“Sports was the canary in the coal mine,” Pete Giorgio, a principal at Deloitte who leads the firm’s US Sports Practice, told CNN Business. “[Coronavirus] wasn’t ‘real’ in the US until then, in a way — it was a thing that was happening overseas. And then that quickly changed.”
Nine months later, it’s clear NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s decision to suspend play was prescient. But at the time, he was the first to upend a league’s delicately balanced ecosystem of stakeholders with vested interests, from arena sponsors to broadcast networks to the players themselves.
The trio of NBA leaders now found themselves facing dual crises: How to safely return to play during a global pandemic while confronting a national reckoning on race?
“[In March] we didn’t know half of what we know now about this virus, yet you have to make decisions about how you’re going to move forward,” Giorgio said. “It takes a lot of courage — and a lot of risk-taking.”
Building the bubble
“Adam had to gain consensus from a group of so many stakeholders — it must have been like herding cats,” said Andrew Brandt, host of the podcast “Business of Sports” and executive director at Villanova University’s Moorad Center for Sports Law. “You have the league and players, the team ownership interested in ticket and sponsorship revenue, [teams from] smaller markets who have different financial considerations, the networks, the events.”
Yet just as soon as the league paused the season, an even more challenging decision presented itself: how to start it up again.
Roberts and Paul spent months working with Silver and other league officials — along with legal, medical and business experts — to discuss the daunting details, from players’ personal concerns to Covid protocols to financial considerations. Their work culminated in a 100-plus-page document outlining a six-phase plan to transition into and out of the bubble, where the full season would be played.
Twenty-two of the league’s 30 teams — those within six games of a postseason berth on the day play was suspended — went into that bubble, a closed campus at Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando. Players would live, play and practice there, in closely monitored isolation, from July to October. The plan detailed everything from sanitizing basketballs and covering referees’ whistles to catch spittle, to setting daily testing and isolation guidelines.
The ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ power of players in one place
Battling Covid-19 wasn’t the only issue permeating that first night of games back on July 30. There was another challenge prominently on display — one that had been building long before the coronavirus pandemic.
“It all just came to a head and guys started really communicating and started realizing that you don’t have to just shut up and dribble,” Paul told CNN’s Don Lemon during the 2020 Citizen by CNN conference in September.
“Usually after the game, you just say, ‘Oh, how’s your family’ and you go your separate ways,” Paul added. “We really got a chance to connect in the bubble…to sit down at the table and figure out what we want our plan to be going forward. It was really good dialogue that happened, and I think that that was very important.”
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for everyone to gather in a ballroom to hash out this important discussion about whether they should be playing,” said Brandt. “It’s the collective power to implement change, in action.”
Speaking broadly about social justice, Silver told Bob Costas at the Citizen by CNN conference that “I do want people to see this as the values of this league,” adding that such issues “are clearly endemic to this league where 80% of its players are Black. These are issues uniquely important, [ones] that this league has been speaking out about for such a long period.”
The 2021 plan introduces other logistical challenges, too, with factors like the Tokyo Summer Olympics potentially encroaching on players’ schedules. But for Silver, Paul, Roberts and the rest of the NBA, it’s just another complication they’ll have to reckon with after a season like no other.
“Again, it’s something we’re going to have to work through,” Silver told Costas about the Olympics. “These are highly unique and unusual circumstances…and we’re just going to have to sort of find a way to meld and mesh those competing considerations.”