Many sports leagues are trying to resume play amidst the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic for economic reasons, trying to salvage whatever they can from this year. But it’s fascinating to hear commissioners claim, despite all evidence to the contrary, that it’s not money that’s driving them. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman did just that last month, telling Yahoo’s Daniel Roberts that “Monetization is not what’s driving us…We’re doing this because we’re hearing from our fans that they want to see us back.” And now, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has joined that camp, telling reporters in a conference call Friday that the league will go ahead with its planned July 30 restart in Orlando despite record-setting COVID-19 cases emerging there and despite 16 of the NBA’s players testing positive for the disease this week. Some quotes, via Howard Beck of Bleacher Report and Mark Medina of USA Today:
He adds, "We have developed a safe and responsible plan" for the restarted season, and that NBA believes personnel will be safer on its campus at Disney than elsewhere.
— Howard Beck (@HowardBeck) June 26, 2020
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on a conference call: "No options are risk free right now. As we’ve seen with millions of people losing their jobs and healthcare, shutting down the economy is a big risk as well as not having the safeguards to restore it."
— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) June 26, 2020
Adam Silver: "We ultimately believe it will be safer on our campus than outside it."
— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) June 26, 2020
To start with, the NBA is not left with “no choice.” There is absolutely a choice to not resume this season. As per a piece from Forbes‘ Kurt Badenhausen in February, the average NBA franchise value at that point was $2.2 billion (up 14 percent year over year), with the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors joining the New York Knicks in the category of franchises with an estimated value of more than $4 billion. The team with the lowest estimated value was the Memphis Grizzlies, which still clocked in with an estimated value of $1.3 billion. (And they in particular might have some loss mitigation help ahead from their arena deal with local governments.)
The NBA itself extended its line of credit to $1.2 billion in March, so there’s plenty of money in this particular banana stand at the moment. And they were able to do that because of guaranteed revenues ahead. The league currently makes an average of $2.66 billion annually just from its national TV deals with Turner and ESPN, to say nothing of its local deals. (Also, even no conclusion to the 2019-2020 season would not entirely wipe out that amount of already-paid money; negotiating TV refunds for unplayed games will likely be complicated, but most of this season was played, even if the playoffs were not, so it would not be a 100 percent refund from the networks.)
And the NBA already pulled in plenty of revenue from ticket sales, advertising and so on for this season before the March shutdown. Even excluding the franchise owners’ personal wealth (which is well beyond even the team values), these teams and this league are not in particular danger of going away or needing government help to stay afloat (even if some teams have already tried to exploit that) if they don’t finish the 2019-20 season.
Yes, the NBA’s teams absolutely may wind up parting ways with even more staffers than they already have if there’s no 2019-20 season resumption. That’s probably especially true on the non-basketball side. And we could see them make further austerity cuts in other areas. But those are moves about making the current bottom line as good as possible, not ensuring the survival of the teams. So it’s not that there’s “no choice”; the NBA is making an intentional choice to try and resume play. The merits of that choice can be debated, but it clearly is a choice.
Beyond that, it feels absurd for Silver to claim that “We ultimately believe it will be safer on our campus than outside it.” Yes, the world is dangerous right now. But sitting at home with only trips out for essential needs is absolutely safer than going to this Orlando “bubble.” A NBA game involves far more close proximity than anything else players are doing right now, and even checking players for COVID-19 before they’re allowed in the bubble is not a perfect solution; there are still countless ways for players involved to get COVID-19 and then spread it.
The league can argue that their protocols are the best they can do, and they can argue that those protocols are good enough for resumption. And if the players agree to sign off on them, that’s a decision they can make. But it’s ridiculous and paternalistic for the NBA commissioner to claim that players will be safer inside a “bubble,” where they’ll be regularly in close proximity with other players and staffers, than they would be by quarantining in their own houses. This is not primarily about keeping players safe; it’s about resuming the season. And framing it as a way to keep players safer than they would be on their own is disingenuous at best.
With all that said, the NBA clearly can still try to go ahead and restart. The only people who could stop that restart at this point are the players (who have signed off on this deal), Florida authorities (who have made it pretty clear that they’ll welcome “all professional sports“), and the Disney officials responsible for opening their facilities to the NBA (and they’re probably not making that call on their own). And arguments can be made that the NBA’s restart plan is as safe as possible, and that it’s a risk worth taking. And the new camera angles and so on discussed may make this appealing for some fans, and while Silver’s “We’re coming back because sports matter in our society. They bring people together when they need it the most” line is silly on several levels, there are absolutely some people who will find some joy in watching the NBA resume play here.
But it’s absurd for Silver to frame this as something the NBA has been forced into. It’s an intentional choice they’re making, and it should be discussed as such. And it’s also ridiculous for him to claim that this will ultimately be safer for players than personal quarantine would be; everything we know about this virus so far suggests the opposite. And yes, “no options are risk-free right now,” but the options of staying home and only going out for essentials (or having essentials delivered to you) seem much safer than flying to Orlando to be in close proximity with a ton of other players, coaches and staffers.
The NBA can absolutely go on with their restart plans, especially now that the players’ association has signed off. But it’s a choice they’re making, and it’s a choice they’re making for financial reasons. And they’re making that choice for reasons of minimizing the hit they’re taking this year, not ensuring the survival of their teams; their teams would absolutely all survive even if they didn’t resume this season. Silver can say whatever he wants, but even a brief look at the state of the league reveals that his comments aren’t accurate.