Some Kind of Bubble Setup is the Only Way the NFL Season Can Happen
Baseball is currently the only sport going on that is not taking place in some form of a bubble environment. The NBA, WNBA, and MLS have campuses in Florida, while the NHL has two campuses in Canada. The MLS had some big issues in the early going and two teams were forced to leave the bubble because of widespread COVID-19 outbreaks, but there have been zero positive cases over the last two weeks. The NBA and WNBA have sailed smoothly so far.
Monday brought bad news for MLB and the concept of holding a season without a bubble, though. The Miami Marlins had members of their organization test positive for coronavirus, including multiple players, and canceled their home opener. Four players who tested positive played in last night's game against the Phillies. Miami is slated to play a game every day this week. It's not a "huge" outbreak, and yet the Marlins' season feels like it's already in jeopardy. It hammered home, once again, how difficult it is to ensure players stay safe and healthy when they aren't within a controlled environment. There are just too many players and too many variables. As far as we know right now, none of the Marlins players who tested positive were irresponsible or reckless, leading to the outbreak. It was just chance.
These are the problems the NFL will be facing, but multiplied by several times because of the size of rosters and staff. We already knew it was going to be difficult to hold a full season with no bubble, but after MLB lasted all of three days before facing an outbreak that poses severe danger to one team's season, it now feels impossible. Between the sheer quantity of people required to put on a football season and the unavoidable fact that football requires constant physical contact from all parties involved, a Marlins situation could result in the end of the season. The dominoes will fall quickly in that regard.
With all that in mind, it sure seems like holding a full season this fall will be next to impossible unless all the players and teams are in a controlled environment. Such a setup wouldn't guarantee there wouldn't be a COVID-19 outbreak, but it certainly would take the likelihood down a few notches. However, as everyone will be pointing out over the next month and a half, NFL teams are simply too big to all be in one place at the same time for an extended period. Lineman-turned-media-member Geoff Schwartz estimated that each team takes over 200 people on the road in normal times. Even if the league forced organizations to cut that down to essential personnel only, that's still probably over 100 people per team if you're bringing a 53-man roster plus a practice squad and staff. Finding a location to host several thousand people and with enough space to practice on a regular basis for six months is not really doable.
But a bubble is needed in some way, shape, or form. Unless things change dramatically for the better before the planned September 10 kickoff (which is more unrealistic than anything mentioned in this blog), a full season won't happen if the NFL just tries to go about business as usual with some social distancing mixed in. A singular bubble wouldn't work, but what about several across the country? Take what the NHL did and bring it to its logical extreme. ESPN's Dan Orlovsky suggested something similar earlier today.
Ten bubbles would be a complicated endeavor, to be sure, but given the resources at the NFL's disposal, nothing should be out of the question. As an addendum to Orlovsky's plan, I would suggest building in a two-week bye period in the middle of the season so teams can travel to other bubbles and help maintain some semblance of competitive balance. With three to four teams in each bubble, finding enough space and fields will be a far less intimidating task.
If there is no bubble, the NFL won't last a month if the state of affairs remains similar to what it is right now. It's just too easy for one of the 150-plus people in the 32 NFL buildings around the league to test positive through no fault of their own. Once one player tests positive, it only takes one practice day with team meetings in airconditioned confines for potentially an entire team to become infected. And that's before we even get to the part where teams are going to be flying to different cities and staying in hotels on a regular basis, including in states where coronavirus continues to run rampant.
Optimism is hard to come by right now, and for good reason. It would be a little easier if the NFL was looking into alternative arrangements like the Orlovsky suggestion above. But the clock is ticking, and the Marlins are another reminder of that.