Defying the Odds: the NBA Bubble and its Success During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Author: Moshe Hecht
March 11, 2020 is a day that shall live in infamy. I remember watching the New York Knicks play the Atlanta Hawks in a regular-season game of the 2019-2020 NBA (National Basketball Association) season. At the time, it would seem inconceivable that this would be the last major sporting event of the foreseeable future. Midway through the game, the NBA announced that Rudy Gobert, a player for the Utah Jazz, had tested positive for COVID-19 and the NBA season would be suspended indefinitely. Players, coaches, broadcasters and viewers of the game, including myself, were completely flabbergasted. The season had abruptly come to an end.
Shortly after, the situation deteriorated even further. As COVID-19 spread throughout the United States, the current seasons of the MLS (Major League Soccer), as well as the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), were suspended. Subsequently, the seasons of the NFL (National Football League), and MLB (Major League Baseball), in addition to other sports whose seasons had yet to begin, were in question whether there was to be a season at all. To sports fans across the nation, the news was taken as apocalyptic. Considering all that was lost with the pandemic, from lives to jobs to normal routines, sports were a crutch to get fans through difficult times.
For the next few months, no major sports events were held, and many assumed that sports would be canceled for the remainder of the year, maybe even longer. However, that all changed on Thursday, June 4. The NBA, the first professional sports league in the United States to suspend its season, voted to continue the 2019-2020 NBA season in Orlando. 22 teams would be invited back to continue the season, and all would be sequestered and isolated from the rest of society for the next few months. The NBA “Bubble” had begun.
The NBA Bubble was considered to be a radical, unattainable idea from its inception. Would players really agree to leave their loved ones for up to three months? Besides for the players and coaches of the 22 teams, what of the hundreds of NBA staff members, news media reporters and day-to-day employees behind the scenes in a regular NBA season? What if a player violated the Bubble and/or tested positive for COVID-19. How would the NBA ensure that everyone sequestered would not be at risk of the deadly virus? All of these factors made the Bubble scenario a daunting and infeasible task for the NBA.
Yet, the NBA seemed to have taken all precautions and measures into consideration. Firstly, in terms of players and staff willing to continue the season, the NBA had a great turnout. Only 10 players from the entire league decided to opt-out of the season before it would resume on July 30, 2020. Additionally, another major reason many players agreed to resume the season was to advocate for social change and justice within American society. Amidst the pandemic, protests erupted across the nation in response to the killing of George Floyd by police officers, as well as previous police shootings. NBA players agreed to enter the Bubble on the condition that they could use their platforms as players to advocate for social justice within the United States, as well as urging communities across the nation to vote in the upcoming presidential election.
As a result of this agreement, players chose slogans urging for social justice to print upon their jerseys alongside their names. Additionally, each NBA court facility had the Black Lives Matter branding on its courts, as well as advertisements urging viewers to vote. Thus, with players’ requests acceded to, many more were willing to return. By listening and communicating with the needs and the wants of its players the NBA was able to successfully have an overwhelming majority of players — from eligible teams — return to Orlando.
Secondly, in terms of games and housing for players, the NBA partnered with Disney and had all 22 teams stay in Disney World Resorts in Orlando. The teams and their staff filled four hotels owned by Disney and played on three NBA regulation courts. Additionally, limited media and personnel were allowed into the sequestered area, although no fans were allowed in. In terms of numbers, each team would have up to 37 people, including players and coaches, allowed into the Bubble. As the season would progress, each player would be able to bring an additional four guests with them to the Bubble, preferably other family members. Overall, the NBA was able to coordinate a vast and complicated endeavor where players and their staff could play professional basketball while being sequestered from the rest of humanity.
Thirdly, in regard to testing and quarantine protocols, the NBA had a rigorous and comprehensive arrangement where players could reside without the possibility of contracting COVID-19. Before players entered the Bubble, each had to be tested for the virus. If they tested negative, they had to quarantine themselves within their hotel rooms in the Bubble, for 48 hours. Players that tested positive would have to quarantine within their homes for an additional two weeks and would only be allowed to enter the sequestered area after they received a negative test result after that period of time. Additionally, players within the Bubble would be tested regularly, even daily, under certain circumstances.
Lastly, in regard to players leaving or violating Bubble protocols, the NBA had strict measures in place to stop a violation of the rules from spreading the deadly virus throughout the NBA. Anyone leaving the Bubble, with permission from the NBA, would have to be quarantined for at least four days, assuming they tested negative each day they were out of the Bubble. Those who left without permission of the NBA would be subject to at least 10 days of isolated quarantine as well as constant and extensive COVID-19 testing. Additionally, the NBA set up a controversial “Snitch Hotline” for players who saw others violating safety and medical protocols and wished to stay anonymous. Altogether, the NBA managed to set up a great system for preventing the spread of COVID-19 within the Bubble, as well as ensuring the safety and health of its staff and players.
In contrast to the NBA Bubble initiative, other professional sports organizations had looked to other solutions to still be able to play and reduce the risk of spreading the virus. For example, the MLB’s plan was to have teams only play nearby opponents to mitigate the risk of travel as well as having masking and social distancing protocols for anyone not playing at that point in time. Additionally, players would be regularly tested for COVID-19 as well as a daily temperature test before entering the stadium. The NFL has a similar policy to the MLB in regard to testing, although it is allowing all teams to play each other despite the travel concerns. Additionally, the NFL has allowed a number of teams to have live fans at a reduced capacity during regular season games. Despite initiatives taken by the MLB and the NFL, critics of these initiatives are concerned about how successful these policies will be at curbing COVID-19. They point out that although teams can regulate their players’ behavior within team facilities, it is virtually impossible to monitor player behavior when they return home to their communities and families, thus creating an opportunity for the virus to spread further.
Unfortunately, critics’ concerns have become a reality. Throughout the continuing MLB season, numerous teams have had COVID-19 outbreaks, prompting many games to be rescheduled, or even having teams play twice in one day. The Miami Marlins alone had at least 20 players test positive for the virus. The NFL is currently facing a similar dilemma. On Tuesday, Sept. 29, it was reported that three players and five staff members of the Tennessee Titans tested positive for COVID-19, and it’s unknown, at this point, how many more are infected. Overall, the plans and policies of the MLB and the NFL were unsuccessful in truly curbing the spread of the virus within their own organizations.
Conversely, the NBA Bubble has been surprisingly successful. Throughout the continuation of the NBA regular season in Orlando, not a single case of COVID-19 has occurred within the Bubble. Completing their aspirations of a massive operation, the NBA achieved success with their Bubble system due to a few significant factors. Firstly, they communicated and listened to the needs of their players, creating a mutually beneficial situation for all its constituents. Secondly, the NBA managed to find a location, as well as facilities, that were able to accommodate all the NBA teams and their staff. Lastly, the NBA created a successful and comprehensive set of rules and policies regarding quarantining and testing for COVID-19. All of these factors contributed to the NBA Bubble creating an environment where players could continue their season without the risk of contracting COVID-19.
The success of the NBA Bubble sets an important precedent for these troubling times. It gives insight to a way a group or organization can function while curbing the spread of the deadly virus. The initiative was costly, but successful, for the NBA and may offer an alternative approach for smaller groups willing to isolate themselves together in order to be successful in future endeavors that require in-person communication. As a result of the success of the NBA in continuing their season safely, companies, universities and other organizations may choose to use a Bubble format for their constituents, rather than look to virtual options. Although the Bubble does not solve the COVID-19 pandemic, it offers a temporary solution for many to continue their daily lives as they once had.
Photo caption: ESPN Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex, where the NBA “Bubble” was housed.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons