The NBA has been the canary in the coal mine for the COVID-19 in the US. The outbreak among Utah Jazz players and the immediate suspension of the remainder of the season by the NBA sent shockwaves in all directions.
In the months since, the larger US response to the COVID pandemic as a public health crisis has been a disaster. Over 150,000 people are dead and the toll shows no sign of stopping soon.
Meanwhile, on June 4 the NBA decided to go ahead with a plan to complete the season. There's little doubt that the league reached that decision for financial reasons. The NBA is a business and needs to function.
The Orlando "Bubble" the NBA devised is a useful lesson in how to cope with the virus and make the best of a very difficult situation.
The NBA may be a business but the league recognizes that the sport cannot be successful if players don't have a voice. Buy-in from the NBA Players Association is critical.
One of the big reasons is that players don't have to participate. Some have opted out.
From early skepticism, players are coming around. Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors recently said: “I think this thing will work perfectly. I think the league, the players, the players association, has done a phenomenal job of making sure that we’re doing everything we can possibly do to make sure that we’re healthy, we’re safe and we’re in an environment where we can be successful and do our job at a high level.”
It's clear that the NBA has invested a great deal of thought into how to make the Orlando Bubble work - along with a reported $150 million dollars.
A big emphasis has been on testing. The reason is obvious. For the bubble to work, it must be virus free and the only way to make sure of that is to test.
Players were tested before traveling to Orlando and are tested daily in the bubble. That's just part. The league created a 113-page health and safety plan that includes policies on testing, hotel and food accommodations, and arena facility cleaning procedures.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases, reviewed the plan and gave it the thumbs up. “What they are really trying to do, and I think they might very well be quite successful with it, is to create a situation where it is as safe as it possibly can be for the players by creating this bubble and testing everyone. Make sure you start with a baseline of everybody being negative and trying to make sure there is no influx into that cohort of individuals and do a tournament-type play. It’s not the classic basketball season, but certainly for the people who are thirsting for basketball, who love basketball like I do, it’s a sound plan.”
Games haven't started yet, but from the scrimmages that have been broadcast, it's clear the NBA is out to create a unique made-for-TV product that fans will like. Obviously there are no fans in the building but there looks to be plenty of audio and visual excitement. Players look comfortable. The atmosphere is compelling. It should be very good theater. The TV revenue is said to be worth $1 billion.
Despite all the precautions the NBA is taking in creating the Orlando bubble, a few cases could send the project crashing to the ground. But that's a risk they are willing to take - and the players are on board. The flip side is that this experiment may just work and set a bright example for how organizations and businesses can step up and make things work under such adverse conditions.
Success could be a lesson that resonates across the US. Let's hope so.