While many of us spent the pandemic learning a new hobby, daydreaming about life on the other end of this seemingly endless tunnel, or just trying to take it one day at a time, dozens of people were trying to make professional sports work. And not just for fun—professional sports bring in more than $30 billion to the U.S. each year, according to MarketWatch. The NBA alone employs around 1,500 people, so it’s no surprise that hosting professional sporting events without regularly endangering staff and athletes’ lives became a monumental challenge—especially in the U.S., where there have been more than 8.5 million positive cases and a staggering 224,000 lives lost to COVID-19.
While Asian and European countries set up an individual blueprint with the resumption of soccer and baseball games, indoor-only sports posed a particular challenge. But the NBA pulled it off—and this is why the league’s successful season restart in the ESPN Wide World of Sports at Disney World is incredibly impressive and worthy of our 2020 Industry Leaders award.
The league not only restarted and finished the season, but it also did so with no positive cases for players or staff, even as Florida’s cases were peaking. “The success of the NBA restart was ultimately the product of focusing on the health and safety of our players, coaches, staffs, and fans; using our collective platform to promote social change; and pushing the boundaries of innovation to engage our fans in unique ways so they could follow the league’s unconventional path to crowning its 74th champion,” explained Kelly Flatow, the NBA’s executive vice president of global events. This three-pronged approach of safety, fan engagement, and social justice resulted in one of the most exciting basketball seasons in the past two decades.
Life Inside the Bubble
To make basketball work amid a pandemic, rigorous testing and contact tracing measures were necessary. The most significant—and most obvious—change was the creation of the bubble. Rather than move between arenas, players from 22 teams (16 playoff teams and six who were close to qualifying) moved to Walt Disney World, where they lived, practiced, and played out the rest of the season. Entry and exit restrictions were strict, with one player forced to isolate for an additional 10 days after crossing the boundary line to pick up a food delivery. While there were a few instances of athletes leaving the bubble—some by accident and others intentionally—most complied with the isolation orders or dealt with the consequences.
All players residing in the bubble were given a bevy of wearable tech meant to keep them safe. Disney’s Magicbands, already a frequent sight around the park, acted as an automatic clearance badge granting people access to areas of the resort. According to a CNBC report, the bands have the potential to act as a contact tracing device, alerting people if they were in close contact with someone who tested positive. (Disney, however, has gone on record saying that MagicBands aren’t being used for contact tracing, at least in the rest of the parks.) Players and staff living in the bubble were given pulse oximeters and smart thermometers to give daily temperatures and blood oxygen levels. Optional tech included Oura smart rings and social distancing chips. The rings, which have been on the market for two years, track heart rate, temperature, and respiration (though the company’s claim that the rings can detect COVID before symptoms arise is highly contested). The social distancing alarm is essentially a chip embedded into bubble residents’ credentials that will go off if two people (outside of an approved list) are within 6 feet of each other.
But the biggest innovation for the league wasn’t wearable tech. One of the best ways to track the spread of COVID-19 is the widespread use of rapid testing, which can return results in as short as an hour. While the U.S. has one of the highest testing rates per capita in the world, results often take several days—and in some cases more than a week—to be returned, rendering the tests less effective.
As of Sept. 25, the FDA had approved 202 molecular tests, 46 antibody tests, and four antigen tests, the latter of which can return results in an hour or less. That kind of testing speed is critical for containing the virus, and many nations that have successfully flattened the curve have nationwide rapid testing alongside robust contact tracing measures. South Korea and the U.S. both reported their first positive COVID case on Jan. 20, but by mid-March, South Korea was administering 12,000 tests daily with tests widely available, while the U.S. was still struggling to reach 10,000 daily tests. One of those four approved rapid antigen tests, SalivaDirect, was trialed and funded, in part, by the NBA in conjunction with Yale University.
This is groundbreaking because using saliva eases concerns of resource scarcity associated with swab tests, and the more simplified analysis method makes it possible for non-specialized labs to run the test. While it’s true that rapid testing innovation would’ve been developed without assistance from the NBA, the ability to compare the antigen saliva test to swab tests among a willing population certainly sped the process along, giving the country another option in the fight against COVID-19. In addition to this new rapid test, the NBA launched a community testing program in July that offered thousands of free COVID-19 PCR tests in Orlando and other cities around the nation.
Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine every American willingly donning RFID-enabled bracelets and taking their temperature twice daily. But the lessons learned during the basketball bubble might apply to the travel industry as a whole—especially cruise lines. After the severe COVID-19 outbreak aboard the Diamond Princess cruise back in March, it’s evident that significant changes must be made to cruise life beyond getting rid of buffets and limiting shore excursions. Maybe we’ll all be aboard a floating bubble at sea before we know it.
Creating a Fan Experience in a Pandemic
Another colossal question loomed when figuring out professional sports in a bubble: How do you involve fans? Fans are as much a part of the game as the athletes themselves, especially in basketball, when you can sit so close to the action as to be directly underneath players’ feet. Even from a distance, fans’ desire to be involved never waned. According to data supplied by the league, NBA games were the most-viewed television program among adults ages 18 to 49 on 20 of the 25 nights of playoff coverage, as of Sept. 19.
If you watched the season restart, you might have noticed the huge screens replacing stadium seats. In a partnership with Michelob and Microsoft, 17-foot-tall screens surrounded the court displaying the faces of more than 300 fans who called in via Microsoft’s “Together Mode.” The chosen fans were picked via a lottery. While there were some technical glitches (as anyone who’s ever been on a Zoom call can relate to), seeing celebrity and civilian faces added something unique to this strange new world of basketball. In addition to the screens, pre-recorded stadium noise was piped in, and people watching at home could cheer virtually, impacting some visual effects in the arena. The overall effect was strange but absolutely electrifying.
There were also some less apparent innovations made for this new type of professional basketball. More than 30 cameras were capturing the game from never-before-seen angles, and more microphones on the court meant that the audience could hear the game in ways that only courtside ticket holders previously. In a surprising way, the NBA season restart distanced viewers physically while bringing them closer to the game than ever before.
The Fight for Social Justice
The restarted season and subsequent playoffs took place in front of a backdrop of nationwide unrest over police brutality, especially in the wake of the violent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbury, Jacob Blake, and Breonna Taylor. Considering that 74 percent of current players are Black men, it’s no surprise that these issues affected them. What was a surprise was the wildcat strike initiated by players from the Milwaukee Bucks in late August.
The strike came after a video showed 29-year-old Jacob Blake being fatally shot in the back multiple times by Kenosha, Wisconsin, police went viral on Twitter. Later, a teenaged gunman crossed state lines and killed two protesters, injuring a third. Lebron James, of the Lakers, tweeted his outrage, but three days later, players for the Bucks players remained in the locker room instead of heading on to the court for Game 5 of the first round of the playoffs. The team had fully intended to forfeit the loss—until their opponent, the Orlando Magic, refused to play as well. The wildcat strike initiated by the Bucks rippled across the entire league, culminating in three postponed games.
Protests among professional athletes are becoming increasingly common, perhaps jumpstarted by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s now-famous kneels during the National Anthem. The restarted season (for both the NBA and WNBA) also showed an emphasis on Black Lives Matter activism. Some courts painted the phrase the hardwood, and players had the option to don jerseys with one of 29 social justice messages like "Say Their Names" or "I Am a Man."
"A shared goal of our season restart will be to use our platform in Orlando to bring attention to these important issues of social justice,” said league commissioner Adam Silver. However, a protest of that magnitude, during the post-season nonetheless, was unprecedented (yet another in a year of unprecedented moments).
Behind the scenes, as reported by Sam Anderson for the New York Times, players were split on how to proceed. “...Players met for an emergency meeting. The conversation was heated. They argued about process, logistics, goals, demands,” Anderson wrote. “Some wanted to call off the rest of the season, to destroy the bubble for good. Others wanted to hurry up and get back to the games.”
After what was undoubtedly a tense conversation the NBA and National Basketball Players’ Association (NBPA) released a joint statement on Twitter announcing that basketball would return Aug. 29 and outlining commitments the NBA was making. They included establishing a social justice coalition to promote civic engagement, increasing access to voting, and advocating for prison and police reform; using 21 stadiums as polling places, ballot receiving board, or voter registration hubs; and ad space to promote civic engagement.
To see professional athletes drop everything to stand up and speak out was awe-inspiring. And the basketball was pretty phenomenal too.
Main Photo: Courtesy of NBA; Illustration: TripSavvy / Julie Bang