The NBA is reportedly making serious strides towards resuming the 2019-20 regular season and heading into the playoffs this summer. They’re signaling the sports world that they’re going to give it a go, with concessions to the risks brought by COVID-19. They might play in isolated “bubble” locations with players tested and sequestered. They’ll certainly eliminate access for non-essential observers, including fans. A dozen more contingencies will be laid out before the games get underway.
Today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question puts the brakes on the process to ask deeper questions: Why is the league doing this, and should they?
What do you think about starting up the season again? You’ve been pretty mum about COVID and not playing. Now the season might start and before it does I need some Dave-isms to put it in perspective. Do you feel good or bad about it and why it’s happening?
I don’t feel good about the regular season resuming. Not at all. There are plenty of reasons it shouldn’t happen, only one reason it should. As far as I can tell, the one will outweigh all the others. That said, I understand it’s not my call to make. I’m left in the position of observing and hoping fervently that nobody experiences serious consequences from the move.
Why they shouldn’t do it...
Short of a vaccine, there is no way the NBA can devise a system that’s going to remove the threat of COVID-19 from the proceedings. Every measure we’ve taken so far has been to contain the rate of outbreak, not to stop it altogether. Many countries and states have reduced the spread enough that their medical facilities could cope with it. I’m not aware of any—if so, there can’t be many—who have stopped the virus altogether.
Effectiveness in combating the pandemic has been measured by decline in the number of new incidents. If 100 people test positive today and only 40 test positive next week, we say we’ve made great strides and done our job. But 40 is not zero. The virus still exists, and is spreading. Overall, gatherings and public interaction have a reduced risk of infection. That doesn’t make any particular gathering safe.
At best, the league will be able to do what careful regions have done...reduce the likelihood of an outbreak. That’s the purpose of “bubble” locations and quarantines. Those won’t be 100% effective. The league will have to hope it gets lucky. That’s an awful gamble when you consider lives in the balance.
Three Variables the NBA Can Control
Three systemic variables tilt the odds one way or the other in this great roll of the dice: number of people exposed, type of exposure, and length/frequency of exposure. There’s no way to make the experience safe, but they could make it safer by modifying these variables. Planning to resume the regular season, even in truncated form, puts the league at the worst end of the spectrum for all three.
Number of Participants
The minimum number of teams required for a game is two. Theoretically the smallest footprint possible for resuming the season would be to have the Lakers and Bucks play a single game to determine the 2020 NBA Champion. Every game or team you add to the equation increases the risk.
Permutations are possible: Lakers and Bucks play a seven-game series, the top two teams in each conference play in preliminary series to see who makes the Finals, and so on. Full-on resumption of the regular season involves the absolute maximum number of teams possible. It literally could not be worse.
Teams are comprised of 15 players each. Multiplied by 30, that’s 450 bodies, just counting the on-court participants. Players don’t travel alone, though. Add in coaches, trainers, PR people...even with a skeleton crew you’re probably looking at doubling the entourage for each team. Now we have 800-900 people in the process.
We have not yet accounted for referees, league officials, broadcasters and their technical crews, plus arena support staff. That’s going to push the total above 1000.
But wait, there’s more. How do you feed 1000 people in a restricted bubble zone? Who cleans up after them?
Add in the ancillary food/hospitality/delivery support staff and the community climbs into the thousands. Are all those people staying sequestered in the NBA locale? If so, you now how to pay, house, and feed them 24/7. If not, your bubble is no longer a bubble. People are going in and out of it all the time.
Let’s go back to being conservative. Let’s say the grand total is 2000 with food, lodging, and every possible service accounted for. That’s 2000 potential virus vectors, jammed into proximity. Probably 75% of them are not under strict quarantine because they go home at night, cook at other venues, have days off, or whatever. What are the odds that nobody among those 2000 people catches or spreads the virus?
Type of Contact
There’s no way to prevent person-to-person contact playing basketball. You can’t sanitize the ball between passes. You can’t wear masks or avoid breathing each other’s air in huddles and locker rooms.
We won’t belabor the obvious point: the environment isn’t even close to sterile. If the virus gets in, it’s going to spread.
Length of Exposure
Playing out the regular-season schedule prolongs the amount of time teams stay in contact with each other. It will throw every player into the orbit of every other, either directly or by scarcely-removed contact. Take any random game already played this season by any team. Go back five games, marking their opponents. Then trace who each of those opponents played since then, who those teams played, and so on. Five games in, everybody will be basically 0-1 degrees of separation from each other.
Time also erodes the effectiveness of quarantine. Any group can stay inside for a day or a weekend. Stretch it out into a month and isolation becomes a joke. The longer the group stays together, the more times the isolation bubble will be broken.
For all these reasons, the words “health/safety” and “resuming regular season” are like matter and anti-matter. If you hear them in the same sentence, your brain should explode. They’ll be uttered plenty of times. That’s not what this is about.
The Experience Will Trend Towards Meaningless
We all know how the NBA season works. Everybody has a chance until they don’t. Realistically, that moment comes sooner than most of us like to admit.
We pursue the polite fiction that making the 8th spot in the playoffs bracket means something because it’s more fun that way. 8-seeds barely ever win titles. Most years, you already know who the Final Four in each conference is likely to be before the playoffs start, give or take one Cinderella. Cindy almost never makes it to the big dance.
This year, the top teams are already established. There will be some shuffling below them if the season resumes, but none of it will end up mattering except for draft order.
When the season resumes, 95% of the wins earned will have zero effect beyond its last game. The biggest effect will come from teams losing games and thus getting better draft positions.
With most teams choosing between ultimately meaningless wins and tank-incentive losses, one has to question the point of playing the games in the first place.
It’s Not the Same Without the Laugh Track
This is a minor concern compared to the other two, but it matters a little.
Have you watched Saturday Night Live lately? They’re filming homemade sketches during the pandemic. Some of it is funny stuff. Somehow it doesn’t seem as funny, though. The material sounds better than it feels.
The missing element to the heartfelt laugh is the audience. Laughter is a communal experience. When we watch SNL or listen to a comedy album, we’re not just reacting to the material, we’re participating along with others doing the same. The affirmation we get when they laugh too makes the experience seem truer and deeper. It confirms to us that we’re not alone, that this stuff really is funny and worth consuming.
Basketball isn’t going to end up much different. Watching a thunderous dunk without hearing the corresponding roar of the crowd is going to feel empty. Admit it: when you re-watch Damian Lillard’s famous series-winning buzzer-beaters against the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder, you don’t just watch the ball. You’re watching the crowd, vicariously participating through their cheers and shouts, feeling the thrill right along with them.
Now imagine those shots happened in an empty area. Imagine seeing and hearing the same swish, then silence except for a pair of commentators trying to convey how great the moment was.
We should also credit the annoyance of hearing sneakers squeak incessantly into hollow space, or the shock of hearing coaches shout and players swear clear as day. It’s cool enough in practice, but when that’s all you experience for 48 minutes, it’s not the same.
The visuals will be there when the season resumes. So will the scoreboard. The heart and the fantastic highs are likely to be muted without the community.
Having something on the line in every game, as would be true in a Conference Finals or a championship series, would make up for the lack of a crowd. somewhat Being that close to the trophy would add its own excitement. Mundane regular-season games, though? Half the people watching will have trouble mustering energy for them in the first place. The lack of accustomed feedback during the broadcast isn’t going to help.
Why They Will Do It Anyway...
The NBA probably knows all these things. They’re going to try to restart the season anyway. It’s about finances, pure and simple. I don’t mean that disparagingly. It’s a huge issue for them. Not playing out at least part of the season is going to create a financial gap so big that neither the league nor its players can envision jumping it.
2019-20 salaries are at stake, true. Since May 15th, the NBA has been holding back 25% of player paychecks because of the hiatus. Whether you’re making $2 million per year or $20 million, that’s a lot of withholding. But that’s only the beginning.
The NBA has a lucrative contract with nation-wide broadcast networks (to the tune of $2.7 billion per year) to provide games. It’s not immediately clear what remedies are available if games are not played, but you can bet the networks aren’t going to bear all of that loss themselves.
We do know for sure that regional sports networks contract with teams for a minimum of 70 games per season. Teams that don’t play that many will be forced to compensate their regional partners for failing to live up to the contract.
Add in the complete loss of ticket revenue to the television shortfall and we’re talking a hefty chunk of change.
The ripple effect of the hiatus could go beyond this season. The NBA’s salary cap is calculated based on BRI, or Basketball-Related Income, for the year prior. BRI includes TV and tickets. Revenue lost this year would theoretically lower the salary cap for the next season, potentially drastically.
It’s unlikely that the league would let this happen. They won’t insist on strict adherence to the Collective Bargaining Agreement under these circumstances. Doing so would skew the cap low, freezing out free agents this summer. It would put every team over the salary cap and most over the luxury tax threshold. To avoid this, they’re going to reach an accommodation with the players, keeping the salary cap artificially high next year no matter how much income is lost this year.
The key questions in the equation are, “How high will the cap be?” and “Who pays for the overage?” History shows the owners are not going to absorb the cost out of charitable instincts. The players aren’t going to want to reduce their salaries either. The actual settlement arrived upon matters less than the knock-down, drag-out war that’s likely to happen as the league fights itself over a dwindling pot of dollars.
Every reduction the NBA avoids this season closes the gap, easing the battle that’s likely to ensue over making up the difference next year. Players won’t risk playing in pandemic solely because they’re losing 25% of their paycheck right now. They have incentive to play because if they don’t, the whole concept of “guaranteed” in “guaranteed contract” may fly out the window next season. Even players who are signed long-term and relatively secure about their position in the league could end up taking losses in years to come. Anybody without a long-term contract—particularly 2020 free agents and players on the periphery trying to hold onto a spot in the league—has to realize that if things go wrong, this hiatus could have financial repercussions they’ll have a hard time recovering from.
With a few dissidents, you’re likely to see players and owners united in the desire to play. If we felt our jobs, and maybe our ability to make money in the future, would be severely impacted, we’d probably go to work and take our chances too. That doesn’t make it right, but that’s easy to say when it’s not your decision or livelihood.
History tells us that most ethical and safety considerations have a shelf life, expiring at the exact moment people realize that their financial future is threatened. That’s what’s happening here, which is why the league is going to move towards playing sooner rather than later...and rather than not at all.
Thanks for the question. You can keep them coming to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll take a look! For those wondering, our Top 100 List will continue over the weekend.