Paul Newberry-When Normal Returns

In this March 12, 2020 file photo goals used by the NHL hockey club Nashville Predators are stored in a hallway in Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. While sports is on hold during the coronavirus pandemic, there are surely lessons to be learned. When normality does return to our stadiums and arenas, maybe we can put them to use. Certainly, this unprecedented shutdown has changed life _ and sports _ in ways we never expected. But maybe, just maybe, that’s not entirely a bad thing. If nothing else, we’ll never get another chance for a reset like this one. Some ideas we might want to take forward when this nightmare is over: virtual drafts, eliminating conference basketball tournaments, and reducing spring training by a couple of weeks. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

While sports is on hold during the coronavirus pandemic, there are surely lessons to be learned.

When normality does return to our stadiums and arenas, maybe we can put them to use.

Certainly, this unprecedented shutdown has changed life — and sports — in ways we never expected. But maybe, just maybe, that’s not entirely a bad thing.

If nothing else, we’ll never get another chance for a reset like this one.

Here’s a few ideas worth considering when this nightmare is over:

VIRTUAL DRAFTS

The WNBA was conducting its draft remotely Friday night — without players, fans or media in attendance — and the NFL will follow suit next week with its own virtual draft.

There is some downside to this, of course, mainly the players missing out on their triumphant, well-earned moment to deck out in their finest attire and walk across the stage in front of a cheering crowd and national television audience.

But we think that is more than offset by the prospect of a low-key event where the top prospects can remain in their homes, accompanied by family and friends who mean the most to them. They don’t have to go through the motions of hugging the commissioner, which may be the sort of social distancing we’ll want to maintain even when this pandemic is a distant memory.

If nothing else, a virtual draft gives all those misguided fans who felt the urge to show up in person to hear names being called a chance to do something more productive with their time.

The WNBA, for its part, sent along a care package to many of its potential picks with hats of all 12 teams, a league sweatshirt, confetti and a few other items to aid with an in-home celebration.

This seems like the perfect way for leagues to welcome their next generation of stars.

The NFL, NBA, NHL and WNBA should adopt it permanently.

CONFERENCE TOURNEYS

The lockdown began right as many of the country’s most prominent conferences were beginning their men’s basketball tournaments.

In the end, t he entire postseason was called off because of the virus, depriving us of one of the greatest events in American sports — the NCAA Tournament.

But those conference tournaments? They weren’t missed at all.

While a few leagues — the Atlantic Coast Conference comes immediately to mind — would surely be reluctant to give up a tradition-laden event that bolsters their bottom line, most of these tournaments are totally forgettable. They are generally accompanied by lots of empty seats and often cost deserving teams from one-bid leagues a spot in the NCAAs.

Ditch the conference tournaments, expand the Big Dance to 96 teams and add on an extra week to the tourney that really matters.

BOYS OF SPRING

While baseball romantics will balk at this one, there’s simply no need for spring training to drag on for six weeks.

The Grapefruit and Cactus leagues were cut short this year by the pandemic, and MLB should take this opportunity to chop off at least a couple of weeks from upcoming springs.

The season is long enough already. Given the extensive offseasson programs that most players maintain, they can easily get ready for the season with a month of formal workouts and practice games.

SHORTER PLAYOFFS

Speaking of things that lingered far too long before the pandemic, we give you the NBA and NHL playoffs.

Both leagues were halted with about a month to go in their regular seasons. Now there’s talk of both returning with sort of compressed playoff format to at least crown a champion before the summer is done.

Some interesting ideas have been bandied about, including the entire NBA playoffs being held in Las Vegas with no fans in the stands. While we don’t want to make that a permanent feature, perhaps it could become a jumping-off point for a revamping of the postseason.

How about a play-in tournament among the lowest-seeded qualifiers? That would cut back on the time needed to complete the playoffs, which currently clocks in at a staggering two months.

RESPECT THE WORKERS

Perhaps the most important change of all should be directed toward those who make the game-day experience so enjoyable.

The ticket takers. The ushers. The concession workers. The cleaning crews. The parking lot attendants.

Many teams and players stepped up to help those who lost their jobs when sports came to a grinding halt, but those sort of gestures should become a permanent part of our mindset when the games resume.

Maybe the billionaire and millionaire owners can team up to provide a package that includes better pay, healthcare benefits and more financial security to those who work behind the scenes.

When normality returns, as it surely will, let’s not forget how essential they really are.

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Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press.Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org, follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and find his work at https://apnews.com

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