A Safe Return to Sports: How the NBA Bubble Succeeded - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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A Safe Return to Sports: How the NBA Bubble Succeeded

A Safe Return to Sports: How the NBA Bubble Succeeded

The spread of COVID-19 in the USA affected practically every aspect of society. Professional sports were no exception. On March 11, 2020, the NBA became one of the first professional sports leagues to suspend its season after one of the league’s stars, Rudy Gobert, tested positive for COVID-19.1 After being paralyzed for nearly four months, the NBA not only restarted its season inside the NBA Bubble (“the bubble”) in Orlando, it staged 172 games without a single player, league official, or team staff member testing positive for COVID-19.2 How exactly was the NBA able to achieve this? The success of the bubble and the safe conclusion to the 2019-2020 NBA season resulted from open collaboration between the National Basketball Players Association (“NBPA”) and the NBA.3

Following the NBA season’s suspension on March 11, 2020, NBA executives and NBPA representatives began to explore possible ways to restart the season.4 A possible solution floated in the media was converting the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida into a single campus that would host the rest of the NBA season.5 By early June 2020, the NBA board of governors and NBPA representatives approved a twenty-two team format to restart the season on July 30 in Orlando, following a bubble format.6 At the center of the agreement between the NBA and the NBPA were stringent protocols distributed in a 113-page handbook, outlining how every facet of the bubble would work.7 The handbook contained stringent rules regarding daily testing, hotel room visits, recreational activities, and even an anonymous hotline where anyone in the bubble could report violations to any protocol.8

How was the NBA able to keep such an ambitious project from collapsing for nearly 100 days? Deputy NBA Commissioner Mark Tatum credited the constant dialogue between the NBA and the NBPA and the players’ commitment to finishing the season.9 Covid-19 related disruptions have cost the NBA approximately $1.5 billion in revenues, a considerable portion of the NBA’s expected revenues.10 Subsequently, both the NBA and the NBPA had compelling business reasons to finish the season.11

However, the good relationship between the NBA and the NBPA was not limited to economic issues. On August 26, 2020, the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to play their playoff game against the Orlando Magic to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by a police officer in Wisconsin.12 The Bucks’ holdout resulted in a three-day suspension of all league activities.13 Subsequently, the remaining teams met privately to ponder whether they would boycott the rest of the playoffs, with heavyweight teams like the LA Lakers and the LA Clippers reportedly voting in favor of leaving the bubble without finishing the season.14 While there was a genuine possibility that the season would not be finished, the NBA and NBPA came together to reach an agreement to finish the season.15 Per the agreement, team owners would offer stadiums across the country to serve as polling stations for the upcoming 2020 election.16 This deal supplemented a prior agreement between the NBA and the NBPA where the league allowed players to print social justice slogans, such as “Vote,” and “Black Lives Matter” on the back of their jerseys.17 The resolution of the situation highlighted the NBA and the NBPA’s disposition to work together towards the common goal of finishing the season.

The NBA’s bubble’s success raises the question of whether bubble campuses are the way to go for professional sports in the future, at least until de COVID-19 pandemic subsides. Outbreaks have hampered other professional sports leagues that opted against taking the bubble route to restart, such as the MLB and the NFL. In the MLB, the Miami Marlins had an outbreak that resulted in at least seventeen positive cases within the team just one week after the season began.18 The MLB’s solution was similar to the NBA’s: play the postseason in scattered bubble sites across the country.19 The MLB adopted the bubble approach after positive COVID-19 cases caused the postponement of 45 games during the shortened regular season.20

The NFL has also seen its young season derailed, as the league has rescheduled nearly a dozen games due to positive COVID-19 cases in several teams.21 The NFL’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, stated that although shifting to a bubble environment is an option, the league does not intend to do so at this time due to the emotional and psychological toll it may have on players.22 Furthermore, Dr. Sills indicated that the NFL’s goal is to mitigate, not eliminate the risk of infection.23 It remains to be seen if the NFL’s position on the issue changes as the playoffs draw closer or more outbreaks occur across the league.

