What Have We Learned From the Return of Pro Sports During Covid-19?

An usher holds up a 'Please Mask Up' sign during the Covid-19 pandemic as the Oakland Athletics play against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park on April 25, 2021. Credit: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

In 2020, National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) March Madness brackets were busted, the National Basketball Association (NBA) blew the whistle on the 2019-20 season and when Opening Day rolled around, Major League Baseball’s (MLB) parks remained shuttered.

This all came in the wake of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) insistence that folks should refrain from gathering in groups — let alone stadium-sized crowds — in order to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. As the pandemic swelled and the global death toll climbed, it became clear that missing out on live sports, both in-person and via broadcast, was a rather small price to pay.

After the NBA suspended play, the MLB, Major League Soccer (MLS) and National Hockey League (NHL) followed suit, as did the NCAA, which, in addition to nixing regular play across all sports, canceled its highly popular March Madness basketball tournament. Despite being a non-contact sport, even golf was impacted: The PGA Tour canceled the Players Championship after just one round. While networks like ESPN and CBS scrambled to find programming — honestly, The Last Dance could not have come at a better time — professional sports leagues and associations of all sorts scrambled to engage fans virtually to varying degrees of success.

Then, as areas of the country decided to start reopening, many professional sports organizations began deeming it okay to play — just without fans in attendance. And many states began experiencing drastic increases in COVID-19 cases following lifted restrictions and the desire to experience some semblance of summer fun. Essentially, things were only getting worse, which compounded the danger of pro sports returning: Not only did it put players and staff at risk, but a return to some kind of normalcy also set a potentially irresponsible precedent — and the ways some teams chose to return ultimately turned out to have disastrous (and potentially avoidable) effects.

Yes, sports help us bond and get through tough times. But the pandemic has been an unprecedentedly tough time, and it's demanded that commissioners and other leaders make some unprecedentedly tough decisions in 2020 and 2021, often choosing between keep players and staff safe or foregoing public health advice to keep their seasons fairly "normal" for fans.

Each pro organization took a different approach in 2020 and, now that so many organizations have returned in 2021, we're starting to fully realize the impacts these approaches made on the pro sports world. From blunders to success stories, here's what we learned.