After the exceptional success of the NBA bubble in July, the NBA is planning to undergo a 72 game season without a bubble beginning on December 22, just 72 days after the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Miami Heat to win last season’s championship. This unique season, like most things in 2020, is sure to present many challenges to teams, players, and viewers.
A common question among fans and pundits has been, “why is the season beginning so soon after the bubble concluded?” The main drivers for this decision are financial concerns, specifically with regards to the league’s relationship with its biggest television partners. Both Disney and Turner are relying on the revenues from the Christmas tradition of broadcasting NBA games. According to The New York Times, the NBA has forecasted that there will be a difference of $500 million in revenue if the season starts in December instead of January, presumably due to the potential holiday earnings. The NBA has already fallen $1.5 billion short of its estimated revenue in the 2019-2020 season, due to the coronavirus, adding more financial stress to maximize earnings in the upcoming season.
Beyond financial concerns, many of the league’s top players have expressed their desire to participate in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Starting the season earlier would help ensure players can take part in the Olympics, and help the NBA avoid having its playoff games compete with viewership for the Olympic games.
Despite these potential advantages of an early season start, there are major concerns to this approach, most having to do with the health of the players. Health officials around the NBA are worried about how to prepare and protect players from injury given the extremely short offseason. The lack of precedence for this situation has created uncertainty about training programs. Much of the success of the NBA bubble was attributed to removing the need to travel. The plan to currently have teams travel to their away games poses many new challenges, even with the mandate to play without live fans.
An official involved with player health stated that he’d “be more worried about travel, because we saw in the bubble, not having travel really helped guys recover”. To decrease the risks of COVID outbreaks and help promote health and recovery, the league has made modifications to the schedule to keep the need for travel at a minimum. This includes having teams play the same team twice in a row in the same city and scheduling more games against teams in nearby locations. In addition, decreasing the total games played from 82 to 72 was also designed to lessen the workload on players’ bodies.
To further address the risk of COVID-19, the league has already mandated daily testing for all the teams. Anyone who tests positive will not be allowed to workout for 10 days at a minimum. The team’s traveling parties have also been restricted to 45 people (including the players) as they make their trips to opposing teams’ arenas.
Moreover, there will be an anonymous tip line that will be used to report violations of safety protocols, which includes restricting players from going to bars, clubs, live entertainment, or gatherings of more than fifteen people while in their team’s city. While the team is traveling, dining will only be allowed if there is outside seating or fully private rooms. Players will be incentivized to follow the rules because they could face loss of pay, fines, or suspensions for violating any restrictions.
As the opening games approach, we can only hope that this season runs smoothly. Similar interventions taken with Major League Baseball and the NFL have met with varied success, and it is clear that the NBA at a minimum will need to stay flexible with their approach as different challenges arise throughout the season. Hopefully, a successful NBA season during these unprecedented times will give fans an outlet to experience some sense of normalcy and optimism for the future.