Saying COVID-19 changed a few things is like saying water’s wet. It’s fully accurate and yet sorely lacking at the same time.
We shut down nearly everything. Voluntarily. For months. Social distancing, for many, became isolation. Self-inflicted self-reliance.
No way to live. Not for long.
As a nation, we seem to have reached the general consensus that it is not good for man to be alone. But we also don’t want to take COVID unseriously. We can be smarter than the average bear without savaging modern life.
So it’s high time for our pastimes to slowly, surely return.
Sports mostly dealt with COVID like the average bear: They hunkered down and hibernated their way through the lean times. But now most big leagues are drowsily rubbing their eyes, emerging from their dens, gradually shuffling out into daylight.
Yep, sports are returning. But when will they be really, truly back?
Well, ask any Texas fan: It’s really hard to tell when something is Back, with a capital B. I theorize that this is because there’s four different degrees of “backness,” if you will. These are:
Not Back. Nothing’s happening. You’re in a rut, a holding pattern, sitting back, waiting for your chance in the spotlight. No progress is being made or lost. To continue the college football line of thought, this is Rutgers. (This is different from being Anti-Back, which means trending in the opposite direction of being Back. Think Florida State.)
Almost Back: You’re gearing up, getting ready to pounce on your opportunity, but you haven’t quite begun. There’s maybe a false start or two, but you haven’t started your sprint. (Hi, Texas!)
Kinda Back: You’re on your way, but not quite up to speed. A few more things need to fall into place, but things look promising. (We’ve reached Baylor, or near-eternally, Michigan.)
BACK: Top of your game. Full strength. Alabama with a healthy Tua. You get the idea.
So where’s every major sports league on this scale? Well, let me break down the situations, sport-by-sport, in vague order of general American popularity, starting with…
SOCCER: Kinda Back
If you’re an MLS fan, you only have a few scant weeks of waiting left. Sixteen days of competition to close out the regular season kick off on July 8 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, smack dab in the Happiest Place on Earth. If you’re a Premier League/Bundesliga/La Liga/[insert obscure European league here] fan, congrats! Your league’s already back at it, in capacious fan-less stadiums.
XFL: Not Back (Yet)
Spring’s cult favorite sport, returning from the grave for a second chance, was cruelly cut down by the corona. But you can’t kill a zombie. That’s right, the XFL may be bankrupt, but it’s up for sale and every single interested buyer wants a 2021 season. Once the process finishes we’ll be able to reassess, but right now all signs point toward a Vince-McMahon-less league returning to life next year. Amazing.
OLYMPICS: Not Back
Not for a while, anyway. The global celebration of athletic might has been rescheduled for July 23, 2021, so there’s a firm plan in place (at least for now).
UFC: Kinda Back/Never Really Left
Dana White’s Night Fight Delight never stopped fighting. He soldiered on, determined to hold events until ESPN finally made him stop. Then a few weeks later, the promotion came roaring back, and has been holding fight cards without fans ever since. And Dana’s stayed busy, creating the infrastructure for Fight Island, a completely bonkers idea straight out of the movies. Still, without fans we can’t really conclude the UFC is fully, totally BACK.
PGA GOLF: Kinda Back
Pro golf held its first tournament last week at The Colonial in Fort Worth. They’re now on their usual weekly schedule, sans crowds. This week’s the always entertaining RBC Heritage at Harbor Town, but one golfer’s already withdrawn thanks to COVID.
NASCAR: Kinda Back
They’ve been running races since early May, proclaiming themselves the first league back. (Nobody tell Dana White.) Again, no fans allowed.
NHL: Almost Back
Hockey’s return to sports will be absolutely fascinating. 24 teams get a shot at Stanley Cup glory, playing round robin games for seeding and playoff slots according to their ranking when the season was suspended. But there’s still no concrete date. The league is targetinglate summer.
NBA: Almost Back
The nation’s big basketball boys are sending 22 teams to Disney World, where they’ll face off at the aforementioned Wide World of Sports complex in eight games each, beginning on July 31. Then the top eight teams from each conference will play their usual spate of playoff games, culminating in the Finals.
MLB: Not Back
Talk about a self-inflicted wound. Baseball’s in the middle of an epic squabble over pay between the owners, the commissioner, and the players’ unions, with seemingly no end in sight. There will either be a very short season, or none at all. The most recent proposed Opening Day was July 20. I’m not holding my breath.
NFL: Almost Back
The draft went off with few hitches, and most clubs look like they’re getting ready for practices and an on-time start to the season on September 10. No postponements yet, and given the profound popularity of football, I don’t expect any. They’ll play in empty stadiums if they have to, IMO.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Almost Back
Again, no date change yet: The first game of the season starts August 29. And despite several programs announcing that players had contracted coronavirus, the NCAA has approved a six-week return-to-practice plan. (That means yours truly will be starting conference previews right on time with the ACC leading things off on July 17.)
Well, that’s everyone! Or…is it?
What if I told you there was a sport that wasn’t affected at all by COVID? There is. It’s called marble racing, and it’s awesome.
Every year, teams of marbles compete in feats of swiftness, skill, and endurance, cheered on by thousands of virtual fans, in events crafted by creator Jelle Bakker. It’s called the Marble League. Think the Olympics, with all the attendant pageantry and drama, except the competitors are spherical speed demons in color-themed cadres. If you’re looking for something to scratch that sports itch, the League’s qualifiers just dropped (see above), and the competition kicks off for real this weekend. Check it out.
Sports are back. Well, almost. And it’s about time.
For a continually updated list of sport return dates, go here.
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