There are really no good ideas right now among all the North American professional sports leagues who are trying to resume suspended seasons or start delayed campaigns.
Every possible path to the course, court, ice, field, pitch, etc. is a bad one for many reasons.
Interested parties in the WNBA, NBA, etc. are included in this group. As much as it may pain fans to hear and read, there’s only one way to completely ensure the safety of camera crews, coaches, equipment staff, officials, players, security staff and trainers.
That’s a wholesale cancelation of the 2020 seasons—or, for the NBA, what’s left of the 2019-20 season.
But while that would completely eliminate the risk of these leagues being responsible for the transmission of the novel coronavirus, the financial toll would be significant. Significant for athletes and owners of franchises in those leagues, but most devastating for hourly employees and support staff for teams.
These are the people making less than six figures whose livelihood depends on the games taking place.
The task then is to figure out a way to mitigate both concerns. In order to find the least bad solution, it’s necessary to accept that all the possible strategies will have flaws. One women’s sports league in the United States seems on the verge of giving its strategy with the smallest number of flaws possible a try.
And the WNBA should be watching and studying this plan very closely: The National Women’s Soccer League reportedly has a plan to play a month-long tournament in Salt Lake City near the end of June.
The NWSL hasn’t confirmed any details yet, but the report states that all nine clubs would participate. For fans familiar with FIFA World Cup tournaments, the format would be very similar.
NWSL would put the nine teams into three groups of three. Those groups would play a round-robin schedule, and then the top two teams in each group would advance to knockout play. The league would require isolation and regular testing for all staff.
Salt Lake City is the venue because it has the appropriate facilities—including hotel space and playing surfaces—to accommodate all nine clubs’ needs. In addition, Salt Lake City is very close to Sandy, Utah, home of Utah Royals FC. And in comparison to other states, Utah’s rate of infection and fatality totals for COVID-19 have been low.
In theory, it sounds like a good idea. There are still contingencies, however, the league must prepare for.
For example, if a coach, player, official or trainer tests positive, would the league quarantine just that individual or everyone he/she has come in contact with over the past two weeks? The latter option, while the safer route, could sideline entire clubs and delay matches, which, in turn, ups the cost of putting on the tournament and heighten the risk of transmission later.
Again, “good” is a relative term here.
The NWSL’s reported thinking is that if things go well, that will lead to the league starting to schedule matches in clubs’ home venues later this summer. In essence, the tournament is a kind of “trial run” to see if it’s possible to play matches with any degree of safety whatsoever.
It’s risky but it’s something basketball leagues, like the WNBA, could replicate. There’s also a place that seems ready-made for a WNBA tournament to tip-off 2020.
Uncasville, Connecticut is the home to the Mohegan Sun Casino and the Connecticut Sun. The venue offers sufficient hotel space for essential personnel from the WNBA’s 12 teams for a short tournament.
While it doesn’t offer sufficient practice courts for 12 teams, Uncasville is less than an hour’s drive from the city of Storrs, where the University of Connecticut is located. Uncasville is also less than an hour’s drive from South Kingstown, Rhode Island, home of the University of Rhode Island.
It isn’t ideal for teams to drive 30-40 minutes one way to practice, but none of this is ideal.
Connecticut’s totals for fatalities and reported cases of COVID-19 are several times higher than Utah’s with a population that is only slightly larger. However, if the WNBA wants to hold a potential season-opening tournament in one of its established markets, it might be the safest option.
In comparison to Atlanta, Brooklyn, Chicago, Dallas, etc., Uncasville is by far the superior play. Officials in New London County, Connecticut., have reported just 133 confirmed cases and three related deaths as of May 18.
WNBA players who have represented their countries in FIBA or Olympic competition will be familiar with the group-play-leading-to-knockouts tournament format.
The WNBA could parcel its 12 teams into three groups of four or four groups of three, taking the top two from each group after round-robin play concludes and then playing out the single-elimination tourney.
Not only would this serve as a possible replacement for the greater 2020 season should circumstances prevent any further games, but it would allow teams a dry run at spacing and testing protocols for a greater 2020 season. In addition, it could acclimate everyone to playing in a venue without fans physically in attendance.
Questions remain, such as: How to secure enough tests and get them to the venue? But this truly may be the plan with the fewest number of flaws for the WNBA right now.
Basketball is great at bringing lots of people together. The problem is, that’s the last thing the human species should be doing for the foreseeable future.
But like every other business right now, the WNBA is figuring out how to choose the lesser evil as it goes along. That starting point is that there are no good ideas right now, only ones that aren’t as bad as others.