For basketball, the tipping point felt sudden and shocking, a player testing positive for the coronavirus, an NBA game halted before tipoff and fans asked to leave the arena in an orderly manner.
For the rest of professional sports in the U.S., the ensuing reaction was utterly predictable.
The NHL and Major League Soccer called for an immediate suspension of regular-season play on Thursday and Major League Baseball put a stop to spring training, delaying the start of the regular season by at least two weeks.
“MLB will announce the effects on the schedule at an appropriate time,” the league said in a statement, adding that it will “remain flexible as events warrant, with the hope of resuming operations as soon as possible.”
The various league headquarters had been grappling with the issue for days, wondering what sort of action they should take, hoping to buy time.
It seems their hands were ultimately forced not only by a steady growth in reported COVID-19 cases nationwide but also by governments in states such as California, New York, Ohio and Washington, which placed significant restrictions on large public gatherings.
“The NHL has been attempting to follow the mandates of health experts and local authorities, while preparing for any possible developments without taking premature or unnecessary measures,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “However, following last night’s news that an NBA player has tested positive for coronavirus … it is no longer appropriate to try to continue to play games at this time.”
There were 1,323 reported cases and 38 deaths nationwide as of late Thursday. In calling for no gatherings that exceed 250 people in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom spoke about “all of us making the right choice.”
Still, the decision to suspend play was difficult for hockey.
The NHL has less-lucrative television and sponsorship deals than some other leagues, making it more reliant on gate receipts. It was unclear whether individual teams would offer relief to ushers, ticket takers, vendors and other arena or team employees who depend on income from games.
From a competitive perspective, teams had entered the stretch run of the regular season, jockeying for position with the playoffs scheduled to begin in mid-April. League executives did not specify what might happen to postseason procedures if the schedule has to be shortened.
Bettman noted that many of his franchises share arenas with NBA teams.
“It now seems likely that some member of the NHL community would test positive at some point,” he stated.
The Kings and the Ducks supported the league’s decision. “These unprecedented steps are being taken for the betterment and well-being of a community we are proud to be part of,” the Ducks said in a statement.
Baseball faced a different scenario with opening day scheduled for March 26. The league had considered shifting games away from hard-hit states or regions as an alternative to postponement, but had met with push-back.
Public health experts told The Times that, with the limited availability of coronavirus tests, it would be folly to assume the virus had not spread to any given area of the country, even ones with few reported cases.
On Thursday morning, before MLB issued its decision, the wife of Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle pleaded with fans to stay away from spring training.
“I’m probably not supposed to say this, but people I beg of you, please do not come to games right now,” Eireann Dolan wrote on Twitter. “I know they’re still inexplicably playing them right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to attend. You’re putting yourselves, the staffs, and teams at risk. Please don’t go.”
The ensuing suspension also impacted the 2020 World Baseball Classic, with qualifier games in Tucson, Ariz., postponed indefinitely.
“It’s not just athletes,” Dodgers infielder Gavin Lux said before the MLB announcement. “It’s everybody in the whole world.”
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said “a best-case scenario” would be to play all 162 games, with postponed games from the first weeks of the season tacked onto the end.
A shortened baseball season would not be without precedent. In 1995, when players struck, owners agreed to an abbreviated spring training and reduced the regular season from 162 games to 144.
The hiatus might not be as significant for pro soccer, which began its season a couple of weeks ago. Though MLS executives will suspend play for at least 30 days, they remained confident that re-scheduling would allow for a full 34 games.
“Our clubs are united in the decision to temporarily suspend our season,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a statement. The league, he added, was acting on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Public Health Agency of Canada and other public health authorities “in the best interests of our fans, players, officials and employees.”
Like his counterparts in other leagues, Garber had been struggling with how to proceed earlier in the week, especially after local governments banned large gatherings in cities where the San Jose Earthquakes and Seattle Sounders play their home games.
The second-tier USL Championship league, which has four teams in California, also suspended play and the U.S. Soccer Federation canceled friendly matches the men’s and women’s teams had scheduled in the coming weeks.
No decision was announced regarding the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying men’s soccer tournament in Guadalajara, Mexico, beginning March 20.
In other sports, the PGA Tour canceled a string of tournaments, including the rest of The Players Championship, and the LPGA Tour postponed three events, two of them in California. The NFL, still months from training camp, called off its annual meetings in Florida but plans to proceed with the draft in late April. The Long Beach Grand Prix, set for April 16-18, has been postponed.
Talking about the significant changes that have swept across the rest of the sports landscape, Ducks coach Dallas Eakins attempted to put things into perspective.
“Obviously there’s a breakout of the virus and I think we need a massive breakout of kindness,” he said. “I think we need a massive breakout of alertness.”
Staff writers Kevin Baxter, Jorge Castillo, Helene Elliott and Bill Shaikin contributed to this story.