Sports

Your New Summer Sports Obsessions

Even if the MLB and NBA come back, they’ll be weird. Watch these instead.

Wright Dennis throws a pitch, seen in a TV screen with scribbles surrounding it.
Wright Dennis of the NC Dinos, part of the Korean Baseball Organization.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Han Myung-Gu/Getty Images and Getty Images Plus.

Read the rest of Slate’s guide to your quarantine summer.

Major league ballpark attendance has been on the decline for some time now. As the New York Times observed last season, when the stands were their emptiest since 2003: “The games are long. Children—and their parents—can struggle to sit through nine innings. The fan base is aging. Many teams are terrible.”

All true. And yet, in the country’s cultural imagination, a day at a ballgame remains a quintessential summer activity. Part of that is nostalgia and tradition, sure. But baseball’s loping rhythms also feel in sync with the season’s heat and humidity, and the easy experience of a live game with friends and family complements a time of year that seems to welcome and even valorize laziness, and encourage the relief of doing nothing more than sitting outside and enjoying a cold drink or two together. Baseball is practically a synecdoche for summer—the season of shared, relaxing stillness in the sun. Does play-by-play of any other sport go well with a hammock?

But not this year. And the same goes for summer high points like the NBA Finals, the Stanley Cup Final, Wimbledon, the French Open, international soccer tournaments, and the Summer Olympics. The coronavirus pandemic has postponed all of the above, some indefinitely. With the questionable reopening of several states and pressure to get back out there, some leagues have started to announce their imminent planned returns. Rumors suggest the boys of summer may be facing off for the public’s enjoyment in July. The NBA, too, may take its chances that month. NASCAR and the UFC are already back in action, if that’s your thing.

But even if MLB teams get back to the diamonds, you probably will not experience the lazy magic of the ballpark without the risk of sharing viruses. “Safe” NBA games will be a surreal and anxiety-inducing reminder of the pandemic, if anything. Besides, you need something to watch now. There’s no better time to nurse a new sports obsession with something you’ve never watched before. Here are some places to begin.

Quarantine loss: Major League Baseball
Quarantine gain: Korea Baseball Organization
Can you gamble on it? Of course

The KBO is known for its culture of bat flips after home runs and coordinated, elaborate cheers. Since May 5, ESPN2 and the Worldwide Leader’s streaming service WatchESPN have been broadcasting six games per week along with English-language commentary. If you’re an early bird, you’re in luck, as time zones mean the games are on live at 5:30 a.m. EST. And if you’re a West Coast night owl, that means the games start right around the time you get out of the club (2:30 a.m. PST). If you want to watch during more humane hours and don’t mind spoilers or can avoid the results, games are then rebroadcast at 1 or 2 p.m. the same day. You can see the full upcoming schedule at ESPN.

The league has 10 teams. If you just want to root for the best one and be a scumbag front-runner, you have a few options. One is the NC Dinos, who, as of Thursday, sit on top of the league with a commanding 12–2 record behind dominant play from their hot starting pitchers, who collectively hold the league’s lowest ERA, and above-.400 hitters like infielder Park Min-woo. Their lineup has also put up the most home runs so far this year. The Dinos have also received semiviral online attention, notably from SB Nation, for their troublingly swole mascot. But if for any reason these guys don’t do it for you, two other overdogs you might like are the defending champion Doosan Bears, who are currently fourth in the standings but just one game out of second place, or the Kia Tigers, who are off to a shaky start but are the New York Yankees of the KBO. They’ve won the most league championships—eight since their founding in 1982.

If you’re like me, though, and you are a hardscrabble lunch pail salt of the earth everyperson of the people, you might prefer having your heart broken every year by your favorite team. In that case, I might suggest adopting the LG Twins. The Twins, along with sharing their name with the often-heartbroken-by-the-Yankees Minnesota franchise stateside, have had a great start to 2020. This is not to be trusted. There is also the Hanwha Eagles, a team that the Athletic describes as “lovable weirdos” and “one with almost no chance, who hasn’t won a championship in forever.” Charming, no? The Twins are currently second in the league, and the Eagles are down in eighth. So the latter seem more committed to their rep.

For more guidance on where to align your allegiance, I recommend the comprehensive guides from the aforementioned Athletic, Yahoo Sports, and ESPN.

