US baseball league postpones games after outbreak hits Miami team

A coronavirus outbreak affecting one of its teams forced Major League Baseball to postpone two games on Monday, leaving the future of the sport’s season in the balance less than a week after beginning play.

The postponements underscore the challenges facing US sports, which are in the early stages of attempting restarts amid an escalating pandemic.

ESPN on Monday reported 11 players on the Miami Marlins have contracted the virus. The Florida-based team played three games in Philadelphia against the Phillies to start the season over the weekend. 

Derek Jeter, Marlins chief executive, in a statement on Monday said the team would remain in Philadelphia pending results of a new round of coronavirus tests, expected later in the day.

Mr Jeter, the famed former New York Yankee who bought the Marlins in 2017, said the Miami home opener against the Baltimore Orioles on Monday would be scrapped as the team tries “to grasp the totality of the situation”.

As a precaution, the league said a game in Philadelphia between the Phillies and the New York Yankees had also been postponed.

The interruption to the baseball season, which only began on Thursday, raises questions about the ability for other US sports to begin or resume their seasons, and under what conditions.

MLB has been conducting every-other-day tests of all players and top staff members for each of its 30 clubs since July 6, following an initial screening period. It is not operating under a strict quarantine — unlike the National Basketball Association, which is confining all of its participating teams and staff in an enclosed “bubble” at Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

The English Premier League and Germany’s Bundesliga recently completed their seasons with similar measures: routine testing, prohibition on fan attendance, and strict screening upon entrance to stadiums. 

But the US has been observing sharp rises in coronavirus cases and fatalities as the pandemic shows little sign of abating. Florida became the third state, after New York and California, to confirm more than 400,000 total cases last week, solidifying it as a hotspot.

Those climbing numbers have given pause to other US sport leagues that are attempting comebacks. Earlier this month, the National Collegiate Athletic Association laid out guidelines for routine testing among schools and conferences in the lucrative US college sports industry even as a firm decision on the ability to host fall competitions remained in limbo.

“Today, sadly, the data point in the wrong direction,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said recently. “If there is to be college sports in the fall, we need to get a much better handle on the pandemic.”

The National Football League, the most-watched US sport, is in its traditional off-season, but commissioner Roger Goodell on Friday said training camps were due to begin on schedule. 

“The season will undoubtedly present new and additional challenges, but we are committed to playing a safe and complete 2020 season, culminating with the Super Bowl,” he said. 

So far, however, the NBA’s strict lockdown appears to be working. The league reported zero positive coronavirus tests among more than 300 players tested by July 20, two weeks after their initial arrival.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus outbreak within MLB threatens to worsen a year of crisis for the league. Prior to the season’s start, MLB and its players association were involved in weeks of acrimonious negotiations over terms to stage a 2020 season, its first work stoppage in 25 years.

The postponement of Monday’s games is likely to hurt US media networks that have seen record ratings as baseball resumed play. Walt Disney’s ESPN recorded 4m viewers for Thursday’s Opening Day game between the Washington Nationals and the Yankees, its most-watched regular season game since 2011.

The league’s media rights deals with a trio of national cable broadcasters are worth $1.52bn, according to estimates from MoffettNathanson. Unlike other major US professional leagues, MLB generates the majority of its revenues from stadium attendance, making it more vulnerable to losses as games are played without fans.