On March 11, the NBA was forced to postpone its first game, between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic—reshaping the NBA for months to come.
Although games continued that night, the next day all games came to a halt and the NBA ultimately decided to suspend the season for several months. After much deliberation, the league set up a bubble in Orlando, Florida, inviting the 22 teams in playoff contention. These teams quarantined themselves in their designated hotels for ten days upon arrival and continued to complete daily testing after being cleared for play.
Three months later, there have been no positive tests in the Orlando bubble and the NBA playoffs are in full swing.
With all the success this format has had combating the virus, the question is raised: Have the NBA and commissioner Adam Silver set the bar with a captivating and sustainable solution for sports during COVID-19 ?
Junior and GDS varsity basketball player Elias Rodriguez thinks the bubble has checked all the right boxes for excitement and was quick to praise Silver.
“It raised my respect for Adam Silver [and] what he’s been able to do with completely eliminating the virus within there,” he said, “The gameplay has been really great. Guys are really going at each other.”
SiriusXM sports radio producer Adam Mendelson agrees with Rodriguez that the NBA bubble is competitive and exciting while it keeps everyone safe from the virus.
“If you’re worried about health and safety, they’ve done a great job there. If you’re worried about the quality of play, I think they’ve done a great job there as well. I think it’s gone as well as anyone could have hoped,” Mendelson said.
Rodriguez also cited the unique bubble format as a contributor to the uptake in competition in the bubble. He includes the rise of Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, Pacers forward TJ Warren and Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell as examples of players raising their games in the bubble.
“A lot of guys who were on the brink, in the bubble just let it out. Jamal Murray was good, but then he comes into the bubble and he’s an animal. Everyone knew Donovan Mitchell was good, but did they know he could perform like that and really carry his team in the playoffs? Maybe not. In the bubble he [Warren] said he enjoyed playing without a crowd and without home court advantage and just gave him a different mind set. And he went out there and he killed. You could say there is an uptick in competition but I think it’s just a natural flow as well.”
But both Rodriguez and Mendelson were caught off guard by the 27 percent decrease in viewership ratings (according to Sports Illustrated). Rodriguez attributed the decrease to more daytime games and more blowout games in the Eastern Conference. When questioned about whether player and team protests after the shooting of Jacob Blake and other protests of racism throughout the bubble contributed to viewership dropoff, Rodriguez said that he believes it unfortunately could be a significant factor.
“I think that could absolutely be a factor in less viewership. I think there’s two sides to why people view less,” Rodriguez said. “One, people don’t necessarily support the Black Lives Matter movement and in their own protest they’re protesting the NBA. The other side of the bill, people could think it’s performative activism. That the NBA is standing up for this stuff cause it’s really great publicity.”
Unlike Rodriguez, Mendelson is unwilling to point to one specific factor which could be causing a NBA viewership decline: “We’ve never had playoff basketball in August and September before. It’s dangerous to compare two different situations like this.”
Mendelson agreed that day slated games and a lack of atmosphere have likely played a part in lower viewership but when it comes to the protests Mendelson was more cautious to make a judgment. Mendelson also commented that the new format is likely less attractive to the casual fan.
“For a casual fan, part of the reason you watch is for the atmosphere—the crowd going crazy after a play—and you clearly don’t have that,” Mendelson said. “If you’re looking for just an entertainment experience, it’s harder to create that. Do I think the political statements and protests have had an impact? It would be foolish to say they haven’t. I just don’t know how much of one they’ve had. I know these protests are more visual now but players have been activists going back for a very long time. Shut up and dribble was said way before COVID. I’m not closing the door on it. I just don’t think there is enough information yet to make that judgement.”
Despite viewership drop-offs, Rodriguez believes that the NBA is still the gold standard for sports in this pandemic era. Rodriguez believes that player safety and the protesting of racial injustice vastly outweigh NBA viewership hits.
While Rodriguez seems to believe the NBA bubble is a sustainable solution, Mendelson was very hesitant about using the word “sustainable.” Mendelson was adamant that a bubble is a good fall back for tournament-like situations but doesn’t think players would agree to stay away from their families for a full season, nor should they have to.
“I don’t even think you can say for the next year we’re playing in a bubble,” he said. “I think it works now, and then I think you revisit after the season ends and you try to come up with a solution that allows players to be with their families. And allow fans to come back when it’s safe. You’re going to eventually have to start opening arenas and stadiums for teams to make the money they are accustomed to making.”
To a world at a lull, the NBA bubble has provided the excitement that fans were yearning for while also ensuring player safety. But should the virus continue to surge throughout the U.S, the bubble’s sustainability may be in question.