Stayin Sharp with Evan Sharpley. How will COVID-19 change the landscape of sports?

How will COVID-19 change the landscape of sports now and for the future?

With the stoppage of sport due to COVID, and the future uncertain as to when the MLB, NBA, and NCAA will start back up, it got me thinking about the crossroads we are experiencing. What changes will occur that may initially be seen as a short term solution to get teams playing again, but might continue for the foreseeable future? Let’s take a look at two examples:

The first is Major League Baseball. Could baseball be coming back first?

Major League Baseball has formalized its plan to return to the field, with teams agreeing Monday on a proposal to send to the players’ union for an 82-game season that would start without fans in early July. The plan would include an expanded playoff field and the designated hitter for all games, even those in the National League, where it is not typically used.

The league’s proposal would authorize the shortest season since the early years of the National League in the late 1870s. To minimize travel, teams would play only against divisional rivals as well as teams in the corresponding geographic division of the opposite league. Teams would hold another version of spring training for two to three weeks starting in mid-June, either at their home parks or their complexes in Arizona or Florida. Regular-season games would be played at home stadiums.

The designated hitteradopted in the American League in 1973 but never used for games between National League teams — would be implemented across the majors because of the significant number of interleague games and to lower injury risks to pitchers. Teams would carry expanded rosters, perhaps up to 50 players per team, with at least 30 available for each game. Teams were originally expected to have 26 active players on each roster this season.

The postseason — a lucrative revenue source for owners — would expand to 14 teams, from 10, with two additional wild cards in each league. The team with the best record in each league would earn a spot in the division series, while the wild cards and other division winners would stage best-of-three series to determine the rest of the division-series field.

But lack of revenue from tickets, parking, concessions and so on would change the economic landscape for owners, who want the players to share in the industry’s financial burdens. The league has proposed paying players based on how much money is earned during the shortened season, with teams splitting revenues 50-50 with athletes. Many players believe they already gave up enough when they agreed in March to not take their salaries unless games were played, in exchange for service credit, an important factor as they try to earn money in future years.

With other sports like the NBA and the NHL still in limbo to finish their seasons, will the MLB rush back to start? What may be interesting to pay attention to is to what extent this type of setup is appealing in future. Do we see a universal DH permanently? Does the season shorten from the normal 162 game schedule? Could we see this playoff format stick? 

Another arena to pay attention to is the NCAA, where fall sports like football may be in jeopardy.

While much of how the season will be played is up in the air, it seems the climate is ripe for change both on, and off the field. Surprisingly, the NCAA voted against a one time transfer rule without having to sit out a year, although there have been special rules passed for spring sport athletes affected by COVID, extending their eligibility. In addition, Michigan football coach Jim Harbuagh wrote an open letter making several suggestions.

The proposal states players and families should be allowed to counsel agents, as long as monetary compensation is not involved, and players should be allowed to continue and finish their education while in the NFL or upon the conclusion of their playing career, at their university's expense. The plan also called for a universal five-year eligibility term for all players, removing the redshirt, and removing the current hard cap of 25 incoming recruits and transfers per year. As expressed in the letter, Harbaugh believes the current eligibility rules do not fit the climate. He believes there are players who are "early bloomers" that could make a living from professional football — and with how short the average pro career is, those players should be allowed to capitalize on their talent rather than spend at least three years in college playing football unpaid.

“I think the average pro career is 3.5 years," Harbaugh said. "So if you say a player has to play three or four years in college, then you can make an argument that the average football career is somewhere between six, seven, eight years. There’s a physical component to the game of football. Three of those years have to be unpaid. That’s the way the rules are right now.

 

"What if the individual is physically, mentally and emotionally developed so that they can play six or seven years as a paid football player? That’s a decision for the young man. I think people are trying to be well-intentioned when they say this is what’s best for you or him or everybody. That’s not the way of our world. That might’ve been the way of the world decades ago, but it’s not, in my opinion, the way of the world right now. People should be able to decide for themselves what’s best for themselves.”

 

At the very least, Harbaugh hopes his proposal will spark a discussion. He says he wants "concerned parties" to weigh in and express their opinions — and says there's plenty of time to think about the subject right now with "the COVID-19 and what's going on right now." He's hoping to hear from other coaches, either at the college or pro level, and from former players, athletic directors and commissioners. 

 

"Right now, rules are that if a young man declares for the draft, his college eligibility is done," Harbaugh said. "He cannot play anymore. And then he goes to the draft and he’s not drafted or his career is very short or there is no career at all, then he’s not able to come back to college football and play. A lot of universities aren’t picking up the expense of continuing the education, so you had to make a decision and you didn’t know how it was going to work out.

 

"This makes it more fact-driven. If you’re drafted, you’re drafted. And then you start your professional career and know that you’ll finish your education when your pro career is over. That’s how it helps. There’s more peace of mind there.”

 

"I kind of think of it this way: When rules are made, whenever rules are made — and there’s a lot of rules around football, as you know — and when those rules get made, it seems like the ones making the rules are the ones that get to have their cake and eat it, too," Harbaugh said. "I’ve been in college football, pro football, and the way the rules are set up, it’s great for the NFL, the rules are such that they get to have their cake and eat it, too. Great for colleges, they have their cake and eat it, too. I wanted to put a proposal together that lets the student-athletes and their families be the ones that have their cake and eat it, too.”

 

While I’m not sure this will gain any traction, I am not opposed, and like Harbaugh I hope it opens for more discussion, not just with NCAA football, but baseball as well. I suppose all this time in quarantine has coaches ansy. 

 

Be safe, wash your hands, and STAY SHARP!

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