Three months after the NBA, NHL, and MLS suspended their in-progress seasons due to coronavirus, none of those leagues have yet returned and the MLB season never started. But sports are slowly starting to come back: UFC, Nascar, boxing, and PGA Tour have all started up again.
The rest of the big team sports all have their own specific plans for returning—barring a sudden nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases.
Here’s every U.S. pro league’s current return plan
(This post was last updated on June 15 at 8:05am EST.)
National Women’s Soccer League (target return date: June 27)
The NWSL season usually starts in mid-April, so its 2020 season never began.
Despite media reports that declared MLS will be the first pro league to return from lockdown, in fact the NWSL will return first, with a one-month, 25-game tournament called the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, starting on June 27 in Utah. NWSL players are set to get 100% of their usual salaries.
All nine NWSL teams will play four games each to determine seeding, leading into an eight-team knockout tournament.
NWSL players from all nine teams will stay in Salt Lake City hotels; the games will happen at Zions Bank Stadium, with the semifinals and finals at Rio Tinto Stadium, all with no fans present. CBS will stream the games on its CBS All Access app.
Major League Soccer (July 8)
MLS was only two weeks into its season when it shut down on March 12; each team had played just two games. And this was the league’s 25th season, originally meant to be a special celebration year. Two new expansion franchises started this year, in Miami and Nashville.
Instead, MLS will pick back up on July 8 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., for a 26-day, 54-game tournament – called the MLS is Back Tournament – with no fans in the stands.
MLS aims to then continue its regular season continues in home markets after the tournament. The results of the tournament at Disney World will count toward regular season points, and the tournament winner will earn a spot in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions Cup.
Playing any tournament with no fans present is particularly damaging for MLS, which is heavily reliant on revenue from game days (ticket sales, concessions), compared to the NFL, which gets the bulk of its revenue from television rights.
Women’s National Basketball Association (July 24)
The WNBA season was supposed to begin on May 15, and normally runs until October. In April, the league held its virtual draft, and the New York Liberty took University of Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu with the first pick, which could bring new eyeballs to that team and the sport.
Now the WNBA’s plan to return to play is a 22-game season, starting on July 24, likely happening at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., which has four available courts. An original proposal from the league had the players getting just 60% of their usual salaries, but after players pushed back, the latest proposal gives them 100% of their salaries.
The WNBA plan is not at all set in stone—players still need to vote to approve the latest proposal.
Premier Lacrosse League (July 25)
The PLL just wrapped up its inaugural season in September, and its 2020 season would have started in June. But on May 6, the upstart lacrosse league became the first league to announce a detailed plan to return to play after lockdown.
From July 25 through Aug. 9, the PLL will stage a 16-day, 20-game, fully quarantined tournament with no fans; all games will take place in Zions Bank Stadium in Utah, the same site where the NWSL will play one month earlier. The PLL has said that the entire tournament will require fewer than 300 people.
The games will air on the various platforms of NBC Sports, which is the exclusive broadcaster of the PLL.
National Basketball Association (July 31)
The NBA plans to bring 22 of its 30 teams to the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., to finish its season and its postseason with no fans present. Each team will play eight games to finish the regular season and determine the playoff seeding.
Under the current schedule, the season would end Oct. 12. That could push the start of the 2021 NBA season until December. And there are still potential hurdles to the plan, including a vocal group of players, led by Kyrie Irving and including Dwight Howard, who reportedly take issue with the Disney World plan and believe the NBA’s return would be a “distraction” from the larger nationwide conversation happening right now about social justice reform.
National Hockey League (late July/early August; date TBD)
The NHL was deep into its 2019-2020 season when it paused play in March; each team had played between 68 and 71 games of the usual 82 games.
At the end of May, the league announced its plan to go right to the postseason when it returns: 24 of the 31 teams will start the playoffs in one of two hub cities; the final hub cities have yet to be named, but Las Vegas will reportedly be one of them, which was expected.