While it is unlikely that live sports entertainment returns to normalcy until the COVID-19 pandemic is controlled, the NBA success serves as a lesson that it is possible to have professional sports while looking after the health of team players, staff, and league officials. Hopefully, by this time next year, there will not be a need for more bubbles.

  1. See Scott Cacciola & Sopan Deb, N.B.A. Suspends Season After Player Tests Positive for Coronavirus, N.Y. Times (Mar. 11, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/11/sports/basketball/nba-season-suspended-coronavirus.html [https://perma.cc/FK6V-35BE].

  2. See Adam Lashinsky & Brian O’Keefe, How the NBA kept the bubble from bursting, Fortune (Oct. 15, 2020, 6:30 AM), https://fortune.com/longform/nba-bubble-2020-orlando-florida-disney-covid-19-coronavirus-pandemic-los-angeles-lakers-lebron-james-basketball/ [https://perma.cc/TL5L-U55H].

  3. See Ben Golliver, The NBA’s bubble held for two months. League executives won’t celebrate for two more weeks., Wash. Post (Sept. 30, 2020, 4:30 AM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/road-to-recovery/2020/09/30/nba-bubble-finals-success/ [https://perma.cc/D879-86EH].

  4. See Sopan Deb & Marc Stein, N.B.A. in Talks to Resume Season at Walt Disney World Resort, N.Y. Times (May 23, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/23/sports/basketball/nba-disney-world-orlando.html [https://perma.cc/WNZ9-WB27].

  5. See id.

  6. See Adrian Wojnarowski, NBA approves 22-team format to finish season, ESPN (June 4, 2020), https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/29267294/source-nba-approves-plan-return-orlando [https://perma.cc/WLS5-ZXRZ]; see also Adrian Wojnarowski, NBPA reps vote to approve 22-team format to finish season, ESPN (June 5, 2020), https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/29272443/sources-nbpa-reps-approve-22-team-format-finish-season [https://perma.cc/RE6Y-LHG6].

  7. See Sopan Deb & Scott Cacciola, The N.B.A. is Coming Back. There Are 113 Pages of New Rules, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/article/nba-return-health-rules.html [https://perma.cc/BT76-NJAX].

  8. See id.

  9. See Golliver, supra note 3.

  10. See Lashinsky & O’Keefe, supra note 2.

  11. See Golliver, supra note 3.

  12. See Lashinsky & O’Keefe, supra note 2.

  13. See Golliver, supra note 3.

  14. See Ben Cohen, NBA Players Will End Boycott and Resume the Playoffs, Wall St. J. (Aug. 27, 2020, 1:41 PM), https://www.wsj.com/articles/nba-players-will-end-boycott-and-resume-the-playoffs-11598550082 [https://perma.cc/GHV3-E2V4].

  15. See Lashinsky & O’Keefe, supra note 2.

  16. See id.

  17. See id.

  18. See Ray Sanchez & David Close, Miami Marlins’ season on hold after more players test positive for Covid-19, CNN (July 28, 2020), https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/28/us/mlb-miami-marlins-coronavirus-spt-trnd/index.html [https://perma.cc/2RHT-ZEJF].

  19. See ESPN News Serv., MLB postseason games to be played at bubble sites, beginning with division series, ESPN (Sept. 15, 2020), https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/29891648/sources-mlb-mlbpa-agree-hold-playoffs-bubble-setting [https://perma.cc/7BBJ-R2J4].

  20. See id.

  21. See Kevin Seifert, NFL’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills Against Shifting to Bubble Environment, ESPN (Oct. 13, 2020), https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/30108928/nfl-chief-medical-officer-dr-allen-sills-shifting-bubble-environment [https://perma.cc/6VE5-WT56].

  22. Id.

  23. Id.

Ricardo del Campillo

Ricardo del Campillo is a second-year J.D. candidate at Fordham University School of Law and a staff member of the Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal. He holds a B.A. in History and International Relations from Boston College.