Rebuilding America: State hopes welcoming in sports world serves as ‘great PR for Florida’
In order to stage a pay-per-view card in Jacksonville, UFC put together a document on health and safety protocols.
It was 25 pages long.
About the same time, Major League Baseball was dipping its toe into the reopening of the sports world, although in this case, it’s more of an opening, since the 2020 season never got off the ground before the coronavirus pandemic shut down sports.
MLB’s document? It was a cool 67 pages. And it was just a draft.
When Spring Training 2.0 unfurls in Florida, there will be no exchanging of high-fives by players or lineup cards by managers. Spitting, as much a fixture in baseball as bubblegum, is banned. The plan is so detailed that MLB is telling teams to seek lower-level rooms in hotels. Why? To encourage the use of stairs instead of elevators.
Nobody knows if it’ll work. What is known is that both President Donald Trump and his supporter, Gov. Ron DeSantis, see the return of sports in Florida as a key step forward.
“We believe getting sports back online is important for the nation’s mojo,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis is beginning to win over Richard Lapchick, director of the DeVos Sport Business Management program at the University of Central Florida and the director of The Institute for Diversity & Ethics in Sport.
“When I first heard the governor’s decision to reopen the state I thought it was premature,” Lapchick wrote in an e-mail to The Post. “However, it now looks like it was almost a signal to the leagues that it’s time to resume professional sports. It reminded me of the way the NBA’s decision led to everybody shutting down. I think sports have a history of bringing people together in times of crisis. I hope that the resumption of sports will do that in these unprecedented times.”
Even as Florida was closing up shop, DeSantis left open the door for the WWE, a rival promotion known as AEW and UFC to stage events without fans. It wasn’t lost on DeSantis that the UFC 249 card originally was planned for New York. DeSantis hopes Florida can lure many others.
“All professional sports are welcome,” he said.
Several have Florida on their radar. The NHL could finish its regular season with a round-robin series involving six teams in four hubs. Tampa reportedly could host the Lightning and Florida Panthers in addition to Boston, Toronto, the New York Rangers and Montreal. Major League Soccer and the NBA also reportedly are considering Orlando hubs.
“ESPN’s Wide World of Sports is a great resource for the state at so many levels and this could be yet another,” Lapchick wrote. “Indirectly, if all goes well it will be great PR for Florida and send a signal to potential tourists that they can start to come back to Florida to enjoy all that Florida has to offer.”
As soon as DeSantis began green-lighting sports, Scott Stricklin, athletic director at the University of Florida, sprung into action. Forget draining The Swamp; Stricklin wants to flood it with athletes, and he told DeSantis as much.
“I reached out to remind him UF and Gainesville have world-class healthcare facilities, an iconic football stadium, a state-of-the-art basketball arena and a brand-new baseball park within two hours of cities with professional franchises,” Stricklin said.
The WWE training center is in Orange County, whose board of commissioners received a written complaint from a WWE employee who identified himself only as “John.”
“Despite sanitary precautions, we cannot maintain social distancing and have to touch other people,” John wrote. “I request the government to shut down these tapings and enforce the ‘stay at home’ orders so my colleagues and I may follow social distancing rules without fear, or repercussion of losing our jobs.”
On the collegiate level, University of Miami football coach Manny Diaz has seen encouraging signs there will be a season.
“Obviously, everything we do will have the safety of our students as the top priority,” said Dr. Julio Frenk, a fourth-generation physician and UM’s president, on CNN. “If we don’t feel it’s safe we won’t do it. But with the measures we’re taking, we will probably play in empty stadiums like so many other sports.”
The Hurricanes share Hard Rock Stadium with the Dolphins, who have mapped out one scenario in which capacity would be reduced to 15,000 for social distancing.
“I think the demand for fans to go to stadiums will be limited by the apprehension among the general population,” Lapchick wrote. “I think having 25 percent of the stadium filled for social-distancing purposes is probably a realistic goal to draw that many fans in.”
Golf, by its nature, doesn’t carry many of the inherent risks of other sports, which is why two of the first live sporting events involved charity outings featuring Rory McIlroy in Juno Beach and a foursome of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in Hobe Sound.
Under normal circumstances, the high school football preseason would arrive in August. The Florida High School Athletic Association has not announced plans for the fall sports, but the national federation has outlined a three-phase system starting with temperature checks and gatherings of no more than 10, gradually escalating to larger outdoor gatherings and eventually reaching the point where temperature screenings wouldn’t even be required.
For colleges and the pros, Lapchick envisions extreme caution with the athletes who draw eyeballs to our nation’s pastimes.
“I think the management of teams is going to be especially protective of the health of their players,” Lapchick wrote. “Great players are the primary asset of teams. The same will be true of college athletic directors and coaches and their student-athletes. The safety of the players has to be the primary concern before any games resume.”