COVID-19 'bubble' lessons for Cowboys & NFL

Matthew Postins

The Dallas Cowboys and the NFL have some COVID-19 'bubble' lessons to learn from the rest of professional sports. 

The Cowboys started training camp this week. The NBA started its regular season Thursday night. Major League Baseball is a week into its regular season. The NHL will start its regular season on Saturday.

COVID-19 is influencing all of them in different ways. But the ones that are seeing early success are the ones in a ‘bubble,’ and there are lessons to be learned for that, especially for the NFL, which at this point has chosen the non-bubble route for the regular season.

The NBA has been in its bubble in Orlando for three weeks, thanks to a summer camp and preseason schedule that has allowed the league to conduct two rounds of testing. The first round revealed two positive tests. The second, conducted on July 20, revealed none.

That’s great news for NBA fans hoping the league can crown a champion later this year. The NBA has adopted rigorous protocols, and not just in testing. When players leave the bubble the protocols are rigorous. New Orleans forward Zion Williams, who had to leave for a family emergency, had to stay in quarantine for four days when he returned. Mavs forward Kristaps Porzingis missed his test and had to go into quarantine for one day after being tested. Clippers guard Lou Williams hit an Atlanta strip club after a funeral (I mean, don’t we all do that after a funeral?) and is in a 10-day quarantine. The NBA isn’t messing around.

Neither is the NHL. The league is running two bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto (Canada has fewer cases and the ban on travel from the U.S. would hamper the league’s ability to have games in the U.S.). The NHL has been ramping up its testing during training camps and after its last round of testing, conducted July 18-25, yielded two positive tests out of 6,874 total tests, the league appears to be in great shape. Neither of the positive tests were from players. Now that teams are getting ready for the season, the bubble is even tighter — the 52 players and staff for each team will be tested daily.

Scheduling is key, too. The Eastern Conference teams are in the Toronto bubble and the Western Conference teams are in the Edmonton bubble. Players are quarantined from their families and won’t see them until either they’re eliminated from play or during the conference finals.

For the bubble to work, you have to have rules and everyone has to be bought in — players, coaches and team staff.

As for baseball, well …

MLB opted for no bubble. They decided to conduct a 60-game season with no ‘bubble,’ opting instead for enhanced testing protocols and, to some degree, players being on the honor system.

The warning signs are already out there, especially in Miami, where the Miami Marlins have become a petri dish of sorts. The league suspended the Marlins’ season on Tuesday after 15 players and staffers came up positive. What’s worse is that some Marlins knew they had tested positive before they played last Sunday against Philadelphia, angering the Washington Nationals to the point where they voted not to go to Miami to play the Marlins this weekend. The ripple effect impacted not only the Marlins, but the Atlanta Braves (a previous exhibition game opponent of Miami), the Phillies (who had to postpone their four-game, home-and-home series with the Yankees), the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles (MLB pitted them against each other to make up for the hole in the schedule).

By foregoing the bubble, MLB put its season and its players at risk. There is risk involved for the NBA and NHL as well. But both are handling it better by keeping their bubble tight.

And now to the NFL. Our Mike Fisher pointed out that there are logistics that could keep the NFL from working in a ‘bubble’ in one location. The most obvious location for this, oddly enough, is Orlando. As someone who covered Tampa Bay Buccaneers training camp at Wide World of Sports in Disney, there are football and soccer practice fields that could be utilized. Plus, there are two stadiums in-town. But could all of that space accommodate 32 teams for practice and games for 17 weeks? I don’t think so. Plus, as the NBA and NHL has taught us, you need two to three weeks of ramp-up time to make sure that everyone is tested properly. That makes a difference.

Plus, we haven’t even discussed fans. The NBA, NHL and MLB have chosen to go without fans. The NFL, for now, is attempting to plan for games with fans, albeit in a socially-distanced fashion. The Cowboys were one of the latest teams to announce ticketing protocols on Thursday. Those plans may need adjustment as the season approaches.

So I would agree with Fish that an ‘NFL bubble’ at one location isn’t practical. I would also agree with Fish that the team that keeps its training camp ‘bubble’ the tightest the longest has the best chance for success in 2020. And the Cowboys, with their Star facility in Frisco, gives them everything they need to do so.

But there is a middle ground here, one the NHL is using that could be useful to the NFL if it comes to that. Maybe it’s not one ‘bubble’ the NFL needs. Maybe it’s multiple ‘bubbles.’

Accept the following as a humble middle ground:

Create four ‘bubbles’ with eight teams each (for instance, Dallas could easily serve as one and have teams from the NFC East and NFC West, for example, call it home);

Use one team facility for practices, which would require rotations and cleaning protocols that might be impossible, but worth the effort to consider;

Forego the possibility of playing games in front of fans;

Readjust the schedule to a double round-robin format in which all eight teams in the bubble play each other twice for a total of 14 games;

Roll the game schedule at the practice facilities to accommodate three games on Sunday and one game on Monday.

I’m not the only one that has explored this idea. After writing this piece, I did a little research and the writers at 98.5thesportshub.com, which cover New England sports, put together a nearly-identical idea. There are only minor variations, and neither idea may be that practical, but it’s good know there are others that are on the same wavelength.

The NBA and NHL ‘bubbles’ have lessons to teach the NFL. So does the MLB’s lack of use of a ‘bubble.’

It may be time for the NFL to choose wisely.  

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