Breaking Down U.S. Sports' Response to the Coronavirus

With opening day around the corner, baseball and other sports leagues will have to deal with another opponent: the coronavirus.
With opening day around the corner, baseball and other sports leagues will have to deal with another opponent: the coronavirus. Photo by Jack Gorman
The stories of infections and deaths related to the coronavirus have prompted quarantines and event cancellations around the world. In France, gatherings of more than 5,000 people were banned. Chinese officials outright forced citizens in some areas to remain indoors. In Houston, several events have been canceled over fears of a pandemic. On Wednesday officials announced a Fort Bend man had tested positive for the virus and on Thursday two cases in Harris County were reported.

On Wednesday, officials in Italy indicated that soccer matches may be played behind closed doors. One match last week was already held without fans in attendance. Other world soccer leagues are bound to be affected as are major international events like the British Open in golf, Wimbledon in tennis and, of course, the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

While U.S. cases have been limited thus far, experts expect the virus to spread, which will undoubtedly cause issues for leagues and tournaments across the country, especially with baseball, basketball (college and pro), hockey, soccer, golf, tennis and football (XFL), which are all underway or about to be. Locker rooms can be an incubator for viruses and the close proximity to fans doesn't help.

Here is what we know so far.


Front and center is the NCAA men's basketball tournament, which draws huge numbers at regional tournaments around the country including Spokane, Washington, in an area hard hit by the illness. Houston is set to host the south regional tournament at Toyota Center March 27 to 29. NCAA officials are said to be monitoring events, but have yet to change any plans. That is obviously dependent upon outbreaks around the country. Some colleges have canceled games with squads from the Pacific Northwest. More could be on the horizon.


The NBA doesn't plan to have cancellations, but they have advised players to fist bump rather than high five. And many players are avoiding direct contact with fans including signing autographs and even public appearances outside of games. Those who are still signing for fans are doing so with their own pens. So far, teams have not limited international scouting or workouts, but that is certainly a possibility, as is the limiting of access to combines and other workouts.


The NHL was affected last month when a pair of factories in China that produce gear for the league were shut down because of the virus. That has stabilized, but the league has said they are unlikely to travel to China next year as originally planned. Additionally, the NHL has banned all business travel outside North America and will require a two-week quarantine for any person working for the league who finds themselves in an area affected by the outbreak before returning to work.


Baseball does not anticipate canceling or postponing any games as of yet, but its officials are monitoring the situation and have recommended players get their vaccinations and avoid close contact with fans. They have also handed down sanitation protocols to teams and formed a task force to deal with potential issues throughout the summer.


The Seattle Sounders are one of soccer's most popular American teams in the heart of the worst outbreak of the coronavirus in America. Their first game last weekend brought 40,000 fans out and their next home game is this weekend. Yet, Major League Soccer has no plans currently to cancel games and U.S. Soccer will be participating in upcoming European tournaments. They are monitoring the virus closely, but, so far, they seem to be holding the line.


The Masters is the most prestigious tournament in the PGA season schedule and it is set for April in Augusts, Georgia. The event draws more than 40,000 people from across the globe, all descending upon the small town and inundating their regional airport, which currently has no screening facilities for the virus. While the tournament is scheduled to proceed as usual, officials are monitoring closely and make take additional precautions as the Masters approaches.


The next major in the tennis world is the French Open in late May followed closely by Wimbledon and then the U.S. Open in July. All are far enough away that the ATP Tour should have plenty of time to adjust to changing conditions around the virus, though they have already canceled the final for the Bergamo tournament in Italy due to the outbreak.


There has been no official word from the fledgling football outfit including from the Houston Roughnecks, but it's a safe bet they are taking precautions similar to those of the other leagues. 
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke