As stadiums and arenas across the country remain shuttered, President Donald Trump weighed in Saturday about when professional sports might be cleared for the resumption of play.

In a conference call with the commissioners of a dozen leagues and associations ranging from the NFL to the WWE, Trump said he's hopeful that fans will be able to attend sporting events "sooner rather than later" despite his expectation that the next few weeks will see an increase in illnesses and deaths from the coronavirus pandemic.

"I want fans back in the arenas by whenever we're ready," Trump said in his daily White House briefing. "As soon as we can, obviously."

Trump declined to commit to a date by which fans will be cleared to gather en masse. ESPN, citing sources familiar with the call, reported that he told the commissioners that he believes it will be August or September and that the NFL season should be able to open in September, as scheduled.

“We’re not going to have to have separation for the rest of our times on the planet. Eventually people are going to be able to occupy those seats in arenas next to each other.”

President Trump

It’s not clear whether medical experts view Trump’s timeline as realistic. Anthony S. Fauci, part of the White House’s coronavirus task force, stressed Saturday the importance of “mitigation” -- staying at home, social distancing, and other measures -- to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Asked in a press briefing Saturday about the notion of an on-schedule start to the NFL season, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he’s “not anticipating that happening in this state.” Newsom said he recently told an NFL player to “move very cautiously in that expectation” of beginning the season on time.

“I’m not here to second-guess anybody, but I am here to say this: Our decision on that basis, at least here in the state of California, will be determined by the facts, will be determined by the health experts, will be determined by our capacity to meet this moment, bend the curve, and have the appropriate community surveillance and testing to confidently determine whether that’s appropriate. ... That’s not something I anticipate happening in the next few months.”

If venues aren't reopened to spectators until at least August, the NBA and NHL playoffs couldn't be played in front of fans, if they are played at all. The baseball and soccer seasons seemingly would be jeopardized, too, or shortened considerably.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell talked with the president and other sports leader about the scheduling delays.
David J. Phillip / AP
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell talked with the president and other sports leader about the scheduling delays.

The commissioners on Trump’s call included Roger Goodell (NFL), Rob Manfred (MLB), Adam Silver (NBA), and Gary Bettman (NHL). The leaders of the MLS, WNBA, WWE Wrestling, the PGA Tour, Ultimate Fighting Championship, IndyCar, LPGA, and Breeders Cup were also on the call, according to the White House.

In his press briefing, Trump confirmed that he encouraged the leagues to lobby for tax credits that once existed for entertainment expenses, including giving people the ability to deduct concessions and tickets from taxes.

“We’re going to have a hard time otherwise opening, in my opinion," Trump said. “That is something that will really bring life back to the [economy].”

The NBA was the first league to suspend play, on March 11. The NHL, MLB, and Major League Soccer followed the next day. Other events, including the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the Olympics. and Wimbledon, have been canceled or postponed.

“They want to get back. They’ve got to get back,” Trump said. “We want to get back soon, very soon. We have to open our country again. ... We’re not going to have to have separation for the rest of our times on the planet. Eventually people are going to be able to occupy those seats in arenas next to each other."

But knowing when it’s safe for sports to resume is challenging, with examples around the world of the risks of trying to come back too quickly.

In Japan, the Nippon Professional Baseball League began playing exhibition games in empty stadiums last month before three players on the Hanshin Tigers reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus. Team members self-quarantined and the league delayed its season indefinitely.

Speaking on a conference call last week, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak discussed the possibility that the entire baseball season will be scrapped.

“I don’t have enough information to answer that question, and I’m not sure that anybody does,” Klentak said. “What I am confident in is that the owners, the players, the front offices, the fans, the media, everyone is aligned with wanting to play baseball as quickly as we can. When all the parties are aligned as they are, that gives me confidence that we’ll get back as soon as we possibly can get back. But I’m not in position to make any predictions about when that might happen.”