 8, if local governments allow them to, but has not said when its season might resume.

As is the case in Taiwan and South Korea, it is expected that all games in these leagues will take place without fans in attendance for an indefinite period of time.

Like many businesses, sports leagues are struggling with major revenue losses during the pandemic. The lack of revenue from ticket sales and other income streams has led some teams to issue large numbers of layoffs or wage reductions.

B.C. Premier John Horgan noted at a press conference on Wednesday that the pausing of pro sports has created "negative economic consequences" for companies outside the sports industry as well.

"It's not just the gate receipts … and who has a hot dog and a beer and all of that, it's all of the other economic spin-off," he said.

The Canadian Football League is asking the federal government for up to $150 million in assistance, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that discussions are ongoing. Soccer's Canadian Premier League is also seeking government help.

With files from The Associated Press and AFP

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