To Bubble or Not to Bubble?

Piggy backing a bit off of Terry’s article, over the last week of sports we have all had the opportunity to witness the trial and tribulations of each league’s strategy. Well more specifically the bubble seems to be going strong a week in and the MLB lasted a weekend. Which begs the questions to bubble or not to bubble?

At this point in time this question is only relevant to the NFL, the last major professional sports league in North America to start their season. I don’t think it is necessary to point out how much more effective a bubble would be, but the NFL, like the MLB has a full season to play. The baseball season was reduced to a Commissioner mandated 60 games with no spectators allowed in the stadium. The reason for the forced season by the NFL and MLB in my opinion is to simply fulfill their TV contracts so that they can collect the revenue. This is not a shot at the owners because players want to get paid too, but I am addressing what I believe to be the elephant in the room.

Focusing on the MLB, to say that their approach to the season and COVID-19 has been the equivalent of a dumpster fire would be an understatement. After one weekend the Marlins lost basically their entire roster as a total of 20 players and staff tested positive. Thankfully this outbreak was for the most part contained to just their clubhouse, but not even a week later the St Louis Cardinals now find themselves in a similar situation. These outbreaks have caused dozens of games to be rescheduled which for baseball is fine because double headers are not out of the norm, but how would you do this for football?

To my knowledge one of the biggest deterrents to the bubble was the player’s did not want to be away from their family which is completely fair. However the MLB did nothing to try and minimize their player’s contact with the outside world which would ultimately limit the possibly of contracting the virus. Now, a week into their season, the MLB has overhauled their COVID-19 protocols to seclude players to their hotel rooms. No more restaurants, bars, lounges, malls or any public area. Players must wear the masks at all times except for on the field of play itself or alone in their hotel room.

I don’t know about you but I think I would prefer a bubble.

I sincerely hope that the reason why the NFL has not come out and announced their official plan yet is because they wanted to watch how the two strategies played out. I hope that Goodell and the owners have a Plan B since Plan A of expanded rosters to get through the season no matter how many bodies needed has failed.

The bubble strategy at it’s core obviously favours the leagues that have adopted it but this article will focus on the NHL and NBA’s bubbles. Both leagues had basically completed 80%-90% of their season leaving just the playoffs to be played. This means fewer teams to accommodate on top of the fact that these two leagues have the smallest rosters of the four leagues being discussed. There are still restrictions within the bubble when in comes to contact with other players/teams but for the most part the athletes are allowed to move freely. As the playoffs progress, families will slowly be involved in the bubble process. So for those in the bubble the longest (Conference Finals), would only be away from their families for roughly a month.

The bubble is by far the smarter option but how would the NFL implement this with a 53 man roster? Not the mention the expanded coaching staff and team personnel. Now add their families into the mix because 16 weeks is a long time to be away from your loved ones. I do not envy the situation that the NFL finds themselves in but if any league has the resources to put together a last minute plan, it is them.

I, like Terry, would adopt a modified Hub Cities strategy and reduce the NFL season to 10 games, six divisional games plus four out of Conference games. So for example, I am a Minnesota Vikings fan and based on our schedule this season I would bubble the NFC North with the AFC South. Amongst these eight cities, the NFL would then decide the best hub city which means Jacksonville is out of the question. Looking at confirmed cases alone, Minnesota, Green Bay and Indy are all in contention but let’s give the edge to Minnesota because of the brand new stadium.

These eight teams would play all of their games at US Bank Stadium and TCO Stadium, one game on each field at 1 pm and the second pair of games at 4 pm. The teams would also have access to the team’s practice facility and possibly weight room and medical rooms (the latter are grey areas). Here’s where things get interesting, each Hub City would play on an individual night. So for example:

NFC North (Bears, Lions, Packers, Vikings) + AFC South (Texans, Colts, Jaguars, Titans) – Thursday
NFC West (Cardinals, Rams, 49ers, Seahawks) + AFC East (Bills, Dolphins, Patriots, Jets) – Friday
NFC South (Falcons, Panthers, Saints, Buccaneers) + AFC West (Broncos, Chiefs, Raiders, Chargers) – Sunday
NFC East (Cowboys, Giants, Eagles, _____) + AFC North (Ravens, Bengals, Browns, Steelers) – Monday

They can figure out the Sunday and Monday night games if that is still a thing. This would also give the NFL 10 weeks to set up a playoff Hub City where they can accommodate families. So in my scenario, once the season is over I would give players a week (or two if need be) off to travel to the Hub City, to quarantine while they and their families go through the bubble process.

It’s not perfect but it is significantly better than going in with the philosophy of how many players will it take to complete the season. The NFL also has a higher portion of their players who are at high risk which would only further emphasize the need for a bubble. Just because the MLB refuses to admit they fucked up doesn’t mean that they aren’t aware that they drastically fucked up. It is still too early to officially declare the bubble a success, I am curious to see how the NBA or NHL will react if ever they do encounter a positive case. That being said, it still a far better approach if player safety is actually the priority.

It will only take one death to put a stain on a league forever as no player should be subject to that for a game. Hopefully the NFL has a better plan because the MLB could not have fucked up harder.

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