CHICAGO - With all the experimenting going on in the sports world because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to forget what the rules are, how the postseason format works or even what time of year it is.
No one is complaining, mind you. It’s all good.
It’s much better to watch experimental rules baseball than no baseball at all, and the NBA playoffs in the bubble have been as fun to watch as any in years. I don’t care when they schedule must-see events such as the Kentucky Derby and U.S. Open, and a Masters in mid-November sounds like a tasty tradition unlike any other.
Sports fans can get accustomed to anything, and some of the new norms are preferable to the old ones.
After a couple of months of watching the rebooted sports world play out, here are four things I hope to see in 2021.
1. The NBA schedule moving to summer
The 2020-21 NBA season tentatively was scheduled to begin around Dec. 1, though Commissioner Adam Silver told Bob Costas on Tuesday that his “best guess” is it won’t start before January. A January start would be about a 2 1/2-month delay from the NBA’s mid-October starting date for the 2019-20 season.
After watching this year’s playoffs, which began in mid-August and will run through mid-October, I’m more convinced than ever that moving the regular season from a fall-winter schedule to a spring-summer schedule is the way to go.
A perfect opening night would be Feb. 9, a couple of days after the Feb. 7 Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla. The regular season would go through the end of July, with the playoffs running from the first week of August through early October.
Yes, that means the NBA would go head to head with the baseball season, which has had the summer to itself for eons until the pandemic. Truthfully, baseball could benefit from the competition, and as we learned the hard way in March and April, you can never have too many sports-watching options.
Starting the NBA in February instead of October also might give NCAA basketball more exposure from November through February, likely increasing interest in March Madness. For hoops fans, it’s a win-win, with basketball 11 months a year.
The NBA won’t be in a bubble in the 2020-21 regular season, but it can still reduce travel by scheduling teams to play two or even three games in a row in a city rather than making a return trip or two.
2. A preseason-free NFL schedule
Did anyone miss the NFL preseason games? I thought not. Has it affected the level of play? Of course it hasn’t. The games have been exceptionally entertaining so far, and any slippage in play has not been noticeable. Hopefully we’ve seen the last of those meaningless (and expensive for season ticket holders) exhibitions. This might be the only issue in America everyone can agree upon.
3. Baseball seeding changes
It’s probably a no-brainer that MLB will keep its expanded playoff format in 2021 and beyond. Owners and players don’t agree about many things, but making more money is a shared interest.
Commissioner Rob Manfred indicated to USA Today that a 14-team playoff expansion is more palatable, while arguing that 16 teams was necessary in this year’s environment. MLB is trying to get us excited about the race for the National League’s fifth through eighth seeds between six .500-caliber teams: the Miami Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants. Interesting, perhaps, but rest assured it’s nothing like the four-team American League race in 1967, when the White Sox, Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins battled for the pennant till the very end.
In the 2020 postseason format, having the best record in baseball is of little advantage to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who still must play a best-of-three series against one of those mediocre teams to advance to the NL Division Series. Anything can happen in a series that short, and the Dodgers easily could be bounced from October with a couple of bad breaks.
Here’s a modest proposal for 2021: The top two division winners in each league get firstround byes to the division series, and the third division winner and best second-place team get the Nos. 3-4 seeds. The next four teams in each league by winning percentage (Nos. 5-8) play a pair of wild-card games. The two wild-card survivors in each league play the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds in best-of-three series to determine the other two teams in the division series. It’s still too crowded a field, but at least the best regular-season records are rewarded.
4. The Jason Benetti Channel
One day in the spring I woke up in the middle of the night, turned on the TV and heard Jason Benetti broadcasting a Korean baseball game. One night in the summer I went to sleep after listening to Benetti on a White Sox broadcast, then woke up the next morning and heard Benetti calling a college football game.
If Jason Benetti is going to be everywhere in the new norm, can we at least put all of his games on the same channel so we know where to tune in?