The NHL is currently in “Phase 2” of its plan, which allows teams to practice in small groups. Phase 3 will be training camp, and is set to start on July 10. The league has not yet said how long training camp will last, but Phase 4 will be the start of games. Teams will be limited to bringing 50 personnel to the hub cities. The top four teams (Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington, and Philadelphia in the East; St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, and Dallas in the West) will begin with a round robin tournament to determine seeding. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said he thinks the league can get through the first two rounds of the playoffs in one month.
Major League Baseball (date TBD)
In contrast with all the other leagues that had to suspend or delay the start of their seasons, MLB now stands alone without a finalized return plan.
The issue is player compensation; multiple proposals from the team owners were rejected by the MLB Players Association. Now as the situation drags on, the 2020 MLB season is looking shorter and shorter. The worst-case scenario is a 50-game season, less than a third the length of a normal season.
The key issue: MLB players want 100% of their prorated salaries, regardless of how many games get played; team owners, citing their expected revenue losses from holding games with no fans, have tried to propose scenarios in which players get less than the full prorated amounts. And the timing is unlucky because the MLB and MLBPA are set to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement for 2021; players are hesitant to agree to anything for 2020 that might set a precedent for the next CBA.
According to ESPN, both sides (owners and players) had hoped to be in spring training (redux) by this week. At the current rate, the earliest spring training could start would be June 22. Nonetheless, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN last week, “unequivocally we are going to play Major League Baseball this year.”
Football (college and pro) plans to start on time
NCAA football and the NFL were not yet delayed by coronavirus. Both plan to begin their seasons at the usual time, despite reports of a number of college football players and NFL players have tested positive for COVID-19. The positive tests should not hypothetically derail the leagues, which have said they will simply quarantine anyone who tests positive for 14 days.
The biggest issue now for college football is fans in the stands—whether to allow them, when, and how many to allow. Since social distancing guidelines will vary state by state, some schools could have some fans at games right at the outset, while others will likely have to start with empty stadiums. But since the bulk of football revenue for most schools comes from ticket sales, one sports media executive tells Yahoo Finance, “Even at 50% attendance, it’s an economic disaster” for most big Division I schools.
The NFL may also have to start its season without fans, or with reduced fans, but that league gets the bulk of its revenue from broadcast rights, so it can withstand the financial hit of fan-less games much better than leagues like MLS, MLB, and the NHL.
These sports have already returned
Nascar, mixed martial arts, boxing, and golf—all individual sports that can more easily adjust to social distancing rules—have all returned to play with no fans present.
After more than two months without live sports in the U.S. (apart from horse-racing), the UFC was the first to return, with UFC 249 in Florida on May 9.
Nascar started its Cup Series on May 17 at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, and has since held six races. The first five had no fans at the tracks; the sport allowed 1,000 fans (all members of the military and their families) on June 14 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and will again allow a small number of fans at Talladega on June 21.
Pro boxing returned on June 9 in Las Vegas with two nights of fights without fans in the arena.
On June 11, the PGA Tour returned for socially-distanced golf, beginning with the 2020 Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Texas. It was a dramatic return: 27-year-old Daniel Berger and 23-year-old Collin Morikawa faced off in a playoff that Berger narrowly won.
Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.
Read more on how coronavirus is hitting the sports world:
College football will return, but a huge financial question remains: fans in the stands
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman: Money ‘is not what’s driving’ return plan
NHL return plan could set the model for other sports leagues to follow
Kevin Durant’s agent doesn’t expect fans at NBA games for at least a year
Coronavirus could have long-lasting impact on live sports ticket sales
MLS Commissioner: Playing in empty stadiums would be particularly bad for us
Korean baseball’s return is a bitter pill for American sports, but a win for ESPN
Coronavirus hits sports leagues: March Madness canceled; NBA, NHL, MLS seasons on hold