How can professional team sports resume play during the coronavirus pandemic without jeopardizing the health of their personnel and surrounding communities?
The co-founders of the Premier Lacrosse League, Paul and Mike Rabil, aim to answer that question by unveiling their plan for a 16-day quarantined tournament in lieu of the league’s second regular season.
When leagues shut down around March 11, Paul Rabil said the seven-team PLL hoped to start as scheduled on May 29, but when that possibility became more and more remote, their focus shifted to an alternative option.
The “bubble” scenario
Rabil recently laid out the framework for a shortened “World Cup style” tournament from July 25 to Aug. 9 in a quarantined location to be determined. The 2020 PLL Championship would be played without fans, but would be broadcast on NBC platforms during part of the original time frame for the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
The key factor for the tournament to gain and retain approval from health officials is testing.
In speaking with the league’s COVID advisory board as well as the White House’s sports committee, Rabil’s team determined that national testing capacity be much greater by July, making it possible for the estimated 300 players and essential personnel at the tournament to go through a series of tests.
“The general sentiment amongst sports leagues is that we don’t want to [take away] testing from symptomatic individuals for pre-emptive testing,” Rabil explained in a phone interview with TheLines.
“That influenced our decision on timing, which was based on a potential timeline for point of care testing for the public across the country. We’ve made a decision based on the subset of information we’ve been provided by medical professionals and [the White House] administration. That’s not to say this [plan] is fully bulletproof. This virus is pretty unpredictable, as is the climate, and our governors are still making decisions.”
Everyone participating in the tournament would undergo a minimum of three COVID-19 tests:
- The first would come prior to arrival during team one-week training camps.
- The second test would be administered upon arrival.
- All participants would be tested midway through the tournament.
No one can enter or leave the facility until the tournament concludes, and if anyone tests positive, Rabil said the event would be postponed.
“When we say quarantined model, we mean that every player on every team, all the way to the production team and NBC talent, they all face the same protocol,” said Rabil. “Everyone enters, and then the campus is closed out.”
Rabil said his team is scouting for locations at colleges or boarding schools that can provide enough lodging, dining, and fields to keep the tournament participants completely isolated from the outside world. A location in the Southeast, Midwest, or Mid-Atlantic regions should be announced within the next month.
The tournament would begin with a 14-game group stage to determine seeding for a single-elimination bracket that would crown the 2020 league champion.
Challenges with team sports
Rabil, a veteran of Major League Lacrosse who plays in the PLL for Atlas L.C., recognized that team sports involving contact present more health challenges than faced by NASCAR, the PGA, or other leagues that aim to resume play this summer.
“I think team sports, largely, are a bit more challenging than individual sports,” said Rabil. “But each sport is highly bespoke. The virus is still cryptic enough to the point we still don’t have a factual point of view on aerosol transmission.”
“If you look at team sports, there is contact. When we considered that, we knew there had to be testing leading into the event, and isolation in the event itself. That’s the safest way to do it.”
A model for other US pro leagues?
While Rabil has been in contact with pro sports leagues in Taiwan and South Korea that have resumed play in empty stadiums, he recognizes there are challenges unique to the United States. His hope is that the PLL model to hold a tournament in a “bubble” will lay the groundwork for the NBA, NHL, and potentially MLB to safely resume their respective seasons.
“Sport has such a macroeconomic impact on not just athletes and coaches, but networks and media companies, to consumer-packaged brands, to the fans and communities who are inspired by the teams they support,” said Rabil.
“I think it’s in our DNA to consume sports and believe in the culture of competitive sports. We hope that the model we unveil can give insight and inspire other leagues in terms of how this could work.”