Why Finishing the 2019-20 NBA Season Overseas Might Be the Only Viable Option
It’s been nearly two long months since the NBA suspended operations. Amid a growing COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, the Association and other professional sports leagues are still unsure how play will resume, if at all.
Restarting operations is an issue of safety and morality. Between the players, coaches, medical professionals, and television crews, each game will demand a contingency plan for dozens of people.
There have been a number of suggested ways the NBA could re-start in a truncated forum, and several places have been proposed. To finish the 2019-20 season safely, the NBA should look abroad.
The problem with playing in the US
Without getting too political or over-extending as someone who is decidedly not a healthcare or policy expert, there seem to be two glaring barriers here in the US that would make resuming play impossible in the near term.
As of early May, the testing capacity in the United States simply isn’t robust enough. Even at the lowest estimate, health professionals suggest the country needs to conduct 500,000 tests a day (others advocate for many, many more). Currently, we’re testing about 200,000 folks a day. John Oliver offers a great summary of this problem.
Resuming the NBA would mean having the entire operation - hundreds of people - quarantining and isolating in a specific location. Even so, there would need to be rigorous, daily testing to ethically put folks together in an arena and play basketball. Even if the NBA could somehow procure the necessary testing for each person and game, it would be a public relations nightmare so long as sick people in this country still can’t be tested.
Second, knowing where to actually play in the US feels like an unsafe shot in the dark. Las Vegas, Orlando, and other cities have been proposed, but as the Washington Post reported, social distancing just hasn’t been successful enough to limit the spread of the virus. As a result, knowing where the next COVID hotspot will be is a near impossibility.
Even if the NBA can collectively quarantine in Disney World or Las Vegas, doing so in a safe or moral way feels like a pipe-dream at best. The league can’t afford to accidentally become the next Carnival Cruise or Biogen, and more to the point, basketball isn’t worth playing with such obvious fire. Likewise, any situation that would put players or team personnel at unnecessary risk is also a no-go.
The Association needs to settle on a location where COVID cases are in decline and where diagnostic and antibody testing is ubiquitous, to say nothing of basketball infrastructure. Unfortunately, it seems any place in the US is weeks away from meeting the above criteria.
According to the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, “if any Regular Season or Playoff games are cancelled due to...unexpected game cancellation (e.g., due to unexpected unavailability of a Team’s arena or transportation), the NBA may reschedule any such cancelled game(s) in its discretion, after consulting with the Players Association.”
Additionally, the CBA states, “The NBA shall supervise the arrangements made with respect to games conducted outside the United States and Canada and the accommodations provided to participating players.”
There are a number of logistical roadblocks, but playing abroad might be the best bet for bringing back NBA basketball. Here’s a few options:
Where and how the virus has hit hardest is still a bit of a mystery. This New York Times piece is an excellent primer on global perspective. For a complicated set of reasons, however, there are a few nations around the world that have either avoided a massive COVID spread or have otherwise mitigated the situation to a reasonable degree.
Perhaps no country on earth has had as much success in stoping the spread of COVID within its borders as South Korea. Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres recently said he hopes the world follows the nation’s “remarkable example.”
The Korean Baseball Organization could also offer an example of what happens next for American sports. The KBO started its season this week with no hands, no high-fives, no spitting, and masks worn by anyone not on the playing field. A truncated version, but much better than nothing at all.
In this scenario, the regular season would have to be abandoned. The NBA would need to relocate all sixteen playoff teams and their staff, a difficult barrier no doubt. Upon arrival, the league convoy would need to quarantine for two weeks in an isolated place like an unused resort or university.
Adam Silver and Co. would still need to pay for testing, and probably donate an equivalent amount of medical supplies. The NBA has no right to take advantage of or exploit South Korea’s success and good fortune.
South Korea’s own professional basketball league cancelled the remainder of its own season back in March. Because relocating the NBA overseas would need buy in from so many parties, selecting a site with a notorious enthusiasm for basketball could be helpful.
Australia has, at the time of this writing, seemed to have avoided the perils of a full-blown outbreak. The number of confirmed cases in a country of 25 million people is less than seven thousand. The country has one of the finest healthcare systems in the world, and acted swiftly in the early stages of the epidemic.
I reached out to the American Consulate in Melbourne to learn more about this scenario. In an email, it was explained that as of April, visas would only be granted to international travelers on an “emergency basis.” That said, Australia and New Zealand - another country that has seemed to mitigate COVID effectively - are reportedly in talks to open up some amount of travel. Because the Australian government seems comfortable painting policy in shades of gray, perhaps there is an appetite for fostering the NBA.
Because of Australia’s appetite for professional basketball, there are plenty of venues that could be used. Likewise, the country’s love of the game could drum up the support a ludacris plan like this would need.
Each year Australia hosts India in cricket, one of the sport’s premier global events. But because the COVID crisis is far from over in India, the October tilt is in considerable doubt. The visit brings in nearly $200 American dollars in business - could adopting the NBA for a season help offset Australian losses?
Germany’s Bundesliga will reportedly be given the go-ahead to resume action in the next few days.It will be the first major European soccer organization to restart professional games.
The organizing body, the German Football League (DFL) has been allowing teams to train in isolation since mid-April. The reported DFL plan would not feature fans, and regular testing of players.
Like South Korea and Australia, Germany has been mostly successful in avoiding the worst of any potential outbreak. Likewise, these three countries share positive diplomatic relationships with the United States. For any of these plans to work, there would need to be coordination among policy makers, health experts, and the private sector.
Playing in Europe as opposed to Australia or East Asia makes slotting games for an American audience back home a little easier. This is an entertainment product, after all - once all the health and safety boxes have been checked, the NBA needs to decide if such a radical change would be economically feasible. ESPN just got the rights to air the Bundesliga in 2019. There will need to be buy-in from the television partners.
On May 4th, the DFL reported in a blanket test of 1,724 players and staff, there were ten confirmed cases of COVID. It is awaiting another round of testing.
The above numbers highlight the obvious challenge of restarting any sports league. Even among professional athletes in one of the countries where COVID has been largely minimized, the virus remains an omnipresent threat.
If the NBA is going to resume play - in Las Vegas or Providence, in Berlin or Seoul - it would be asking its host city to take on some level of risk. The league, its players, and any potential partner in any scenario would need to be incredibly diligent and disciplined to conclude the 2019-20 season in safe and ethical way.