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Live Sports Poised to Tee Off Again

CBS saw a 50% audience lift for the final round of the PGA Tour’s Charles Schwab Challenge, won by Daniel Berger, on June 14.
CBS saw a 50% audience lift for the final round of the PGA Tour’s Charles Schwab Challenge, won by Daniel Berger, on June 14. (Image credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

As some top sports leagues set plans to get back on the field of play amid the pandemic, others are still exploring options for stepping up to the plate. 

The status of the 2020 Major League Baseball season was unclear at press time as players and owners had yet to agree on finances and safety protocols for a shortened season expected to begin with a truncated spring training in July.

 Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said June 17  he had reached an understanding with Tony Clark, executive director of the MLB Players Association, on the framework of a return to play. The plan calls for 60 regular season games per team beginning the week of July 19, and 16 teams advancing to the postseason. In a June 17 tweet, though, the MLBPA said it was “adamant that no deal was reached.”

Sports analyst Lee Berke said that with other major sports planning to return to sports-starved viewers, baseball needs to find a way to get back on the diamond to remain relevant.

“Baseball is in a real bind,” he said. “There’s a lot of animosity between the players union and the owners — at best the sport will be left with a very short regular season and postseason.” 

NBA Back, Who’s in?

Also uncertain is which players will participate in the scheduled return of the National Basketball Association. The league has said it will resume play in July at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, with an eight-game regular season featuring 22 of the league’s 30 teams before moving into a playoff format. But several players have questioned if this is a good time to return to the court, given the continued protests surrounding the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and continued calls for reform. Other players reportedly were concerned about the safety protocols, as well as the potential living restrictions while playing in Orlando.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said during ESPN’s SportsCenter Special: The Return of Sports that the league is moving ahead with plans, but players who choose not to play would not be penalized.

National Hockey League players have returned to the ice as teams conduct limited workouts in preparation for  a July return, with training camps set to open July 10. A tournament featuring 24 of the league’s 31 teams — in two yet-to-be-named cities, one hosting each conference — will be staged in late July to determine a Stanley Cup champion.  

Other leagues have already hit the field. The English Premier League resumed its 2020 season on June 17 after suspending play in March due to the pandemic. Fans won’t be in the top English soccer competition’s stadiums during games, but telecasts will feature “atmospheric enhanced audio” taken from the league’s EA Sports video game to simulate crowd noise, according to NBC Sports coordinating producer Pierre Moossa. 

UFC was an early returnee, staging fights at a fanless VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., on May 9.

UFC was an early returnee, staging fights at a fanless VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., on May 9. (Image credit: Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

In U.S. soccer, the National Women’s Soccer League kicks off a 25-game Challenge Cup tournament on June 27, and Major League Soccer begins its World Cup-style “MLS Is Back” tournament on July 8, also at Walt Disney World. 

The Women’s National Basketball Association said it will play a 22-game regular season tipping off in late July. “We are finalizing a season start plan to build on the tremendous momentum generated in the league during the off-season and have used the guiding principles of health and safety of players and essential staff to establish necessary and extensive protocols,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said. 

Lots of Tune-In

The leagues will join other sports such as NASCAR, UFC, professional boxing, the Pro Bowlers Association and golf’s PGA Tour, which have already returned to live play. Thus far sports fans are tuning into live sports in impressive fashion. CBS Sports posted a 50% audience increase for its June 14 final-round coverage of golf’s Charles Schwab Challenge compared to 2019, averaging 3 million viewers — the most-watched final round in 16 years, according to Nielsen. 

“There are a lot of sports entities putting a lot of work in and they seem to be getting some traction as to what works and what doesn’t,” Berke said. “By trial and error, they seem to be getting better at delivering and producing live sports content, and fans are watching.”

R. Thomas Umstead
R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.