Projecting the new pro sports calendar and its impact on the Olympics

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We now know the NHL’s and NBA’s plans to return from the coronavirus-induced pause to their seasons. But moving forward, there’s still tons of questions to be answered — and that’s assuming everything goes as scheduled. 

Let’s try to project sports’ new normal:

The Stanley Cup and Larry O’Brien Trophy should be awarded by Thanksgiving. That’s the exact date the NBA pinned as Game 7 of the Finals. It also means the NHL, which hopes to start in late July, should be on a similar timeline. As with a normal season, trophy presentations will quickly give way to the draft and free agency.

There’s no certainty when next season will start. Thursday’s NBA release said the 2020-21 campaign “would likely begin on Dec. 1, 2020.” Players union head Michele Roberts has already expressed concerns about the short turnaround — less than two months from the potential Game 7 of the Finals. For reference, the Raptors won last year’s title on June 13, and began the current season Oct. 22. That’s more than three months.

In the NHL, there’s been speculation of a New Year’s Day/Winter Classic start to next season. That gives hockey players more time than their NBA counterparts to recover from what should a gruelling playoff schedule. Still, it’s less leeway than usual.

Conversely, there’s 15 teams across both leagues facing up to 10 months of nothing.

In any case, 2021 titles won’t be won as normal in June. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has already warned teams that games could be played without fans through next season. The earlier start date might signal a willingness to return to normal as soon as possible. The NHL, on the other hand, is more reliant on gate revenue. The later the start date, the greater the chance at least some fans would be allowed.

A typical season in both leagues spans about nine months. That takes the NBA to August and the NHL to September for 2021. That’s possible, but let’s assume neither league wants the forced weirdness of the next 18 months as the new normal. That means fast-tracking next season while still managing 82 games and a full playoff schedule for the usual money reasons. The regular season is probably too long anyway, but that’s a whole other column.

For a speedy season, something must give. The all-star game could and should be the first thing to go. People complain almost every year that they’re boring, and the players rarely give any effort. In the NHL, bye weeks are also an easy elimination, if players approve. Now we’re working with 82 uninterrupted games, but we’ve only cut out a week or two.

Off days are the next thing to go. The Maple Leafs’ 2019-20 regular season was supposed to last 185 days. That’s four games every nine days — a lot of hockey, still. Having games every other day could cut more time next season, but players would need to sign off on that change. Not that fans would complain.

The point: the NBA and NHL won’t be able to slice more than a few weeks from next season without sacrificing games. So we’re working with a July 10(ish) end to the 2021 NBA Finals, and a potential Stanley Cup Final Game 7 on Aug. 1(ish).

The 2019 Raptors may have been the last team to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June for a while. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Remember the Tokyo Olympics? Those start July 23. And it was supposed to be the year Canada’s men’s basketball team finally broke through. The qualifying tournament, which Canada must win to advance to Tokyo, has been rescheduled for June 29-July 4, 2021 in Victoria. It’s still possible some NBA players show up based on our rough schedule, but probably not any that play into the conference finals.

It also leaves just a couple weeks before the Olympics begin, and we’re probably looking at another shortened off-season ahead of the 2021-22 campaign. NBA players found a number of excuses — some legit, some less so — to skip September’s World Cup in China. How will they feel about travelling across the world after their fast-tracked season to play without compensation?

The Beijing Winter Olympics start six months after the Tokyo Games end. That’s Feb. 4, 2022. There was a glimmer of hope NHL players could return for the Beijing men’s hockey tournament as the league tries to attract the Chinese audience. It could be the only time we see Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby suit up together for competitive games.

But the 2021-22 NHL season will probably lag behind once again. Can the league afford to take three weeks off? Would they play a season that halts progress back to the normal schedule? There are arguments to be made that they should, depending on how big it thinks its Chinese reach can be and how much it cares about the traditional calendar. But that season is also supposed to be Seattle’s first in the league. How would stopping for three weeks affect momentum there?

Bottom line: it’ll be years before the pre-virus sports schedule returns. More difficult decisions lie ahead.

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