The NBA continues to do a great deal of talking about re-starting the 2019-20 season in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. It remains just talk, two months and counting since the league opened the floodgates of suspended games and seasons on March 11. But as a glimmer of hope to fans hoping the NBA will return to the court sooner rather than later, the talk is accelerating its pace.
According to the Los Angeles Times earlier this week, NBA players received a text from its union polling the rank and file about their feelings about returning to play despite the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. The Times estimated that returning to play had about a 70-percent share of the vote which is a bit of a change since earlier in the month when players seemed skeptical about the idea, as reported at Sports Intel. This came on the heels of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver conducting a teleconference with players last Friday, outlining the league’s position on several issues and stressing that the situation remains fluid.
Then on Monday, resuming the season was discussed on a select players’ teleconference, led Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul, the president of the players’ union. Participants included some of the biggest names in the game: Lakers forwards LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook, Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant.
In a conference call with reporters on April 17, Silver reiterated that the league intends to resume play before the end of the calendar year, a decision rooted as much in human resolve to resume normal life activities as an economic imperative to keep the league financially solvent. “Our revenue, in essence, has dropped to zero,” Silver said during the call. “That’s having a huge financial impact on the team business and the arena business.”
Faced with a dire financial outlook, the league has mapped out several scenarios that would call for resuming the 2019-20 season in late summer and pushing the start of the ’20-21 season to December.
The most-discussed scenario calls for the league’s players, coaches, referees, media, and support staff to inhabit “bubbles” at cities like Las Vegas and Orlando, separated from the rest of society in virtually hermetically-sealed environments, buttressed by daily testing to prevent virus outbreaks.
MGM Resorts International in Las Vegas has reportedly offered the league access to a fully quarantined area, and Tuesday, publicly unveiled a seven-point plan to reopen its Las Vegas casinos.
But for all the talk, the league is still far away from actually seeing a plan come to fruition. Testing remains an enormous obstacle. Nationwide testing remains out of reach, and though the NBA can likely procure enough testing kits, the public relations nightmare of star players receiving tests while ordinary citizens cannot backfire badly on a league highly sensitive to PR.
When Utah Jazz players were tested in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s diagnosis in mid-March that caused the NBA to suspend operations, there was a backlash, as testing for the general public remained elusive. Little has changed in the two months since then, and justifying thousands of tests for millionaire athletes in the current state of the pandemic would be an incredibly hard sell to a sheltered-in-place populace.
But if the league can overcome all those obstacles, the final hurdle would certainly be an internal issue: Convincing the players to leave their families behind for weeks on end, perhaps even months, and submitting to rigorous quarantining. But with players losing money with each week that goes by – players’ salaries are directly affected by league revenue – such a radical plan might not be that hard of a sell.
In the past few weeks, Clark County, where the NBA could resume play in Las Vegas, confirmed cases increased from 2,500 to 4,900, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. In the past week, there have been 400 new confirmed cases.
However, in the Orlando area – the site of ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex where NBA games could be played – there have been approximately 500 new confirmed cases in the past month, going from 949 to 1,500. But after no more than 19 cases in a single day through the first 10 days of May, there were 34 new confirmed cases on Tuesday.
But even if the league is able to resume playing, even one outbreak among players or staff could bring the curtain down once again.
“What do we do if we come back and a player tests positive?” T.O. Souryal, the medical director at a Texas sports medicine clinic, told the Los Angeles Times. “Until they have an answer for that, I don’t see the NBA or hockey or any other close-quarter team sport coming back anytime soon.”