What’s in Store for Tampa’s Professional Sports?

By Robin Bakker

As bad as 2020 may seem, professional sports have been making the comeback that the country may need. The National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Hockey League (NHL) will finish their playoff series. While Major Baseball League (MLB) has begun their shortened season, and the National Football League (NFL) has already been enforcing rules.

The NHL has put together two “bubble hub” locations in Edmonton, Alberta for the Western Conference, and Toronto, Ontario for the Eastern Conference. Teams have been put in hotels with amenities available for their comfort and are advised to stay within the perimeters set for their teammates, team members, and themselves. 

Diana Nearhos, Lightning beat writer for the Tampa Bay Times, said it is hard to say now what will happen, but we will see how the season goes but now the league is doing a good job entertaining the players and fans.

The Lightning will go through Round Robin games with the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, and Philadelphia Flyers before heading to round one. 

“[The Lightning] could win,” said Nearhos. She said that the playoffs are about mental toughness, which has never been more true. It is also about which teams can handle being with the same people and not getting to go home to their families.

So far, since all the teams have gotten to their bubble locations, there have been no positive tests for COVID-19. The NHL released a statement which states, “…with no positive test results for COVID-19 among the 7,245 tests administered. Testing was administered daily to all members of the Clubs’ 52-member traveling parties, including Players.”

As the NHL tries to complete the season, the MLB came up with an idea to start theirs. Instead of a regular 100 game season, the MLB decided to play a 60 game season where teams will mainly play against league rivals.

“I don’t think baseball came up with the best plan, but I don’t know if they had a lot of options to try to make this work,” said Marc Topkin, Tampa Bay Rays reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. “And I think that we are seeing them being reactionary, which indicates their willingness to try to find a way to make this play out to get them to play and get them to the postseason.”

MLB teams such as the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals have already faced positive coronavirus tests and delays to their schedules. Which, in result, has affected the Rays schedule.

“I think it is only logical to assume that they’ll have more impact on the Rays as we go forward even if we don’t have their own outbreak,” said Topkin. 

The Rays have been able to safely play as they are taking the MLB rules and recommendations very seriously.

“From what we’ve heard from Rays players and heard from Rays officials, the anecdotal evidence is that the Rays have gone beyond the MLB standards in terms of their protocols and their rules,” said Topkin. “For example, MLB told players they were allowed to use Uber and Lyft and taxis, but they prefer they don’t, the Rays just eliminated that; they forbid the team to do that. They just have to use the team buses.”

The players have been asked to take precautions and keep their distance. They were also given the opportunity to opt-out of the season. Rays catcher Mike Zunino stated that he has two babies, 11 months apart and talks to his wife everyday asking if playing is still the right thing to do. 

Though it may not seem to be the best route, the MLB hopes to go back to somewhat normalcy next year.

“I think MLB’s hope is that by next season there’s a vaccine,” said Topkin. “They put out a schedule for next year with a standard schedule. This year was obviously restricted with travel with each division and geographically so next year’s schedule is out and it has full travel.”

As for the rest of the season for the Rays, “despite their so-so start, they are one of the most talented teams in the MLB,” said Topkin. “Certainly in the American league. Every year you say a team would be really good if they stay healthy but this year that has a lot more meaning to it.”

As the Lightning and Rays have faced delays and difficulties, it is hard to say what the Buccaneers and NFL have in store. 

On Wednesday, July 22, the NFL released a statement requiring that all fans that attend games will have to wear a mask, given that fans will be allowed to go to games. 

“People that go to the games, the ticket will imply that anything can happen if they choose to go,” said Rick Stroud, Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. “I just don’t think that they are going to have much more than 50% and that would probably be a pipe dream. It will probably be closer to 25% capacity if they are even allowed to play with fans at all.”

With the start of the season still two months away, it is hard to tell what exactly will happen at this point. Like the MLB, they have given players the option to opt-out of the season. However, they are taking their rules more seriously. 

“In baseball it is recommended,” said Stroud. “But in the NFL, if you are found to have done some of these things that they are telling their players not to do such as go to a restaurant, bar, or a party with more than 10 people, they can actually take away some of your salary.”

Some teams have already come out with their own statements and ways of staying healthy before the start of the season, but the likelihood of the season being delayed or shorter than usual is pretty high. 

Tampa, however, has their own plans for this season. “They absolutely think they can be a playoff team and would love to be the first team to play in the Super Bowl in their home stadium,” said Stroud.

In late March, Tom Brady officially signed with the Buccaneers and a month later Rob Gronkowski decided to come out of retirement and join the team as well. Although this may not have been the best news some fans have received, “once Brady and Gronk start playing and winning games, fans will quickly get over them,” said Stroud. “Fans generally root for the name on the front of the jersey not the back and if they are playing for Tampa Bay they are all in.”

With 2020 being so unpredictable, sports are being forced to go with the flow. So, it is hard to give a definitive answer for what is to come, but we’ll just have to go along with the ride and the league’s decisions.

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