Loss: The NBA Finals, the Olympics
Gain: The Bundesliga (German soccer)
Can you gamble on it? Of course

Germany’s premier soccer league is one of the world’s best and most popular. It is the training ground for the country’s elite national soccer team, the side that won the World Cup in 2014 and three other times before that. If you’ve ever been one of those people who got really into the World Cup or the Euros and then thought, “Hey, that was really fun. Maybe I should start following club soccer,” now is the perfect time. After a two-month hiatus due to the coronavirus, the 18-team table returned to competition on May 16, with the German government’s blessing and protocol instructions, and without fans in attendance. Its live broadcast schedule is also much more amenable to well-rested people than Korean baseball’s. You can watch matches on FS1, FS2, and Fox Deportes from Fox Sports or stream them on Fox Sports Go, FuboTV, or Hulu+ Live TV; matches typically air around 9:30 a.m. and noon EST on Saturdays and Sundays, and around 2:30 p.m. EST during the week. There are only about two weeks left in the season, so the contests will have stakes.

The team at the center of the league is Bayern Munich. It’s even more than the Bundesliga’s Yankees; it’s the nucleus, the sun, the spine. In other words, if you’re the kind of fan attracted to rooting for the Hanwha Eagles, you’ll think Bayern is despicable. It’s won 29 titles since its founding, including the past seven consecutive ones. The current squad’s superstar is Polish striker Robert Lewandowski, but the team, as it always does, features several Germans who are also on the national team, including captain Manuel Neuer, vice captain Thomas Müller, and neck-tattooed defender Jérôme Boateng.

If you’re more of a Hanwha Eagles fan and looking for the Bundesliga’s Mets, you might want to check out Schalke. Schalke hasn’t won a German title since 1958, and it is down in eighth place. But what it lacks in wins it makes up for in draws, which it has netted 10 times this year. Nothing fires up sports fans like ties! Those help explain the team’s massive fan base, which is allegedly Germany’s second in size, surpassed only by Bayern Munich. Schalke also boasts a promising young American player, Weston McKennie, if you want a patriotic reason to root for them.

The team and story of the year, though, is Schalke’s bitter rival, Borussia Dortmund, famous for its ecstatic fanbase, but newly thrilling because of its young stars Jadon Sancho, an electric Englishman, and blond Norwegian beast Erling Haaland. That 19-year-old is a goal-scoring machine the size of a fjord: In February, Slate contributor Eric Betts described him, along with French superstar Kylian Mbappé, as global soccer’s likeliest successor to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. After a Haaland-led run of victories, Dortmund is now second in the standings, just four points behind Bayern Munich for the top spot. The team also has a 17-year-old American hope, Giovanni Reyna, who is slated to be a star of the U.S. team. So it’s an exciting side to get behind.

Even with all that preparation, it’s worth keeping an eye on the news. Germany has been characteristically methodical about its reaction to the pandemic, a prudence that has granted it a death rate lower than that of the U.S., U.K, France, and Belgium. But last week, a powerful politician threatened to cancel the Bundesliga’s restart, after it was reported that multiple teams were violating the rules the government set forth for the league to return to play. More false steps, he warned, and the league could still “get the red card.”

Loss: Tennis’ Grand Slams, Wimbledon and the French Open
Gain: International Tennis Series, possibly other ATP and WTA events
Can you gamble on it? Of course

It’s not the All England Club or Roland-Garros. But the International Tennis Series—a collection of exhibition matches between professional but low-ranked players—is underway and has a few more days left on the docket. Through May 26, you can watch it on ESPN3 and stream it on WatchESPN. As the New York Times notes, you won’t see Rafael Nadal playing, but you can catch Dustin Brown, who upset Nadal at Wimbledon in 2015.

The ATP and WTA also have announced that they are hoping regular tournaments will return in August, starting with the Citi Open on Aug. 3 in D.C. The U.S. Open has not yet postponed its Aug. 31 start date, either. But it’s probably worth watching the news to see if these get pushed even further back. It was only a week ago that the professional men’s and women’s tours officially canceled their July tournaments.

Loss: Minor league baseball, potato sack and three-legged races, competitive pie and hot dog eating contests
Gain: Any of these competitions in your house, yard, or park
Can you gamble on it? Where there’s a will, there’s a way

OK, so minor league baseball isn’t coming back. But how difficult is it to put on costumes and stage your own mascot race? Or hold a raffle for a lifetime supply of popcorn? Or playact as a deranged old-timey vendor in the stands? Minor league baseball is full of goofy theater, and while you’re watching the KBO, you and your household could have a blast trying to re-create some of it.

Potato sack races seem perfectly feasible with distance and masks. Three-legged races present a social distancing problem, but maybe you can restrict those to your coronavirus bubble. As for pie and hot dogs, last time I checked, eating those and setting a timer remains possible over Zoom. So the county and state fairs that typically host these elite athletic competitions might be closed down, but with devotion to your fandom, you too can still reproduce treasured summer sports traditions, to an extent. We all have to make painful adjustments through this difficult time.

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