On the surface, the Wednesday afternoon matinee between the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles back in April 2015 appears as nondescript as it gets. It was an early season contest between a pair of teams hurtling toward mediocrity. The Orioles won 8-2, powered by a six-run first inning – but that isn’t why we’re talking about it. Peel back the box score, and the otherwise forgettable game’s novelty comes into focus: it marked the first time in Major League Baseball’s long history that two teams squared off with no fans in attendance, an extraordinary measure taken in response to the unrest in Baltimore that followed the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who was killed in police custody weeks earlier.

Five years after that surreal afternoon in Baltimore, and amid a pandemic that has left people around the world unnerved and anxious, the crowdless game may represent the American sporting community’s only hope of salvaging its competitions – and revenues.

That is, of course, if the games are played at all. By Wednesday night, the NBA was prepared to take its own drastic measures. With some games already underway around the league, fans gathered at Chesapeake Energy Arena to watch the Oklahoma City Thunder host the Utah Jazz. Starting lineups were announced, and officials prepared for tipoff. But after an extended delay, the game was abruptly postponed. The reason quickly came into focus: Rudy Gobert, the all-star center for the Jazz, tested positive for the coronavirus. Moments later, news broke that the NBA was suspending its season “until further notice.” On Thursday, other domestic leagues signaled they would follow the NBA’s lead. Major League Soccer and the National Hockey League both announced that they were suspending their seasons for 30 days. MLB said its new season, due to start at the end of March, will be delayed for at least two weeks.

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