In mid-March, sports stadiums across the country went dark as the threat of the coronavirus grew.
First, the NBA pulled the plug on its season March 11, after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus, bringing at least one other teammate and an opponent with him.
The NHL quickly followed suit, then the MLB cancelled spring training and postponed its opening day, while the NFL ordered everyone to work from home while teams barred travel for coaches and scouts.
Now as New York looks toward reopening — and with other states already making the leap — sports fans are eager to know when they’ll be able to cheer on their favorite teams again. Here’s what the experts say.
When will sports return to NYC?
The good news is that it likely won’t be much longer. The bad news is that you won’t be there unless you’re in the game.
On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo encouraged professional sports to return to New York — so long as no fans are watching the matches.
“Hockey, basketball, baseball, football, whoever can reopen, we’re a ready, willing and able partner,” Cuomo told reporters during his daily coronavirus press briefing.
His blessing is good news for the big leagues.
Last week, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told CNN the plan is to start playing games in empty stadiums during the first half of July — with “spring” training to begin in mid-June.
The NFL released a schedule on May 7 and plans for the season to begin on time, Thursday Sept. 10, with the Houston Texans and the Kansas City Chiefs. On Sept. 13, the Jets are scheduled to play their first game against the Bills in Buffalo, while the Giants will be on screens the next day against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But, officials have conceded, it could change.
“Our planning, our expectation, is fully directed at playing a full season starting on schedule and having a full regular season and full set of playoffs,” said NFL lead counsel Jeff Pash during a recent conference call.
“Am I certain? I’m not certain that I’ll be here tomorrow, but I’m planning on it, and same thing, we are planning on having a full season.”
The NBA is considering a three-week training camp that would begin in mid to late June with a resumption of the season starting early to mid-July — without fans, sources told The Post.
It is expected to make a decision by mid-June, sources said.
But don’t necessarily expect Knicks home games anytime soon.
If the NBA does decide to resume, it may only be at two stadiums, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said during a recent conference call with players — the eastern conference might play at Orlando’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, and the western conference at Las Vegas’s Thomas & Mack Center at the University of Nevada.
It’s also still up in the air how the season will resume — some insiders say all teams should be brought back, some want just the 16 playoff-qualifying teams to return, while others think a selection of teams should come back and then compete against each other to get into the playoffs.
And the whole thing could still be scrapped all together, sources said.
Either way, the next full season is expected to begin Dec. 25.
Meanwhile, the NHL has been quiet about resuming its season, but hopes to get players back on the ice — whether for training camp or informal small group practices — by June.
How will sports in New York City change due to the coronavirus?
Sports fans should settle into their quarantine couches — because fan-free games are expected to be a major part of the new normal, even as MLB gears up to be the first league reopening.
And what’s on-screen will also be a far cry from pre-pandemic baseball.
On Friday, the league released a 67-page “Operations Manual” to the MLB Players Association on how it plans to safely play games. There’ll be no spitting, no sitting next to each other in the dugout, no mascots, no fighting — and all non-playing personnel will have to wear masks.
Meanwhile, the medical director of the NFL’s Players Association on Monday said they are testing modified face masks that may contain surgical or N95 material to keep players safe come September.
But some things may look familiar — if a little fake.
Brandon Brown, a professor of sports management at New York University, said he recently had someone from the NBA speak to his class and the league is already considering the possibility of digitally adding in fans to broadcasts.
“So from a TV perspective you could see a full crowd displayed on a green screen that looks real, but is actually a crowd from a previous game,” Brown told The Post.
“She was saying that they’re working on putting in false cheers, but they were having difficulty aligning the cheers with the basket made. But it’s to the point where they’re definitely experimenting with this type of technology.”
Jay Williams, an ESPN analyst and former NBA player, expects virtual reality to become an option for a more immersive at-home experience.
“I will have to go to games eventually because I work in this area, but I will not take my daughter to a game. My daughter is immunosuppressive. But I want my daughter to experience the basketball world. I want her to feel what it is to see LeBron James or see Kawhi Leonard up close,” Williams said.
“And even though it won’t be reality, to simulate that feeling is an experience I would like to have with my daughter. So what better way to do that than through virtual reality, when we can do it in the comfort of the confines of our own home, a safe environment that is contained?”
Williams envisions leagues even catering their pricing towards what level of seating fans can buy through a virtual experience.
“Think about how you could scale that experience as a business. You could have thousands of people that could have court-side seats that never could have experienced a court-side seat in real life,” Williams said.
And once sports leagues do welcome fans back, they are already planning for socially-distanced audiences, Brown said.
“You’re hearing sports teams talking to architectural firms in terms of wanting them to take out seats. They’re literally in negotiations to take out seats,” Brown said.
“So at least at the start of this thing you’re going to see some things like pods or pools of tickets, and instead of a completely full stadium you’re going to see a certain percentage of the stadium filled up with pools of four or pools of six or something like that — a patchwork of fans from the player’s perspective.”
So far, the NFL has no plans for fan-free games — but does have some coronavirus contingency plans if changes have to be made.
Additional reporting by Larry Brooks
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