Inside the NBA Bubble

They say, ‘you don’t miss something until it’s gone’.

The year 2020 has made us think of this old adage time and again, with the number of paradigm-shift moments that it has put us through.

The unexpected demise of Kobe Bryant and his daughter shook the basketball fraternity. It brought the NBA to a halt, bringing fans and players together to pay tribute to this great legend. But nobody – barring a little known doctor in the hinterlands of China – anticipated what was going to happen next. A small but deadly virus was about to bring the world to its knees.

The coronavirus pandemic not only brought down curtains on sporting events around the world, but also brought society to a slow halt.

Now, after 4 months, there might just be light at the end of the tunnel.

It seems forever since we last saw Harden putting up a step-back three or Lebron putting on an absolute show. The match between Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz was called off when Jazz player Rudy Gobert was tested positive for the coronavirus. The season was suspended with no return date in mind. However, after laying the initial groundwork, NBA is set to return on July 30 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, inside Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

A lot has changed since the outbreak of the pandemic, with social distancing and masks becoming the new normal. The NBA has pivoted and adapted to this change wholeheartedly in an attempt to bring us a ‘Whole New Game’ from inside the Disney Bubble.

NBA Bubble

Adam Silver, the N.B.A. commissioner, told players that he was not proud of shutting down the league because of the coronavirus, although he received praise for taking action and helping the public realize the gravity of the situation. Silver said, “I would be proud of finding a path that was safe and as risk-free as possible for us to play. I think that would be much more of an accomplishment than shutting down the league.” The NBA has since been committed to getting the game back on the court and after discussions with players and Disney, its largest partners, it was decided that the season would be completed within the Disney World Resort campus. The 39 square mile facility and its 4900 hotel rooms were chosen as it had the requisite infrastructure to create a ‘bubble’ for insulating players and coaching staff. The resort’s 220-acre ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex has more than a dozen practice courts and enough game-quality courts to play and broadcast three games at once, though that’s not currently planned.

To ensure there isn’t an excessive burden on the league, the 8 teams that had no chance of qualifying for the playoffs will not be involved in the restart project. The best 22 of the league’s 30 teams will play eight games to finish the regular season. From these, the top seven teams in each conference will advance, with the final eighth seed in each conference being determined by a potential play-in tournament before the traditional 16-team playoffs. The teams are required to quarantine for 48 hours once they have entered the bubble and register two negative tests before they can start practice and training. The players leaving the bubble will have to isolate themselves for 10 days upon return into the bubble and will need to register two negative tests. To ensure the safety of players and staff, they are tested every night inside the bubble, with results coming in the following morning.  If a player tests positive, he is required to quarantine for a minimum of 7 days and can choose to either leave the bubble or wait until recovered to resume playing. The decision to participate in the tournament has been left up to the players. Brooklyn Nets stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant along with several others have refrained from taking part in the tournament either due to health concerns or to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

The NBA has released a 113-page health and safety protocol for its plan to restart the season inside the bubble. The success of the bubble depends on the security of the bubble and its ability to keep players and staff safe. While the situation around seems glum with coronavirus cases increasing rapidly, the NBA has double-downed on its plan, championing the efficacy of its bubble concept. There are restrictions in place regarding congregation and social distancing. Players and staffers are not allowed to visit each other’s hotel rooms. They can use the pools, trails, and golf courses on campus, and can socialize in their hotels’ “players’ lounges”—but not without restrictions. The Disney World resort is open to the public despite coronavirus cases ballooning in the city. The NBA has faced some backlash for its decision to restart amid these troubling times. Silver has said that the league would work through the issues and that the situation is not ideal, but the show must go on. The NBA does not expect the restart to be unmarred by the coronavirus. A few players or staff might contract the virus and measures are in place for the same. However, the league will only be suspended again in case a large number of people get infected within the bubble.

The magnitude of the task at hand is huge. It’s almost as if the NBA is running an entire village with 4000 people in it. It is headed to Orlando to save some of its lost revenue which was projected to reach $1 billion if the season was voided. NBC Sports NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh calculated that the league would lose about $500 million in ticket revenue alone if there was no resumption of play. With games being played behind closed doors, around 320 fans will be invited to appear on video boards surrounding the courts. It is similar to the technology used by football leagues across Europe. For this, the NBA has partnered with Microsoft to create “Together Mode” where the fans can interact with each other too.

NBA Bubble

A cut short season meant the players were facing $645 million in lost salary. The usual contract states that the players get paid for the regular season only. They receive a bonus for competing in the playoffs. This bonus is a pool of money that is divided among players, staff, trainers, and front-office employees. The NBA prioritized the welfare of the players first. With constant deliberation with the NBA players Association and its president, Chris Paul, the interests of the players were safeguarded. The restart format could see players regaining some of their lost salaries. The 88 regular-season games scheduled would collectively reduce the salary loss by $300 million.

With fans not allowed for the restart, the onus is on the broadcasters to provide the fans with non-stop action from the bubble. Disney owned ESPN and ABC hold the broadcasting rights to the NBA. ESPN’s current contract pays about $1.4 billion a year to the NBA and continues through the 2025 season. A shortened season would have jeopardized the contracts and would force the two parties to come up with “make-do” deals for lost games. ESPN, according to media analyst Michael Nathanson, stood to lose around $481 million in ad revenue if the season was not completed. Live game coverage on TV provides branding opportunities and a chance for the NBA to activate its sponsors. The on-court screens would display brands and sponsors of the teams as well as the NBA. Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum said, “We are working with our corporate partners to ensure that they have the appropriate placements on the court and different marketing and advertising opportunities.”  Placing tarps with ads over the first few rows of seats around stadiums is one way the NBA is trying to use the arena to its advantage.

It will be fascinating to see how everything shapes up once the season restarts with games beginning on July 30th. The league officials have planned a high dose of action with a maximum of seven games in a day across three arenas. NBA’s return to play, in the shadow of a global pandemic, will be a breath of fresh air for the sports-starved fan, and won’t it would be cool to see Mickey Mouse ditching his yellow boots and sporting the Jordans?

Here’s hoping for some wall-to-wall buckets as well. The show is back on the road!

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