Professional sports in the age of COVID-19
By Yun Chen
Nearly 1,400 adults, mostly super-athletic males, were isolated and locked up for almost three months, in a faraway, man-made world. In this artificial world, famous attractions, habitats, and cultures from all over the world were replicated, and participants battled against each other to stay until the very end. The last men standing were crowned the champions, literally.
This is not the Ancient Roman Colosseum or a real-life version of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. This is the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the age of COVID-19.
COVID-19 and the professional sports world
The pandemic changed our lives in 2020, particularly with respect to activities and businesses that involve large crowds of people. Unsurprisingly, the professional sports world was hit particularly hard by the virus.
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics were pushed to summer 2021, the U.K. Open Golf Championship was canceled, and numerous high-profile professional sports leagues suspended all their games and events at the height of the pandemic.
The NBA “Bubble”
As the spread of COVID-19 slowed down in the summer of 2020, sports leagues started to resume their games with necessary anti-virus measures. Four out of the five major football leagues in Europe restarted their games in empty stadiums in July 2020. Despite huge losses in planned ticket sales, the move was made in the interests of public health, and to salvage the billions of dollars in TV broadcasting license fees that would otherwise be lost.
With lockdowns and public safety at stake, the NBA came up with the ‘NBA Bubble’: isolating all players, coaches, and staff in a secure location for the entire NBA season, minimizing contact with the outside world. This would prove to be a slam dunk: a highly-efficient, all-work, no-distraction, no-virus environment for basketball entertainment production.
The Walt Disney World Resort was uniquely qualified to host the games. Disney World wasn’t open to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic anyway, and it was big enough to house all NBA personnel, complete with walls, gates, and security systems to create an effective isolation zone.
How the NBA Bubble worked
The top twenty-two out of thirty NBA teams were invited to participate in Bubble games. All players and staff were required to test for COVID-19 before entering the Bubble, and they were not allowed to leave until they were eliminated from the tournament.
To prevent breach of the Bubble’s primary rule–unauthorized contact with the outside world–the NBA even set up a so-called “snitch line” so players could anonymously report offenders. Rule-breakers faced disciplinary measures from fines, to suspensions, to removal from the campus.
The NBA spent approximately US$180 million to build the Bubble and keep it running. The league built ten basketball courts inside the Bubble–three for official matches, and seven for practices.
In an attempt to replicate the energy and fan participation of real games, the NBA wrapped the Bubble arenas with 17-foot LED screens, displaying the faces of hundreds of fans watching the games live at home. In a unique twist, the NBA also mixed the live-broadcasted sounds of fan cheering with canned crowd noises, reminiscent of a typical American sitcom. Sports is indeed entertainment after all.
Despite the effort put into the setup, naturally, some players still had trouble getting used to it. On the other hand, some young players did exceptionally well in Bubble games, such as Jamal Murray, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson. Some people attributed the uncommonly good performance to the lack of fan pressure in the Bubble–but no one can really prove this right or wrong.
Business in the Bubble
For most players, Bubble life was strictly business, and business didn’t always have to mean basketball. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat’s star forward and one of the best-performing players in the Bubble, took up an entrepreneurial endeavor. Given the lack of premium coffee in the isolation zone, Butler started his own coffee shop, Big Face Coffee, from his hotel room. He charged US$20 a cup.
Butler’s business boomed for a while despite the steep price tag, mostly because it had a monopoly on premium hand-made coffee. Customers complained about the price, but they lacked substitutes. But like any free economy, competitors soon emerged from the woodwork–Miami Heat’s assistant athletic trainer Brandon Gilliam started a competing coffee business and undercut Butler with $5 coffee. Gilliam even named his business Small Face Coffee.
This friendly business rivalry apparently did not interfere with Miami Heat’s performance: the team ultimately advanced into the NBA finals.
No stranger to technology
The NBA has long been at the forefront of adopting new trends and technologies, and the Bubble era was no exception. This year, thanks to partnerships with Microsoft and Facebook, Bubble audiences could enjoy an enhanced VR viewing experience. Through Facebook, Oculus became the NBA’s official marketing and VR partner. The NBA also worked with Microsoft to create a unique virtual fan experience.
Each game, the ‘home’ team could select fans to virtually attend the games, displayed to the athletes on massive LED screens around the courts and live broadcast on national television. Selected fans had to abide by the fan code of conduct, which included refraining from offensive behavior or displaying commercial signs.
Under the Microsoft Conference Together Mode, each virtual fan saw a screen divided into two sections, half of which telecast the game ahead of normal fans’ TV broadcasts, and the other half displaying other fans in the same section. Virtual fans could even hear these others, bringing about a communal experience similar to that of a real NBA game.
Interestingly, one fan even brought a pet goat to a game between the New Orleans Pelicans and Washington Wizards, which apparently was not prohibited under the fan code of conduct.
An NBA success story
On October 12th, 2020, the Los Angeles Lakers claimed the 2019-2020 championship title, which also marked the end of the 2020 NBA Bubble. 22 teams played a total of 172 games over three months without a single player, league official, or team staffer testing positive for COVID-19 after entering the Bubble. This was all the more impressive considering that the U.S. had tens of thousands of new COVID-19 cases daily during the NBA Bubble period.
The system proved to be a great success in the face of adversity. The NBA not only salvaged billions of dollars in broadcasting fees and kept everyone involved free of the virus, but it also set a pioneering example for the professional sports world in terms of sports entertainment operations and production in the age of COVID-19.
Originally published in Jumpstart Magazine Issue 31 as ‘Keeping Your Head in the Game’
About the Author
Yun is a popular video blogger and part-time writer. Yun grad- uated from Franklin & Marshall College before getting his J.D. degree from Cornell Law School. He has held positions at a top international law firm prior to joining a major investment bank.