On the weekend of June 4, Texas will host the first team sporting event in the United States since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The Collegiate Summer Baseball Invitational is scheduled to bring one hundred college baseball players to Bryan, where they’ll take part in a tightly controlled tournament.
Uri Geva, CEO of Infinity Sports & Entertainment and president of the Texas Collegiate League, said that, after hearing plans floated by Major League Baseball to create a “bubble” in which the league could potentially resume, he decided to bring the same concept to college baseball.
“The first phone call, after the idea started, was to our local health officials. I sit on the board of one of our hospitals, and I asked if I could get a second with Dr. Seth Sullivan,” Geva said, referring to an infectious disease expert in College Station who’s been one of the local faces of public health. “He was very excited and supportive of the protocols.” Geva said that he took an idea Dr. Anthony Fauci had speculated on during interviews in mid-April and “copied it to a T” in creating the plan. He said that the more people he talked to about it, the more enthusiasm he heard. “I know I’m tired of watching marbles racing down a hill,” he laughed.
Still, there are questions about whether baseball can be played safely. Fauci didn’t release a detailed plan about restarting baseball—he offered some ideas when asked about it during a handful of interviews. Clarifying his position in late April, Fauci said the country “is not ready yet” for sports to resume.
The plan Geva describes is pretty thorough: Players, coaches, umpires, and staff were tested on arrival on June 1, and then quarantined inside a Hilton hotel in College Station. Those who test negative will be given a wristband that identifies them as part of the tournament’s “quarantine bubble,” full of people who’ve all tested negative for the coronavirus. Meals will be delivered, hotels rooms will not receive cleaning services from non-quarantine staff, and certain areas of the hotel, such as the gym, will be restricted to tournament guests only. Players will either be at the hotel or at the ballpark, where they’ll be drafted on to a team when they arrive. None of them are to interact with anyone who isn’t also given an all-clear wristband. (Major League scouts and media who cover the event, if they opt not to be tested, can meet with the players via Zoom or other teleconferencing software, but not in person.) Players will be monitored for symptoms throughout, “hall monitors” will be present at the hotel to make sure no one leaves the premises, and before flying home on June 8, players will be retested. No fans will be in the ballpark.
When I explained the safety procedures in place to Adia Benton, a sports and public health expert who teaches at Northwestern University, she laughed. “They really want to do this, huh?”
Benton acknowledged that the steps taken by the event’s organizers are good, but she had concerns about one part of the process: what happens if someone gets infected at the airport or on the plane, is tested before the infection takes hold, and begins spreading the virus to other people in the “quarantine bubble” during the week of the event?
“Assuming that most of these players have been nonessential and hanging out at home, and don’t have essential workers in their home, their risk is probably low—but then they get on a plane,” she said. “If they’re tested immediately, there’s a group that could escape notice, because they can be exposed at any stage that leads to them getting to the site. They can’t just test them on entry, they need to test them again in the first couple days.”
Kathleen Bachynski, a Muhlenberg College professor of public health whose work focuses on the intersection of public health, bioethics, and sports, raised the same concern. “I’m a trained public health person, so I’m always going to be more on the cautious side,” she told me. “Bringing people across the country, one issue to consider is that there certainly could be exposure while traveling. If you’ve just been exposed, the test is more likely to be accurate a couple days later, once the virus has had time to replicate.”
When I first spoke to Geva about the plan for the Collegiate Summer Baseball Invitational, the protocol for testing players was less stringent than it would be a few days later: Players from out of state, he said, would be tested at home, before traveling to Texas. Then they’d go to the airport, get on a plane, land in Texas, and enter the quarantine. After I spoke to Bachynski and Benton about their concerns, I followed up with Geva, and a publicist for the event told me that the testing plan had changed. Now, she said, players would be tested upon their arrival at the hotel. “In order to ensure we’re catching a possible infection during travel,” she said, “we are also doing daily examinations of the players,” including temperature checks and screening for symptoms. “As of today, this is the best version of the plan to mitigate risk according to our medical experts.”
Asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 account for a substantial percentage of infections, according to two separate studies. The first, from Wuhan, looked at infections from December to February, and found that 42 percent of cases were asymptomatic. Another, from a cruise ship that set sail from Argentina in mid-March, found that a shocking 81 percent of cases involved no symptoms. In both studies, those who were asymptomatic were still capable of spreading the disease to others.
Geva is a baseball guy. He owns several teams in Texas made up of college players who play during the summer, including the Brazos Valley Bombers and the Texarkana Twins. Bachynski and Benton both questioned whether the risks involved in bringing a hundred players to Bryan were worth the benefits of playing in a single tournament, but for Geva, that’s not a hard question to answer: Major League Baseball moved its draft from July to June, so this is going to be the best chance a lot of players have to be seen by scouts before that happens. And even beyond that, Geva sees his event as a chance to provide some relief to fans who’ve been without sports for months. “We’re excited to give people some normalcy,” he said. “We want to give people a chance to grab a beer and a hot dog on the couch and feel normal for a day or two, while we provide some entertainment and great baseball.”
Those who want that experience won’t be able to find it via the channels they’re used to, though. The tournament won’t air on ESPN or one of the broadcast networks. Rather, the entire thing will be held as a pay-per-view streaming event via an app that fans can download—after paying $59.95 for the six-game package (or purchasing individual games at $20 a pop). Geva said that, while sales haven’t been where he wants them to be yet, he’s actively marketing the event to college baseball enthusiasts.
“You always want more,” Geva admitted, before noting that a staffer at one of the digital ad agencies he’s working with, someone who’d also worked on the Floyd Mayweather/Manny Pacquiao fight, shared a reassuring statistic with him. “Ninety percent of the purchases for that fight happened in the last three days, including the day of the fight. … That’s the hope, and the plan, that we’ll see that pick up the week-of. Right now, it’s mostly family members and early adopters buying in.” That’s the optimistic spin on things, and it might come to pass. Maybe by June 4, as the tournament is under way, ESPN broadcasters—weary of talking about European soccer matches, NFL offseason developments, or how various American sports teams have responded to waves of protests in the streets—will turn their attention to the sound of aluminum bats firing off home runs in Bryan, Texas. Maybe the scouts will be impressed, and sports fans will finally have something new to watch.
But, like everything else in the middle of a pandemic, the idea does come with real risks. Geva has no plan, at the moment, for what will happen if any player who enters the “quarantine bubble” tests positive at the end—whether that player will stay in Texas or be sent home, or who will pay for his time in Bryan if putting him on a plane might put others at risk. “We’ll take it on a case-by-case basis,” he said in an email through a representative. But for a few days, some people will download an app to watch what the Collegiate Summer Baseball Invitational website calls “Team 1, Team 2, Team 3, and Team 4” play a double-elimination tournament. Whether that’s worth it will ultimately depend on whether it turns out to be safe or not. And only time will tell on that.
“There’s a lot of conflicting information out there, even from people who know what they’re talking about,” Benton said. “So it seems bizarre that the initiative would be taken to organize a whole-ass tournament in the middle of an epidemic.”