With a year like no other, the sporting world was dealt a profoundly complicated challenge throughout 2020. The safety and moral implications of challenging a global pandemic with the continuation of a domestic league had implications beyond that impacted far beyond those competing.
There are few domestic organisations within elite sport that can claim to have experienced such a dramatic year as the NBA, let alone succeeding against those challenges.
The very first day of 2020 saw the death of David Stern, the NBA’s longest-serving commissioner of 30 years. He was widely considered the sports’ most successful,, guiding the league into a digital age, turning it into the international phenomenon that it has become today. The league has grown continuously throughout that period, with the NBA reported to be worth $8.76 billion in revenue in 2018-19, compared to $3.68 billion in 2011-12.
At the start of 2020, Forbes understood the average valuation of an NBA franchise at the start of 2020 to be $1.65 billion, increasing by over 20% in just one year.
Despite the monumental growth in recent times, the start of the year saw yet more devastation in the opening month.
Just one day after global icon Lebron James passed his scoring tally to become the third highest scorer of all-time, Los Angeles Lakers icon Kobe Bryant tragically passed away in a helicopter crash north of Los Angeles on the way to watch his daughter play in a Basketball tournament. The only player to ever have two numbers retired by the same franchise, Kobe had a memorial held in his honour, along with his daughter, Gianna, who also died in the accident at Staples centre on the 24th February; an event to which 20,000 people attended inside the arena.
Despite the emergence of the virus the early time of it’s prominence, the traditional All-Star weekend event took place in Chicago, with the All star game itself on February 16th. The game undertook a new format, allowing opportunities for financial support to worthwhile charities as well as a tribute to Kobe Bryant and his impact on the modern game of Basketball. Giannis Antetokounmpo, better known in England for his range of Basketball shoes with global powerhouse Nike, as well as Lebron James, also with his own range of shoes, captained the two teams.
The impact of COVID-19 – The COVID Bubble
With the impact of COVID becoming more known to the west in the immediate aftermath of the All-Star Weekend, Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz mocked the league’s precautions by openly touching a series of microphones at the end of a socially distanced interview. Just 2 days later, he became the first player to test positive for the virus. The league acted immediately, postponing the season for the foreseeable future. The news came less than a week after superstar Steph Curry made his long-awaited return following a broken wrist that forced him to miss 58 games, another considerable blow to the league.
Faced with a crossroads for the trajectory of the remainder of the season, it took until June 4th for the NBA Board of Governors to approve a 22-team format to resume the season on July 30th. The new format would be held at one single location, ESPN’s Wide World of Sports at Disney’s complex in Florida.
Whilst ambitious, the objective from the NBA was to hold the entirety of there remainder of the 2019-20 season inside a COVID-secure bubble, thus minimising any risk of transmission between any player, coach, staff member or official involved. With a huge 220-acre complex available, the NBA provided hotel accommodation, golf and leisure opportunities, a variety of food and drink options and even a barber shop. Disney owns 18 hotels and, although they wouldn’t all be utilised, had more than enough space to accommodate the 22-teams in attendance. Another considerable impact to the decision process was the fact that ESPN and Disney were the NBA’s largest customer, paying an estimated $1.4 billion per year to broadcast games.
In order to be successful, the league would have to ensure the safety of everyone involved for the full duration of the league which, for those involved in the Finals, would run from the end of July through to the 11th October, when the Lakers finally toppled the Miami Heat in 6 games to claim their first Championship in a decade.
The Remainder of the Season
Incredibly, that was exactly what happened. Not a single case occurred throughout the remainder of the season, allowing all present, focus entirely on the Basketball. Three scrimmage games provided a return to sharpness before the remaining 8 regular season games completed the final standings for the 16 playoff berths, beginning on August 17th.
Shock exits for the favoured Milwaukee Bucks, home of the league’s Most Valuable Player Giannis, and the heavily-touted Los Angeles Clippers in their respective Conference Semi-Finals opened the door for the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers to emerge as Conference Champions of the East and West respectively.
The two began their showdown on 30th October with LA running out to a 3-1 lead in the best of 7 series. Despite a heroic effort from Jimmy Butler to salvage game 5 for Miami, a Lebron James triple-double secured the title for LA along with his fourth, claiming Finals MVP in the process.
After what was comfortably the longest NBA season in history, the league demonstrated the capability to execute an operation on the scale of which hadn’t previously been seen in the modern era, no doubt attracting the attention of other major sports. With fans still not able to enter arenas around the country, the shortest off-season in history at just 72 days gave time for the league to implement new protocols for the 2020-21 season. With travel resuming and stadiums being utilised, contact tracing and strict rules on distancing, masks on the sidelines and minimal interaction after games has been enforced. Despite a positive start to the new campaign at the end of 2020, recent postponements of games due to contact tracing has raised questions as to the sustainability moving forward.
With the eagerly anticipated Olympic Games having already been delayed a calendar year, it will be interesting to see the strategies implemented throughout 2021 to deal with the ongoing pandemic at the elite levels of modern sport.