The Impact of Coronavirus on the Minnesota Sports Scene

Photo Credit: Alonzo Adams (USA Today Sports)

For more information about how to prevent the spread of Coronavirus and steps to take when you feel symptoms, visit the official CDC website for COVID-19.

Sports have often been viewed nationally as a diversion from hardship. But due to the nationwide spread of Coronavirus, it has now been identified as a hazard.

The NBA abruptly suspended its season Wednesday night after Rudy Gobert tested positive for the illness. The NCAA canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments after conferences canceled their own tournaments. The NHL is postponing its season, while MLB has ceased spring training operations and delayed Opening Day by two weeks.

These unprecedented measures may aid in slowing the spread of the virus, which in turn will help medical centers remain well-staffed and well-equipped. This should benefit the United States long-term.

As the near-term goes, our Zone Coverage staff digs into the ripple effects these work stoppages will have on the local teams:

MINNESOTA TWINS (Brandon Warne)

The biggest difference for MLB when it comes to Coronavirus compared to most other sports is that while they are all winding down their seasons, MLB is ramping up theirs.

For instance, the Atlanta Hawks snuck Vince Carter into a game late Wednesday night just in case the NBA never reconvenes this season and he’s unceremoniously ushered into retirement by the season ending abruptly. That wouldn’t be a problem for baseball — like it was for the 1994 MLB strike which ultimately ended the careers of players like Minnesota’s Kent Hrbek early.

March 12, 2019; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; Empty seats after the Arizona Diamondbacks announced that Major League Baseball is delaying the start of the 2020 regular season by at least two weeks and the remainder of their Cactus League spring training games are cancelled due to the COVID-19 virus health emergency during a press conference on Mar. 12, 2020 at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale, Ariz. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher/The Republic via USA TODAY NETWORK

But logistics still come into play for MLB, which has decided to push back the start of the regular season by two weeks. Does that mean fewer games? Pushing the season back deeper into the fall? The order of the games isn’t really negotiable; for instance, if the season started on May 1, it’d just have to pick up the schedule as it currently exists and then back-fill games starting in October.

But there’s the rub — how many more games can be added to the home schedules in cold-weather climates like Minnesota, Detroit and Chicago, to name a few?

And while we’d like to say that’s why Rob Manfred is paid the big bucks to make these kinds of decisions, his recent track record on those sorts of things is spotty at best right now.

MINNESOTA UNITED (David Naylor)

For Minnesota United, the suspension of the MLS season comes with the team — with a small sample size of just two games — as one of the hottest in the league. They dispatched weaker opposition in their first two games by a combined score of 8-3 and were set up with a four-game season-opening homestand to solidify their position as one of the West’s elite.

The suspension as it stands postpones all four of those games, and while (in a world where the 30-day suspension is the limit of the stoppage of play) all four games will be rescheduled, the loss of a month-long period of training at home, a rare game week off (scheduled for March 28-29) and four consecutive home games are things that rescheduled games will not restore.

As it stands, United will next play at Houston on Wednesday, April 15, then at equally-hot Sporting Kansas City on Saturday, April 18. Sporting looked just as, if not more, impressive in their opening two demolitions of Houston and Vancouver, and what has been touted as the Loons’ biggest rivalry in MLS should still be set to have its highest quality fixture in the matchup’s history.

One assumes that even in the world of suspended play throughout much of world soccer, conversations with Boca Juniors over the transfer of Emanuel “Bebelo” Reynoso could continue, as MLS’ transfer window does not close until May 5 regardless of the suspension. It could give the Loons the chance to (eventually) strengthen an already-clicking roster, and could provide time for Thomás Chacón to be ready for first-team minutes on the league’s resumption.

The difficulty for the Loons will be in sustaining the energy and vigor that propelled them to quality wins and deserved hype in the eyes of even national soccer media through the extended break and required medical adjustments to practice routines. Players like Ján Greguš and Ike Opara, coming off Best XI awards in Week 2, and Luis Amarilla, who scored in both of the Loons’ opening games, will hope to see their strong starts to the season continue when it does resume.

