- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The return of professional sports during the coronavirus pandememeric presents a myriad of issues that each league will have to untangle. There are safety protocols leagues like the NBA and Major League Baseball must sort through. Questions of play format and pay structure will also have to be answered.

But as professional sports leagues map out a plan to resume, there’s an increasingly popular idea between them on where games should be played.

Enter the hub city.

The NBA, MLB, NHL, WNBA and Major League Soccer have all discussed hosting games in a central location or locations for their respective leagues rather than have teams travel around the country to play in empty stadiums without fans.

This concept is called a hub city, occasionally referred to as a “bubble” or host city.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday the hockey league will resume play in two hub cities at a later specified date, with each city hosting 12 teams.

Bettman said the NHL was looking at 10 cities across the U.S. and Canada for the two spots.

The NHL’s announcement follows the NBA confirming last week it is seriously considering using Disney’s ESPN World Wide of Sports Complex in Orlando,

Florida to finish out its season. Likewise, MLB, according to ESPN, has mulled using Arizona and several other states to host teams.

Gil Fried, a sports management professor at the University of New Haven who specializes in sports facilities, said hub cities are the “easiest manner” for sports leagues to return, from restricting travel to limiting the number of state and local authorities they would have to deal with.

“It provides a controlled environment,” Fried said. “If you’re in a place like Disney, you have the hotels there, so you don’t need to be checking in and out of hotels. You don’t need people traveling. You can control the food-related issues. … It does provide, logistically, a much smoother environment with less likelihood of being in contact with other people.”

Monumental Sports and Entertainment owner Ted Leonsis said earlier this month on CNN that leagues like the NBA and NHL would try to create a “safe haven” for their teams.Leonsis, who owns the Wizards, Capitals and Mystics, added individuals would be tested for coronavirus at the sites. He said the leagues “owe it to our fans” and the networks to begin to play again.

The NBA first paused its season on March 11 and others soon followed.

“I believe all three teams will play,” Leonsis said. “We will let the NBA and NHL try to finish some or all of the regular season and then go into the playoffs. We just won’t be doing it with fans. We’re focused on the health and safety for our fans and also our players.”

Before play restarts, there are issues these leagues will have to resolve. For example, will a player’s family be permitted to join them while athletes are stationed in a city? Will players be allowed to leave and come back? Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman previously said leaving his family for four or five months was “not going to happen.”

MLB, too, is trying to finalize details of its safety procedures. The league proposed a 67-page plan to the player’s union earlier this month, which called for 10,000 coronavirus tests per week and the banning of acts like spitting sunflower seeds and chewing tobacco. The MLBPA sent a formal response to the league last week.

Still, the leagues inch closer to relaunching. Bettman announced the NHL’s intention to have a 24-team playoff format on Tuesday for when play resumes, though did not give a target date for when action will start. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver reportedly plans to detail the league’s return plan on Friday to the league’s board of governors.

World TeamTennis, a six-team tennis league that contains the Washington Kastles, will hold their all games at a resort in West Virginia — sticking with the hub city trend. And if they have their way, they plan to have up to 500 fans in attendance to watch. The WTT said Tuesday it wants to allow spectators for its three-week season.

Fried said using a hub city is a “smart strategy” for sports to pursue amid the pandemic.

“It provides the greatest amount of safety for the most amount of people without the highest impact on the ability to play the games, the ability to enjoy the games and things like that,” he said. “It’s a quick solution that hopefully won’t have as many issues. … At least at this point, I think it’s the safest option.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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