By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page
Greetings from a disclosed location – my house. I’ve seen a lot of it during the past five months or so. We’re coming up on that anniversary of the last time I saw a sporting event in person, which was a couple of high school girls basketball games at Buffalo State. For a guy who spends a lot of times telling others about the games he’s seen, well, there hasn’t been much to report.
Admittedly, there’s been a lot of that going on during these five months. While the sports calendar is more crowded than it was in April, it’s not like I can see any of it without turning on the television. Look around – the landscape locally isn’t too friendly, and the forecast isn’t any better.
In baseball, tonight is the night when major league baseball returns to Buffalo for the first time in more than 100 years – longer if you don’t consider the Federal League a major league. The Blue Jays host the Marlins at Sahlen Field tonight. Some of the anticipation, of course, is diminished by the fact that no fans will be allowed to watch. It will be on the MLB network, at least, but the game might as well be in Toronto. In the meantime, any result at the end of October is going to carry a huge asterisk – and that’s only if we get that far, which I don’t know I’d call probable at this point.
In pro football, the Bills are gearing up as the possibility of a good season looms in the distance. The catch, naturally, is that no one is too sure how football teams will avoid COVID-19 during the year. It’s not like we can put an entire football team and accompanying staff in a bubble. Plus, if there’s a germ on the field, it’s hard to imagine it not spreading quickly. It would be just our luck to have the Bills play like a Super Bowl team, and not be allowed to watch them in person.
The NBA and NHL apparently figured out how to use such a bubble to stage its play-in games and accompanying playoffs. The hockey games carry a little interest since we have a team here, but after such a long break it feels like a different season and somewhat irrelevant to what happened before. In other words, it’s hard to say if the best team will win under this set of circumstances.
The Sabres, of course, are watching the playoffs from a distance. They are used to that, but it might be Christmas before we see games in the downtown arena – nine-plus months after their last game. The team has made news during that time by firing what seems like a quarter of the staff members – including Gil Perreault, who was a club ambassador – in an economy drive. Do you see any reason to be optimistic that the upcoming season will be a big improvement? Not at this point. On the other hand, the team is coming out with a new toy to admire today in the form of a uniform switch. So there’s that.
Someone should mention the Bandits in these discussions, and I’m usually the one to do so. When we last saw them, they were a good team with a legitimate chance at doing something special in the postseason. However, play was halted, and eventually the remainder of the season and the playoffs were cancelled. The National Lacrosse League has virtually no television income, so playing games without fans really made no economic sense. Teams like the Bandits have been busy updating their roster in the last couple of weeks with signings and trades, but it’s difficult to believe that they’ll be playing games until they are allowed to let fans in the door. That probably means no indoor lacrosse until 2021.
Then we get to the “amateurs” in colleges and high school. These educational institutions are trying extremely hard to figure out how to educate their students safely in the fall. Athletics, therefore, are something of an extra headache – mostly because of football. Most of the players want to play, as you’d expect. The clock is ticking on their careers, and they only have so many chances to make an impression to try to move up to the next level. The coaches are willing to coach them.
Still, if we can’t get the kids together for educational purposes, it’s not a particularly good look for the school to have teams traveling together and playing games. That leads to the argument for the haves and the have-nots. I can’t blame the Mid-American Conference – which includes the University at Buffalo – and the Mountain West for postponing the fall schedule. A major source of income – guarantees from big schools to come and play them – may be closing for now, and having large numbers of fans at home games appears to be out too. For athletic programs that are in the red for the most part, there’s not much choice but to delay as much as possible. The big schools certainly will try to make it work, but the accounting for an athletic program that can’t sell tickets will have to be creative at best.
The questions for high schools are similar. Most high school athletes are staring at the possibility of losing a chance to get noticed for scholarships – in the case of seniors, their last, best chance. That’s sad, of course, but not as sad as becoming very ill with a nasty virus (or spreading it to someone else). The school systems are going to be spending a great deal of money just trying to open up this fall, and extra-curricular activities are the first to disappear in such situations. It’s also easy to imagine lawyers leaning into the ear of administrators when the subject of athletics comes up, whispering that “if someone gets sick, you’re going to get sued.”
Yup, it’s a mess. We’re in uncharted territory, and we’re going to stay in it for quite a while. My advice is to keep your sense of perspective intact. If you and your family are healthy, safe and financially solvent, you’re winning on the scoreboard. A loss to the Jets on opening day wouldn’t feel so bad under those circumstances.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)