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It’s a question no sports league or franchise ever wants to consider. Now, more than ever, during a pandemic, sports leagues must consider what would happen if an entire team died from illness or an airplane accident, which has occurred in the past. While most sports fans have never thought about the question, the professional sports leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, MLS) have given it considerable thought and all have plans in place if such a tragedy were to happen.

Close calls in major sports

While colleges like Wichita State and Marshall University in football and Oklahoma State in basketball have experienced tragic disasters dramatically affecting their athletic programs, the major professional sports leagues in the U.S. have fortunately avoided disasters. There have, however, been several close calls.

In 1960, a plane carrying the Minneapolis now-Los Angeles Lakers made an emergency landing in an Iowa cornfield. In 1995, the Chicago Bulls experienced an incident where the cabin de-pressurized due to rapid descent, which required the players to put on oxygen masks. 

In 2001, a tire on the San Jose Shark’s charter flight exploded on takeoff, severing the plane’s hydraulic systems. The pilot was forced to manually turn around the plane, lower the landing gear, and brake without power assistance.

Fortunately, all these incidents, while scary, averted disaster. In the event such a team disaster does occur, each of the major professional sports leagues has a contingency plan built around a type of “disaster draft” designed to restock the team in the event of a tragedy.

What happens if an NFL team dies?

NFL logo | Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The NFL’s contingency plan is actually two plans. One is for a “near disaster,” which is defined as fewer than 15 players on a team being disabled, and the other is for a “disaster” with 15 or more players involved. 

In the case of a “near disaster,” no special draft would be held. Instead, the team would get preferential rights on any waivers until the end of the season. If a quarterback is among the fewer than 15 disabled or lost, the team would be able to draft up to two quarterbacks from all NFL teams that have three available on a roster. Each team would be able to protect two, and the drafted quarterbacks would return to their original teams the following season.

For a “disaster,” the NFL commissioner would determine whether to cancel the team’s schedule for the season. If the team’s season is canceled, the team would have the first pick in the next regular draft, and a special draft would be held in which each team would be able to protect 32 players. If the season is not canceled, the “near-disaster” procedures would go into effect.

What happens if an NBA team dies?

NBA | Sam Wasson/Getty Images

Because the NBA has a smaller roster than the other major sports, its plans are simplified. The NBA contingency plan activates if five or more players on a team “die or are dismembered.” A special “disaster draft” would be held in which other NBA teams could only protect five players, so that quality sixth men would be available. No more than one player would be drafted from a team.

What happens if an MLB team dies?

Major League Baseball
Major League Baseball never finished its 1994 season. | Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

MLB’s contingency plan is covered in Rule 29 of its official rules. The plan is activated in an event causing the death, dismemberment, or permanent disability of at least five players from a team’s active, injured, or suspended roster during a season (including the playoffs), or at least six players during the off-season. 

The commissioner determines if the disabled club can continue play, in consultation with the MLB Players’ Association and the club. If the MLB commissioner decides that the disabled club will continue to play, the commissioner may hold a Restocking Draft to allow the disabled club to select as many players as it lost, with the restriction that no more than one player can be selected from each team. 

Each of the non-disabled teams makes five players available for the draft taken from its active list, composed of one pitcher, one catcher, one outfielder, one infielder, and one more player of any position, subject to adjustments by the commissioner based on the players lost by the disabled club. 

What happens if an NHL team dies?

The Stanley Cup on display on a table
The Stanley Cup is placed between the Clarence Campbell Trophy and the Conn Smythe Trophy | Robert Laberge/Getty Images

The NHL contingency plan activates if five or more players on a team “are killed or disabled.” The team would select players from other NHL teams, paying with funds from a special insurance fund. Once the affected team’s roster has one goaltender and 14 other players, a special draft involving the teams unaffected by the earlier selection could be held, with each team able to protect one goaltender and 10 other players.

What happens if an MLS team dies?

Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrating a goal against Toronto FC
Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrating a goal against Toronto FC | Photo by Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images

The MLS doesn’t have a specific contingency plan for the loss of any MLS players due to a catastrophic accident, but within its roster regulations there is an “extreme hardship” provision. This provision could be used if “a team has less than 15 available players.” However, this is intended for use on a “game-by-game basis.”

While the U.S. professional leagues have avoided a disaster, each league has learned from previous tragedies and wisely has plans in place if a sports team were to tragically perish by illness or an accident. It’s something everyone hopes never has to be used.