Bubbles: A Good Idea or Time to be Popped?

Zachary Grover, Sports Editor

Living in the bubble was definitely a unique experience… There was a brief time where we couldn’t walk outside due to restrictions.”

— NWSL Star Kayla Sharples


Life at the moment is unpredictable. Every advertisement, email, or news release we see these days starts with, “During these unprecedented and unique times….” Everything is different right now, including sports. The fact that the worst thing a professional athlete could do this past year was leave their hotel room speaks volumes to how different everything is at the moment. When sports returned this past summer, there were many different ideas tossed around as to how sports could return safely amid the COVID-19 restrictions that were in place in North America. One question was commonly asked, however, across all sports: will the sport play in “a bubble”?

   During the 2020 season, plenty of sports leagues completed their season and conducted a postseason inside a bubble environment, where players were confined to a “bubble campus,” isolated from the general public, with daily COVID-19 tests also administered to make sure the bubble stayed virus-free. According to the New York Times, the NBA and NHL held playoffs in a bubble in Florida and Edmonton respectively. Other sports leagues to utilize a bubble included the WNBA, Major League Soccer (MLS), and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). The International Ice Hockey Federation also used a bubble in Edmonton to award a gold medal in their Under Twenty World Junior ice hockey tournament, with teams and players traveling to Edmonton from many countries all over the globe according to the New York Times (nytimes.com).

   Alternatively, some sports leagues decided against playing a season in a bubble. The MLB and NFL were the most notable sports leagues who decided against a bubble format, instead having teams travel across the country playing games in a standard format. CBS Sports reports the bubble idea was floated around by the MLB but was shot down due to the players’ wishes to not be quarantined and isolated from their families (cbssports.com). According to ESPN, the NFL decided against playing their season in a bubble because it seemed “unrealistic” to have all players, team employees, as well as coaches, referees, and everyone else who has a part in making NFL games run smoothly stuck in a bubble for five months straight. “It would be incredibly difficult,” said Epidemiologist Zachary Binney, stating the obvious (espn.com). 

   Without a bubble, players along with team and league personnel are more susceptible to being exposed or catching COVID-19, which would put a delay on the season and a hitch in the league’s plans to return. This summer, COVID-19 outbreaks were very common within leagues that did not utilize a bubble format, while bubble leagues saw success in this respect. In the MLB, major outbreaks occurred within the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals, and the season had potential to be suspended or cancelled. Near the halfway point of the season, 43 games had been postponed due to COVID-19 outbreaks. The Cardinals even had to play a record 55 games in 44 days due to COVID-19 cancelations (cbssports.com). The NFL had similar problems during their season. Plenty of times, team’s practice facilities were shut down, players had to miss games due to COVID-19 contract tracing, and games had to be postponed or moved. The Denver Broncos even had to play a game with no quarterbacks on the roster because of COVID-19 contact tracing protocols (espn.com).

   However, even within a bubble, life was not all wonderful according to players. Everyone in the bubble was isolated from loved ones for a long period of time, which made life difficult. One NHL player, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the bubble was almost too safe and secure. “The fence that boxed us in made it feel like you were in more of a prison, kind of like an animal,” he said. Another NHL player said that the bubble didn’t live up to the hype from the league. “…They made all these promises to get us there and didn’t really want to follow through on them,” he said. “There were times where I didn’t go outside for four or five days,” said another. There were even reports of marijuana edibles being taken by players in the NHL bubble (espn.com).

   Chicago Red Stars (NWSL) defender Kayla Sharples who played in the NWSL Challenge Cup this past summer spoke on experience and the challenges of living in the bubble. “Living in the bubble was definitely a unique experience… There was a brief time where we couldn’t walk outside due to restrictions, but we eventually were able to walk around the parking lot if we needed to stretch our legs” she said.  Sharples added that the bubble truly did strengthen the team’s bond, especially with all the tough conversations that were had about the Black Lives Matter movement during the time in the bubble. Sharples said the players maintained a sense of normally by playing everything from card games to team ping pong tournaments. “No matter what we were playing, we were always extremely competitive,” she said. “There was a coffee truck right next to the practice fields that the players loved to go to. Buying coffee or lattes was something we looked forward to everyday and one of the few things that felt normal,” stated Sharples.

   In the NBA bubble, many players expressed that the isolation and time without family was very difficult. Los Angeles Clippers Star Paul George even detailed his struggles with depression during the playoffs. “I underestimated metal health [consequences of the bubble] honestly,” he said. “I had anxiety. A bit of depression. Just being locked in here. I just wasn’t there. I checked out,” he said (espn.com).

   That leads to a question that sports leagues’ executives have been wrestling with: is playing in a bubble the right way to go? It might be the only way to ensure that a season is played. Professional athletes are some of the fiercest competitors on earth, and sports are a welcome distraction during the time in which we live for fans, making sports seem almost necessary at this point. Junior Nadiv Meltzer may have summed it up best. “My only concern is about the players and their mental health,” he said, “but if it’s a choice between a bubble and no season, I pick a bubble every time and I assume they would too.”

   So if you lost your fantasy football title because the Saints had all their wide receivers out because of COVID-19 protocols, or your favorite team lost a close game after they didn’t practice all week and you muttered, “Why couldn’t they play the season in a bubble?” Remember, bubbles are difficult for everyone involved and there may not be a “correct” answer to the question of, “How do we play this season?” Right now, is all about being adaptable. So kick back on your couch and be glad sports are back. If you don’t focus on it, that fake crowd noise sounds pretty real.