• Baseball and soccer leagues have both been relaunched in South Korea.
  • There are strict health measures in place, with no crowds in the stadium.
  • Other sports may also start to return behind closed doors over the coming weeks.

With so few live sports anywhere around the world, South Korean baseball and soccer are getting global attention. The measures put in place to bring back these games give us a taste of what sport might look like in a post-coronavirus lockdown era.

A changed playing field

South Korea relaunched its baseball league at the start of May, to much international fanfare: US cable channel ESPN is showing games to fans hungry for live sport after coronavirus abruptly ended fixtures around the world.

Baseball - KBO Regular season - SK Wyverns v Hanwha Eagles - Munhak Baseball Stadium, Incheon, South Korea - May 5, 2020    SK Wyverns' Ro Soo-kwang in action during the match. Despite most sports being cancelled around the world the local league starts behind closed doors due to the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)   REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji - RC26IG9SMCWO
Local league baseball has restarted in South Korea, but live audiences aren’t permitted.
Image: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

And a few days later, the country kicked off its soccer league, with starved fans able to see live coverage on the BBC in the UK, among others.

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It’s very different from what we’re used to: the players played to empty stands. A few officials and the subs were the only onlookers - all wearing masks. There were no handshakes on the pitch, although players did fist bump at the end. And at some points, there was crowd noise pumped into the stadium from loudspeakers.

The Korean Baseball Organization is hoping that it can begin allowing 20% capacity in stadiums, with incremental increases, according to FiveThirtyEight. It will also pause its 144-game schedule for at least three weeks if any member of a team tests positive.

South Korea has been particularly successful in holding back the virus, with widespread and aggressive testing and containment helping limit the spread of confirmed cases in the country to just shy of 11,000 at the point baseball restarted, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University.

Soccer Football - 2020 K League 1 - Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC v Suwon Samsung Bluewings - Jeonju World Cup Stadium, Jeonju, South Korea - May 8, 2020      General view during the match, despite most sports being cancelled around the world the local league starts behind closed doors due to the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)     REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji - RC2CKG9EALQD
The Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC v Suwon Samsung Bluewings match took place behind closed doors.
Image: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

A slow return

In Germany, where there have been more than 170,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases to 11 May, the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 are set to become the first European soccer leagues to restart following the pandemic shutdown. Games will be played behind closed doors from 16 May with strict health measures requiring all players to be tested, and fans will be banned from the stadium. Players, staff and officials, totalling about 300 people, will be in or around the stadium on match days.

But ahead of the relaunch, a number of players have tested positive, and Dynamo Dresden, which plays in the second tier, was forced to put its entire squad and coaching staff into isolation.

A man wears a protective face mask as he exercises in a fitness studio that re-opened at midnight following weeks of closure due to the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Cologne, Germany, May 11, 2020. REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen - RC21MG92522G
A man in a protective mask exercises in a German gym, which have also started to reopen.
Image: REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen

Elsewhere, other sports are also hoping to return over the coming weeks with adaptations to curtail further spread of the virus. Horse racing fans in the UK are hoping that some major fixtures in the calendar will be able to take place behind closed doors. In cycling, the Tour de France is set to start at the end of August rather than June, with the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana running in October on revised routes.

Other big sporting events, including the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, have been postponed or cancelled altogether.

It’s not going to be the sporting season many fans have grown to enjoy, but the return of sports in some guise is a tantalizing prospect for many.