The World Series was awarded on Tuesday as the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Tampa Bay Rays four games to two to capture their first championship since 1988.
Major League Baseball became the first league to begin, execute, and conclude a season in the COVID-19 pandemic world. Their season, of course, got delayed during spring training and finally got started in mid-July.
While the NHL flawlessly executed its playoffs during the summer in air-tight bubble environments, completing a summer tournament and executing an entire season are two different animals. What can the NHL learn from MLB’s experience as the league ventures into planning the 2021 season in the COVID era?
MLB completely restructured itself for this season. Some key changes were…
  • They played only 60 games so that players weren’t paid their full, 162-game season salaries, which helped owners compensate for not having fans in the seats and generating revenue exclusively from television and radio deals.
  • They altered the schedule so that teams only played geographically rivals to reduce the need for travel. For example, the Blue Jays, during their 60-game season, saw their American League East rivals (the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, and Orioles) 10 times each and the other 20 games were played against National League East opponents (the Nationals, Marlins, Phillies, Braves, and Mets).
  • They expanded their playoff format from 10 teams to 16 teams in order to generate more interest and help generate more revenue. Obviously, playoff games are worth more than regular-season games, so adding an entire wild-card round helped MLB compensate for its shortened season.
  • They didn’t have minor leagues. Active rosters were expanded from 26 players to 28 players so that teams could have some extra depth to work with on a tight schedule. Teams also sent players to an Alternate Training Site in lieu of having them play real games for minor-league teams.
The biggest hurdle for MLB was navigating through teams travelling around the country without playing in a bubble environment. The league put health-and-safety restrictions and guidelines in place for players to follow, ranging from things like not spitting or chewing seeds while playing to not going out to bars and restaurants while on the road.
These things were ultimately monitored by the honour system. Fairly early on in the season, MLB struggled with multiple teams having outbreaks. The Marlins had a player test positive for COVID and still went out and played their scheduled game that day. Cleveland had two players break protocol and go out while the team was on the road.
There was a point in late-July in which one-third of the games scheduled one day were postponed due to COVID and there was genuine skepticism as to whether the whole operation would be shut down. But as time went along the players started to take MLB’s guidelines more seriously and there were fewer outbreaks.
Come playoff time, MLB opted to play its final three rounds in semi-bubble environments. The league narrowly avoided disaster as Justin Turner, the Dodgers’ third baseman, tested positive mid-way through Game 6 of the World Series and was removed from the game. If Tampa Bay had won the game, World Series Game 7 would have been scheduled the next day and the league likely would have had to postpone the game due to Turner’s positive test.
While MLB players were technically in a bubble for the post-season, it wasn’t a true bubble like we saw the NHL execute. Here’s what Dodgers’ pitcher Joe Kelly had to say about the experience…
“It wasn’t called the bubble. It was called the secure zone for people who don’t know,” he said. “We were at a nice hotel, a beautiful hotel in Las Colinas and there is a golf course there and I happened to have a room, a villa, on the 18th green, which is pretty crazy because it’s a secure zone but my room I would say is no more than 20 yards from the green it’s still open to the public. So it’s a bubble except golfers are hitting golf balls next to my window and then crossing the secure zone tape line. People are yelling at them and the golfers are yelling back saying, ‘No, I’m going to get my ball.’ It wasn’t as secure as one might think because like I said there was still a golf course open to the public 20 yards away from us every single day.
“We weren’t allowed to play golf according to the rules and the tiers, but I saw a lot of golf clubs in the hotel. I know for facts that people staying in the hotel were playing golf that weren’t baseball players. It was media. It was on-field talents. Umpires. They were still allowed to play golf, but we weren’t because apparently the coronavirus knows baseball players should get it more than PR and hotel staff and umpires. It’s a smart virus.”
While NHL players were in an air-tight environment in which anybody coming in had to complete a positive test, the MLB players were in a semi-bubble, in which the world around them mostly operated as normal and they were just supposed to wait inside.
It worked fairly well, but, as I said above, MLB dodged a bullet with Turner’s positive test. Had the Rays won that game, MLB would have had a PR nightmare on their hands.
So, what now?
The NHL has a target set for kicking off the 2021 season on Jan. 1 which gives them two months to plan how that season is going to work.
An obvious play for the league is operating with a shortened season and going back to expanded playoffs. It’s very unlikely games will be able to be played in front of live crowds in 2021 so the league can offset its losses by shortened its season, and, in turn, prorating salaries.
Part of the season’s losses can be compensated by having an expanded playoff field. As ho-hum as it is for the overall product to let mediocre teams in the playoffs, it creates quite a bit more revenue. Also, by the time summer rolls around, the NHL could likely host its playoff rounds with some fans in the audience, such as MLB had with fans at Globe Life Park in Texas for the NLCS and World Series.
I would suggest that having a bubble or hub city environment is probably necessary for the playoffs because there’s much, much less room for error but MLB proved that with proper buy-in from players and team personnel, travelling around and playing at home stadiums is doable. This is obviously a more palatable situation for players who have said they’ve opposed to being isolated from their families.
Such as MLB did, the NHL would be best to put teams into geographical cohorts that only play each other during the season. This helps lessen travel time and expenditure while also ensuring that a possible outbreak stays within a small pocket. For example, when the Marlins had their outbreak, it affected the Phillies, Blue Jays, and Nationals, but the league knew that the 20 West and Central teams would be fine.
The All-Canadian Division appears to be an inevitability as the Canada-U.S. border likely won’t be open for quite some time, even with the federal government’s rapid testing pilot project going down in Alberta this month. The All-Canadian Division would feature the seven Canadian clubs and then the remaining 24 American clubs could be split into three eight-team divisions.
Altering divisions like this and having teams not see everyone else in the league during the regular-season obviously isn’t ideal, but it was helpful for MLB to relax the burden of travelling. The fewer places you have to travel and the fewer hotels you have to check into, the less likely you are to have an outbreak.
Executing the 2021 season will obviously be a big challenge for the NHL but Major League Baseball has proved that it’s possible. It’s going to require quite a bit of flexibility from the league and a lot of buy-in from the players.