‘Bubbles’ Are Working. But How Long Can Sports Stay Inside?

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Amid all the uncertainties saddling the resumption of sports in the shadow of the coronavirus, this much seems clear: Bubbles work. How long they will remain in use is another question.

While a spreading coronavirus outbreak has threatened to derail the abbreviated season in Major League Baseball, which elected not to sequester its players when it began play last week, it has been hard to ignore how serenely play has continued inside American sports’ so-called bubbles, the tightly controlled campus environments where some leagues have elected to operate.

The National Women’s Soccer League completed a virus-free monthlong tournament inside a Utah bubble — albeit after one team dropped out before arriving because of an outbreak. Major League Soccer, after losing two teams during its own early stumbles, has not recorded a positive test since July 10 at its enclosed setup in Florida.

The pattern has continued with the N.B.A., which restarted its season on Thursday at Walt Disney World and has not logged a case since July 13, and the W.N.B.A., which opened play last weekend and recorded its last positive test back on July 9. The N.H.L. will have similar hopes of safety when it returns to play this weekend inside two bubble sites in Canada.

“So far they have looked very intact and safe, and constant vigilance is going to be required to make sure they stay that way,” Dr. Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist specializing in sports at Emory University, said about the efficacy of bubbles. “I was always optimistic, but this has exceeded my expectations.”

But while bubbles are proving to be the best and safest way to conduct the business of playing sports, they do not last forever. And it is what comes next — as teams and leagues attempt something resembling normalcy in communities where the virus is still on the rise — that will be a riskier test for sports.

M.L.S., for example, will push ahead with plans to allow its teams to resume play in their home stadiums later this summer, if local rules allow it. The N.F.L. is expected to open its 2020 season this fall with teams in their home markets as well. And baseball has vowed to push forth as long as it can, even as it contorts its competitive structures at the whims of a capricious virus.

The only reason bubbles became necessary, of course, is because the United States failed to wrest control of the virus in ways that other developed nations have. In Europe, most of the world’s top soccer leagues finished their seasons with teams playing in their own stadiums. Fans were allowed back into baseball stadiums in South Korea this week.

But M.L.B.’s stunning outbreak — 17 players on the Miami Marlins tested positive for the virus in recent days, causing a chain reaction of scheduling disruptions — served as a stark reminder of the risks associated with resuming work in American communities right now.

“We all read of what’s going on in baseball,” said Bob Bradley, the coach of Los Angeles F.C, who credited M.L.S. players for their discipline inside the league’s Florida bubble and for enduring the psychological challenges of being far from their homes and families. “It’s still hard to know whether that’s something that is going to close down the league, or whether it’s just something that happens in a team and spreads and has to be dealt with.”

M.L.S. officials, now pondering life after the bubble, have been watching how baseball navigates its crisis.

But even as questions about the wisdom of returning to play in dozens of virus-ridden communities have grown louder, there has been a level of confidence internally that the lessons learned while inside the bubble — the importance of constant testing, mask-wearing and, more important, the conscientious conduct of athletes — will serve players well outside of it. For now, though, M.L.S. remains committed to returning teams to the field in their home markets later this summer.

“We have to be mindful of what’s happening in the markets where we’re trying to play, but the commitment we’ll have there is the same commitment we’ve had here, which is that we’re prioritizing the health and safety of all of our participants,” said M.L.S. deputy commissioner Mark Abbott, who has been living and working inside the league’s bubble at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World near Orlando, alongside the players and other staff members.

The drawbacks of bubbles, of course, are plain. They are difficult to organize, expensive to maintain and emotionally taxing on players, who cannot return to their homes for weeks or months at a time.

Michele Roberts, the executive director of the N.B.A. Players Association, said in an interview this week that the league and union were watching closely for any “adverse consequences of being segregated from family and community for extended periods of time.”

Roberts said that for all the safety afforded by a sport’s bubble environment, the emotional strain on the people inside it was obvious.

“Months of life in this bubble is not an extended vacation,” said Roberts, who has been on site at Disney World among the teams. “I’m reminded of this every time I see a player doing FaceTime with a young child.”

And still, because the concept is working, Roberts told ESPN on Tuesday that the ongoing spread of the virus could lead the N.B.A. to play the 2020-2021 season, which it hopes to start in December, inside a bubble, too. “So it may be that, if the bubble is the way to play, then that is likely going to be the way we play next season, if things remain as they are,” she said.

The size and structural ambitions of certain leagues can make bubbles seem impractical. The N.F.L., for instance, features 53-man rosters and almost innumerable staff members, and it typically runs a six-month season, making the sequestering of players a greater logistical, financial and emotional challenge than the one tackled by the N.B.A.

Keeping players inside a strictly controlled environment for more than a few months also has limited appeal. The teams that reach the N.B.A. Finals, for example, can expect to be inside theirs until October.

Lisa Baird, the commissioner of the N.W.S.L., said her league’s compact tournament schedule and the stresses of quarantining in a hotel had required a high level of sustained intensity from players that would be difficult to keep up over a longer period. She said the league was still planning its next move, including a possible return to play this fall, but that another restricted-campus setup was not on the table.

“There’s the old adage, ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint,’” Baird said. “But with our format, it was both a sprint and a marathon.”

The leagues’ successes inside their respective bubbles will continue to raise moral questions about their very existence, particularly in light of the sheer number of daily coronavirus tests and laboratory resources required to keep the operations running, all while testing logjams persist around the country.

In this context, the contrasting fortunes of baseball and the sports world’s bubble-dwellers could lead one to a discomfiting conclusion about the state of the industry:

Bubbles, Binney said, “may be the only way you can safely have sports in the U.S.A. right now.”

That premise will soon be put to the test.

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