I think everybody is aware that we aren’t going to be able to fill up crowded stadiums to watch professional sports any time soon. But watching sports on television? That’s a different animal, and it seems a return could be on the not-so-distant horizon.
Casey Wasserman, the President of the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic Planning Committee, went on the Bill Simmons podcast last week and said he 100 percent believes professional sports will be able to return this summer. Bill Simmons’ show is focused largely around basketball, but this discussion with Wasserman, who’s well connected in the world of sports on the business side of operations, offers us an interesting lens by which we can look at creative ways in which leagues can operate in a made-for-TV way in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. I recommend giving it a listen.
Key to Wasserman’s assertion is the successful implementation of a large-scale quarantine bubble filled with rigorous testing.
Universal Studios China, which is being built in Beijing right now, is under construction again for six weeks. They have 12,500 workers working every day. Those 12,5000 workers are in the bubble and get tested in the morning and night and they have not had a positive test. What it shows is that the bubble works. You can quarantine people and show that they’re free of the virus going into the environment is safe and secure. So whether it’s 30 NBA teams in a certain city, Los Angeles or Las Vegas or somewhere else, or a bunch of baseball players spread out in a couple hotels in Arizona and going to games, as opposed to on busses they may go in individual cars. But the bubble works and I think sports leagues are relying on that and I think the federal government, at the right time, is going to be supportive of that because it knows that it’s good for the psyche of this country.
Wasserman paints a picture of how the NBA could execute its 2020 playoffs in Las Vegas as an example. Vegas is an obvious location because of the massive volume of completely empty hotels that could house players, coaches, broadcast crews, and everybody involved for a period of time while the tournament is executed. Players would go from their hotel rooms to a pop-up court designed specifically for creating an optimal television viewing experience, which is key since fans won’t be able to attend games.
When using Wasserman’s idea as a lens to ponder how the NHL could play its playoffs, there’s a key difference that gets in the way. The NBA can build a court just about anywhere. They can prop up a court at the Bellagio as if it were the Cirque du Soleil. The NHL doesn’t have that flexibility. You can’t just plop a high-quality rink in the middle of a hotel and play a playoff game.
Even with Vegas boasting an NHL arena in the middle of the strip, executing the entirety of the playoffs isn’t really doable. You need more than one rink in order to play all of the games and that doesn’t even begin to take into consideration the space that would be needed for practice.
So, if the NHL was going to pick a location to go into a bubble in order to play the 2020 playoffs as a summer tournament, it has to be in a place with multiple rinks in close proximity. Why not Edmonton? Let’s move away from the real world for a moment and into the world of hypotheticals to get an idea of what it would take to execute such a project. We’ll use the city we know and love as our backdrop for this thought experiment.
Edmonton already boasts one of the largest mixed-use entertainment districts in North America. NHL-sized ice rinks? There are two of them! A really nice hotel? There’s one attached to the arena! Practice rinks? Multiple are just a hop, skip, and a jump away! Spaces for catering, testing, and broadcast production? It’s all there! Let’s jump into this.
Let’s say the NHL decides to roll with its standard 16-team playoffs. Each team gets a roster of 23 players. That’s 368 players involved. Teams will also have to bring staff along with them, like coaches, trainers, equipment managers. Let’s say each team brings 12 essential staff with them. That’s 192 staff.
Unlike some NHL cities (looking at you, Winnipeg), Edmonton has an airport, which is key. Right now, the Edmonton International Airport is operating with much, much less traffic than usual, even compared to other airports across North America. There’s also a hotel attached to the airport that would allow for players to be tested and quarantine upon arrival, if needed. Once the players have tested negative for the virus, they can be shuttled to our bubble.
We’ll house the players at the JW Mariott. There’s enough space for all of them. They have a state of the art, bougie-ass fitness facility, multiple restaurants for catering, and full conference and banqueting facilities, and, most importantly, it’s attached to the arena.
What about the coaches and other staff members? Remember when the Oilers hosted a whole bunch of former players for their Farewell Rexall night back in 2016? They all stayed at the Westin, which is a 10-minute jaunt from the stadium. The Westin has the most amount of conference space among hotels in Edmonton, meaning that staff can set up work-spaces away from their rooms.