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (Dane Moore)

After playing in Houston on Tuesday evening, the Minnesota Timberwolves were planning on traveling to Oklahoma City on Thursday afternoon for their matchup with the Thunder on Friday. Chesapeake Energy Arena, the Thunder’s home venue, is where the chaos took off on Wednesday evening. Oklahoma City and the Utah Jazz were scheduled to play each other that night before Gobert tested positive for Coronavirus. Of course, this re-directed the Timberwolves travel plans away from Oklahoma City and back home to Minneapolis.

The game in Houston was the first of a six-game road trip for the Wolves. If the season does resume at some point this season, presumably the Wolves will head back on the road to finish that trip. This means, even with the swiftest return to play, that it will likely be a long time until the Wolves again play at Target Center. Their next home game was initially scheduled for March 22.

Mar 12, 2020; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; General view outside the Fiserv Forum as todays game between the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks was cancelled due to the COVID-19 virus. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

If the stoppage of play moves from an indefinite suspension to the cancellation of the rest of the season, the Wolves will finish a record of 19-45 — the third-worst record in the league.

Obviously, safety for all people is the primary focus here for the league and, well, the world. But as this connects to the NBA and the Timberwolves, the impact of the play stoppage will be cascading. Substantial revenue will be lost with each game not played. That will shake the entire league’s snowglobe, as the salary cap is directly connected to Basketball-Related Income and that the cap is a massive factor of how teams shape their rosters. The NBA Draft’s lottery odds will also be impacted by an incomplete season, and that, too, will impact the future, particularly for teams like the Wolves who will have a top pick. I’ll dig into all of that (less important) minutia in greater detail on our Timberwolves vertical.

MINNESOTA WILD (Giles Ferrell)

From a Wild perspective, the postponement of games could not have come at a worse time. The team has gone 8-4-0 under interim head coach Dean Evason, and were 7-3-1 before the firing of Bruce Boudreau. They put themselves back in the playoff race and, at times, over the past couple of weeks, were holders of a wild-card spot.

Kevin Fiala had been absolutely on fire, and the Wild were finally getting great goaltending from Alex Stalock, which helped propel them up the standings.

With the standings now apparently locked, the Wild are just one point out of a playoff spot, which makes their loss to Los Angeles last weekend even more maddening. But if you filter the standings by point percentage, you see the Wild still have a ways to go.

Even more maddening, if should the season is truly over for the Wild, we have undoubtedly seen the last of Mikko Koivu in a Wild uniform. The center is in the final year of his contract and there are rumblings that he has been contemplating retirement. That’s not exactly the best sendoff for the team’s first captain and holder of many franchise records.

In terms of the NHL, the question now is, where will they go from here? Will they try and pick up some of the regular season (which would benefit the Wild in their playoff chase)? Do they restart in the playoffs with the teams as they currently are positioned? For a league that does not do well thinking on its feet in spots like this, they have some difficult decisions to make moving forward…

Mar 12, 2020; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; The Scotiabank Saddledome after the announcement by the NHL of the suspension of NHL play due to the coronavirus. The game between the New York Islanders versus the Calgary Flames at Scotiabank Saddledome will not take place on Wednesday night. Mandatory Credit: Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS HOCKEY (Drew Cove)

Minnesota’s hope to move through the Big Ten tournament and get a berth in the NCAA Tournament now has become a fruitless endeavor.

Thursday afternoon the NCAA announced that all remaining national tournaments for winter and spring have been canceled, meaning no regional site matches and no Frozen Four.

The announcement comes after five of the six men’s college hockey conferences canceled their tournaments and moments before the Big Ten was the last conference to announce that its men’s hockey tournament would be canceled.

Minnesota had been preparing to face Penn State on Saturday in the one-game conference semifinal of the tournament to increase the team’s NCAA Tournament odds. Instead, the conference tournament will not be finished and Minnesota’s hope of an NCAA Tournament berth is dashed.

Those future games were already in an unusual circumstance when they were canceled. Because of the Coronavirus developments on Wednesday, the NCAA and Big Ten determined that each of their respective tournaments would be played without fans.

Minnesota’s director of athletics, Mark Coyle, issued a statement upon the release of both the Big Ten and NCAA stating his support for their decisions to halt play.

