Slowly but surely it’s become obvious the coronavirus pandemic is going to create a new normal we never envisioned and transform everything we’ve known and become accustomed to about the NBA and professional sports.
How many games are played, when the seasons and playoffs start and end, the stats and records, the conferences and divisions, salaries and finances, everything will forever be divided into eras before and after coronavirus. Just as life in general is going to change, get ready for a new reality as the rush to salvage the 2020 season and economic challenges will undoubtedly scramble professional sports like nothing we have seen in modern times.
Forget worrying the pandemic is going to put an asterisk on this season because coronavirus is going to change everything going forward and compress what could have been decades of changes into a year or two. Games without fans, realignment of divisions and conferences, rise and fall of big markets, shortening of seasons, and limits to free agency are just a first wave that will inundate and change the landscape of sports forever.
Just as the pandemic will transform how we work, study, and get services and speed up the adoption of telecommuting, online education, and remote services, it’s going to change the basic fabric of sports and entertainment. Streaming sports and entertainment events to remote viewers will grow even faster than before as people look to avoid the risks associated with attending live games and concerts in crowded arenas and stadiums.
The halcyon days of 15,000 rabid fans at an NBA game, 40,000 at at an MLB game, or 100,000 at a college football game may be long gone should the coronavirus turn out be be more deadly or last longer than expected. Even after the pandemic is over, attending a live game may never be the same. Stadiums may have to dramatically reduce capacity to allow for social distancing to ensure their fans it’s safe for them to show up in person.
The NBA’s talking about hopefully finishing the current season and playoffs with teams playing in arenas without fans in an isolated venue like Las Vegas or Disney World with the NBA Finals stretching as far as September. Keeping options open to finish the 2019–20 season and crown an NBA champion has resulted in the league seriously planning to shift the start of the 2020–21 and future seasons from late October to Christmas Day.
MLB’s plans to finish the current season include ditching the American and National Leagues and realigning teams into Cactus and Grapefruit leagues playing in Arizona or Florida depending on their spring training venues. That solution to save this season then sparked ideas for a radical permanent geographical realignment with ten-team East, West, and Central divisions designed to reduce travel and increase regional and local rivalries.
The truth is we’re in one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments in time when something major happened that changed everything in ways we didn’t expect and couldn’t predict, like after a world war or the great depression. Sports could fade away and become inconsequential or they could evolve into that one thing that allows people to escape for a few vicarious minutes the tough times and experience the joy of victory and the agony of defeat.
No matter what your crystal ball or time machine predicts, the coronavirus pandemic has opened up an unpredictable Pandora’s box of changes for the NBA and other professional sports leagues. Radical change is on its way.