Okay, so we’ve housed the players and the coaches and team staff. Let’s talk hockey. Rogers Place is a state-of-the-art facility and the NHLPA Players’ Poll recently concluded that it has some of the best ice around and the best away dressing room in the league. There’s also a second NHL-sized rink in the same building. I know I’m not the NHLPA Player’s Poll, but I can say from my beer league experience that it’s some of the better ice in the city.
That gives us two rinks to play games. That’s great, but what about practices and morning skates? You can’t just be carving up these two ice surfaces with non-stop skating day after day after day. Luckily, there are five rinks within a 10-minute drive of Rogers Place. The likes of Oliver, Michael Cameron, Grand Trunk, Donnan, and Coronation are far from spectacular, but they’re gritty old barns with loads of character and, most importantly, battle-tested ice surfaces.
Between Rogers Place, the Downtown Community Rink, the five other rinks, and the bountiful amenities in the JW, there’s plenty of space to create a schedule in which teams can train and prepare heading into the playoffs.
You know the old saying. If hockey is played in a quarantine bubble but there’s nobody there to talk about it, did it even happen? We have to talk about broadcasting. The whole point of doing this is so that we can all throw NHL games on in the background while we’re sitting around at home and baking sourdough bread.
Realistically, we’ll need hundreds of people to make up broadcast crews and media personnel to get this on your screens at home. How are we going to do that? Just like with the players and coaches, they’ll be flown into EIA and tested, and, once they’re given the green light, they’ll be shuttled off to join the bubble. Even after hosting the coaches and team staff at the Westin, there’s enough room to house 200 media, broadcast, and public relations staff at the hotel. Everybody who needs to be brought in the bubble is here now.
Finally, we have to look at the essential staff who are going to make this bubble operational. We need front desk staff at both hotels, janitorial staff, housekeeping staff, and catering teams. For the bubble to be self-sustaining, these staff would be viewed in the same vein as the players and coaches and media. They would be tested before entering and housed in the bubble at a hotel, like Sutton Place, which is within the vicinity of the operation.
Imagine it like an isolated Olympic village. The main hubs, Rogers Place, the JW, the Westin, and Sutton Place, are connected in an L-shape on 100th street and 104th avenue. If the streets were to be shut down, it could allow everybody living within our bubble to walk between all necessary destinations, operating as a mini-city.
Between the three hotels, the arena, and even the Grand Villa Casino, there’s enough catering space to sustain the amount of personnel in the bubble. In this scenario, the majority of transportation would take place on foot. The only need for motor transportation is when people initially come from the airport and when players and coaches are bussed to one of the remote rinks being used as practice spaces.
Let’s put this all into a timeline. Okay, so, Phase 1 is preparation. You have organizers arrive first and get the hotels, testing areas, practice arenas, and catering ready. Next, the players and the team staff show up and get settled into the environment. Phase 2 involves setting up for broadcasts. NHL-partnered media can send skeleton crews to get Rogers Arena and the Community Rink ready for broadcasts. Finally, Phase 3 would be getting ready to roll, so the rest of the media shows up and the games get going.
Let’s play some games. If each series is shrunk from the usual seven games to five games, the entirety of the playoffs can be played in a 43-day span. Here’s how it would look if we did playoff seeding based on points percentage.
You go on a Day A and Day B format, stagger the games, and each five-game series can be finished in 10 days. If you give a day off between each round to ensure nobody is ever playing games on back-to-back days, the tournament itself would take a maximum of 43 days.
Boom. There you go. There’s a Stanley Cup champion and everybody is happy.
This is all in theory, obviously. In order for this thing to work, as Wasserman discussed, there would need to be rigorous, daily testing in order to keep the bubble secure. The streets the facilities would also need to be blocked from the public to ensure the safety of everyone involved.
It’s a huge, tricky, massive undertaking and I’m certainly not saying it’s even remotely realistic. There are plenty of things I haven’t even been able to really consider throughout this process, such as the economics of flying people around and putting them in hotels and the politics of getting the City and businesses on board with making it happen. I’m sure there are plenty of other random things we’ve overlooked and missed too.
But, ultimately, the purpose of this fun little thought experiment is to start to visualize the specifics of what it would take to execute the playoffs during this global pandemic. It goes to show just how big of a challenge the league is facing when it comes to awarding a Stanley Cup champion. Will they be up for that challenge?