“We agree with the Big Ten’s decision to cancel all athletic competitions through the end of the school year,” Coyle said in the statement. “At this time, we are working on arranging transportation for our teams who are competing out of state to return to Minneapolis. We will provide all necessary resources for our student-athletes, coaches and staff during this difficult time.”

In the wake of the cancellations, it also means an anticlimactic end to the Gophers careers of defensemen Ryan Zuhlsdorf and Tyler Nanne, as well as forward Joey Marooney.

MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS BASKETBALL (Sam Ekstrom)

The Gophers hoops team had its tournament run cut short Thursday morning when the conference canceled the remainder of the Big Ten basketball tournament, thus ending Minnesota’s season before its second-round game against Iowa. To give folks an idea of how fluidly these decisions have been made, first-year commissioner Kevin Warren called the tournament off while the players for the 11 a.m. game were warming up. The game was originally set to be played without fans.

Head coach Richard Pitino had tried to make light of the situation after the team’s opening-round win over Northwestern, saying, “Well, I was head coach at FIU for a year, and no one came to our games.” But in the roughly 24 hours since that comment, the response from the sports world grew much stronger.

There was also panic Wednesday night after Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg appeared ill on the bench and was taken to a hospital. Though Hoiberg checked out with just a common cold, the health scare may have opened the Big Ten’s eyes to the potential dangers of playing games. It’s quite a situation for Warren, the former Vikings COO, but the new commissioner was seemingly ahead of the curve with his decision-making Wednesday and Thursday, setting precedents for other conferences.

Mar 12, 2020; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren talks with the media about todays cancellation of the Mens Big Ten Tournament. The Big Ten Conference announced today that it will be cancelling the remainder of the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament, effective immediately in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic. at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

As for the Gophers, their basketball season ends with a 15-16 record, Daniel Oturu will contemplate entering an NBA Draft that could be delayed, and Pitino will continue to face speculation about his job security. It would’ve likely required a Big Ten Tournament Championship for the Gophers to make the Big Dance, which meant five wins in five days with a shallow bench.

The Gophers were probably missing March Madness, but in the aftermath of the sweeping measures for COVID-19 prevention, nobody will be dancing at all. The NCAA canceled their premier tournament, just one day after announcing it would proceed without fans. The organization had little choice but to fall in line with the rest of the sporting world, even though their men’s basketball tournament is a gigantic moneymaker that helps set their budget for future years.

Minnesota’s basketball future could be bright if Oturu returns to school after an All-American-caliber sophomore season, but there’s a strong chance the big man elects to go pro.

Minnesota Lynx (Mitchell Hansen)

Much like other sports around the globe, the Coronavirus outbreak and pandemic could have an impact on the WNBA and the Minnesota Lynx, even though the league is not in-season at the current moment.

The start of the 2020 year is still about two months away, with the WNBA season set to tip off on May 15, but there are multiple events leading up to that which could be impacted. Most notably, the next scheduled event for the league is the WNBA Draft on April 17. Following that, training camp is set to begin around the WNBA later in the month on April 26.

Depending on the spread of the virus and the lasting impact it has on the sports world, those events could either be pushed back or suspended to mirror what other leagues have done in the past week or so. On Thursday, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert released a statement saying the league will continue to monitor everything while also continuing “to scenario plan around our upcoming events and season.”

The WNBA does have the benefit that other leagues don’t currently have of being able to prepare and plan out the upcoming summer before it kicks off, especially with the 2020 season set to have a month-long break from July 10 to Aug. 16 due to the 2020 Olympics. That break could allow the WNBA the flexibility of potentially being able to reschedule regular-season games if it gets to that point.

Another thing that COVID-19 impacts in regards to WNBA players is the fact that a bulk of the players in the league are spending their offseasons with teams overseas, where the virus outbreak has arguably been more serious. That could delay the timing of players returning for the start of training camp or the season, or could ultimately impact players returning to play in the WNBA this summer at all. Lynx players such as Cecilia Zandalasini, Damiris Dantas, Temi Fagbenle, Stephanie Talbot and others have spent time overseas this offseason.

Much like the rest of the sports landscape and the world in general, the Coronavirus pandemic could also make an impact on the WNBA and the Lynx as they prepare to head into the 2020 season this summer.

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