A particular cruelty of the coronavirus era is the lack of sports, as one thing that would make the months-long quarantine more palatable—a consistent slate of games—has been put on indefinite hold. The NBA abruptly suspended its season on March 11 and the NHL followed suit the next day. Baseball season’s opening day came and went without a first pitch. Although some leagues are reportedly discussing having abridged seasons or holding playoffs inside a “bubble,” at this time there are no firm plans for any pro sport to resume.
Every city knows this frustration, but from a winning and highlights standpoint, L.A. is being hammered especially hard. At least three local pro teams stand to have legitimate title shots squelched. A handful of other franchises will see dark clouds pass over otherwise sunny seasons. The most expensive private project in the region will probably open without fans.
Is the situation worse in L.A. than in other major markets? Absolutely! Consider the Bay Area, where the Warriors, enmeshed in an injury-riddled season, will probably benefit from not returning to the court. Baseball’s Oakland As are exciting, but the San Francisco Giants finished 29 games out of first place last year. The 49ers are really good, but the Raiders fled town for Las Vegas.
Across the country the Yankees are a powerhouse, but the Knicks and Brooklyn Nets both have more losses than wins, and few people expect much from the Jets or Giants. In Boston the Celtics and Bruins have real potential, but the Patriots are likely to plunge without Tom Brady, and the Red Sox made a lose-now move by handing one of the league’s best players to the Dodgers. In Chicago the Bears and Blackhawks are middling, while basketball’s Bulls are awful. Philadelphia has a slate of quality teams but no league leader. Houston claims the standout Astros, but the cheating scandal was primed to overshadow their season.
Los Angeles sports teams collectively have the highest ceiling in the nation. Although hockey’s Kings and Ducks were atrocious this season, and neither the Angels nor the L.A. Galaxy seemed special, every other local team could lose a golden opportunity if there are no games or no fans. Here’s what might be squandered.
The 2020 season had yet to begin before COVID-19 arrived, but the WNBA franchise was legit. The 2019 team finished with the third-best record in the league and advanced to the semi-finals. There was a base to improve, as Chelsea Gray and Nneka Ogwumike were ready to build on All-Star seasons. Plus, no season would mean missing a chance to catch Sparks legend Candace Parker.
The current campaign was barely underway before play was halted. That’s a blow for a team that last year, in only its second season, finished first in the Western Conference. No games means no cheering for goal-scoring machine Carlos Vela. It also robs fans of the opportunity to visit Exposition Park’s intimate Banc of California Stadium, one of the state’s best sports spots.
Few Angelenos care about what is rightfully San Diego’s NFL team. That said, the Chargers were primed to enjoy a bounce by moving to the brand new, $5 billion SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, which they’ll share with the Rams. After three seasons playing in a shoebox-sized soccer venue in Carson, where visiting fans always seemed to outnumber the Chargers faithful, the team had an opportunity to start fresh; the maybe-it-happens-maybe-it-doesn’t schedule calls for the first home game to take place September 20. The Chargers are going all out, with new uniforms and rookie quarterback Justin Herbert primed to succeed Philip Rivers. Now, even if games take place, social distancing means there will likely be few or no fans in the stands. The Chargers’ great opportunity to build momentum is likely to be scotched.
If the Chargers seem like guests in the Inglewood football palace, then the Rams are sitting on the throne, with tentative plans to inaugurate the stadium with a night game against Dallas on September 13. The state-of-the-art SoFi complex with 70,000 seats was developed by team owner Stan Kroenke, and provides a permanent home for L.A.’s favorite football team. The new venue is complemented by high expectations, and although the Rams missed the playoffs last year, the previous season they reached the Super Bowl, and they boast one of the league’s brightest young minds in coach Sean McVay. Canceled games would mean missing the one-man wrecking crew that is defensive tackle Aaron Donald. As with the Chargers, even if football returns, there’s a good chance fans will only see QB Jared Goff and the rest of the team on TV.
The NBA shutting down after three-quarters of the season would be crushing for the purple and gold, who after missing the playoffs for six consecutive years sat in first place in the Western Conference, and were one of three teams (along with the Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks) seen as likely title contenders. This could be a lost golden opportunity for LeBron James, who bounced back from a disappointing first season in L.A., and was gelling with new arrival Anthony Davis. Laker fans were greedily eyeing a 17th championship, which makes the possibility of an aborted campaign all the more difficult—James will turn 36 in December, and there’s no guarantee that he ever again plays at this level.
Is the coronavirus the latest manifestation of the “Clippers Curse,” that holdover from the time when the team was owned by the odious Donald Sterling? Perhaps. A canceled season may be even more devastating for the Clippers than their Staples Center co-tenants, because the team has never even passed the second round of the playoffs. In the weeks before the NBA suspended play, coach Doc Rivers’s club was finally fully healthy, and superstars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were clicking. Both have contracts allowing them to leave after the 2021 season, meaning the Clips have a narrow window and can’t afford to squander a chance.
Also potentially gone is the single-greatest playoff experience in L.A. sports history. The Lakers and Clippers seemed to be on a collision course to meet in the Western Conference finals, an all-DTLA affair for ultimate city bragging rights. Even if the playoffs happen and the clubs collide, it may be in a neutral location and with no fans in the building.
Baseball season may be on the road to returning, as on Tuesday morning media outlets reported that team owners had approved plans for an 82-game season (it would need approval from the player’s union), though at least initially without fans. Even if games take place, the empty stadium would be a brutal bit of bad luck for Dodger fans, who after seeing the Blue Crew suffer through seven straight post-season appearances and two World Series losses (one to the cheatin’ Astros) were looking forward to watching a team that is absolutely stacked. The Dodgers in February traded for Red Sox star and 2018 AL MVP Mookie Betts, giving the team a killer lineup that complements the new arrival with 2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Justin Turner, and Max Muncy. Another cruel streak for fans would be losing the opportunity to sit in the stands on a warm summer night while future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw chases what could be his last best chance for the championship that has eluded him. The Dodgers, as every pained fan knows, have not won the World Series since 1988; this seemed to be the year that streak could end. If play begins and the Dodgers win the title, there might be a difficult asterisk—due to social distancing, championship-starved fans might not get to enjoy a victory parade.
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