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Six Pressing Questions Surrounding the NBA’s Disney Bubble Idea

Can the league find a way to finish its season in Orlando? While the theme park provides all the necessary infrastructure, it also presents plenty of complications.

Ringer illustration

In the weeks since April 16, when Yahoo Sports writer Keith Smith first suggested that the NBA use Walt Disney World as a “bubble” site to resume play without fans or precedent, the idea has caught fire. The day after, Disney chairman Bob Iger made a video presentation to the NBA’s board of governors. It’s an easy pitch: Disney has the hotels, restaurants, and accommodations to house NBA players, staffers, and their families. The park’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex has the necessary basketball courts and broadcast setup; to that point, ESPN and the NBA already have a preexisting broadcast agreement. It’s the Most Well-Prepared Place on Earth.

Turning to Disney in times of crisis isn’t new. Smith, a former Disney employee, should be familiar with what happens during hurricane season. It’s an open secret that people flee to the parks and resorts to ride out natural disasters. “Honestly,” Orlando resident Pete Werner told CNN during Hurricane Dorian in September, explaining why he sent his 88-year-old mother there, “it’s the safest place to be.” Disney has its own power plant, solar farm, water treatment facilities, emergency response team, and dedicated staffers who not only provide resources for comfortable survival, but a vacation during an emergency. “If I’m going to get sick and die,” one parkgoer told The New York Times concerning the coronavirus in March, “I might as well do it at Disney World.”

Of course, nothing is official. As the country prepares to reopen, the only constant is being subject to change. The NBA can’t know what July will look like in May. It only knows that it has a select number of months to squeeze its season into, and just weeks to determine whether it’s a feasible goal. As of May, it looks like the league’s most practical bubble city. Last week, The Ringer’s Bill Simmons and Ryen Russillo detailed why the Orlando venue is more than just an intriguing idea—and may actually have legs. For the NBA at Disney to happen, significant obstacles need to be overcome. Here are my biggest questions:

When could the NBA at Disney start?

Pinpointing a location is only the first baby step: The league also has to decide how much time to give players to get back into playing shape—ideally at least three or four weeks. Before shipping an entire ecosystem to central Florida, Adam Silver must also determine how to supply and regulate widespread testing within the bubble. The optics behind mass testing present other issues, which we’ll return to in a moment.

The earliest estimates to resume play are in July. When owners asked Iger for a timeline, he said, “It’s about the data, and not the date.” Yet the data aren’t changing for the better; COVID cases are growing at 2 to 4 percent each day. Without those rates slowing down, it’s hard to see a start date speeding up. “I think we’re looking for the number of new infections to come down,” Silver said in April. The NBA may ultimately decide that, between itself and Disney, which is also rapidly losing money, enough precautions have been put in place to safely house the league. Silver works for the owners, and the owners have significant financial interest in finishing the 2019-20 season and playing a postseason.

How many regular-season games can they squeeze in before the playoffs?

Even players on terrible teams have an incentive to play at a proposed bubble site like Disney. Once a team reaches 70 games played in a season, teams fulfill their RSN (regional sports network) contracts, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. As of right now, every team has played between 63 and 67 games. Because there’s also money to be made by playing the postseason—in addition to honor and prestige, of course—teams just outside the playoff race will presumably want a fair chance at a playoff berth. During a normal season, teams average 3.5 games in a week. That means the Lakers, the team with the fewest games played at 63, could hit the 70-game marker in just two weeks.

Completing a full 82-game season seems improbable, because it’s too much to cram into the time frame the league’s working on. Likewise, some of the playoff proposals floated seem too skimpy, such as the idea of instituting a single-elimination format for the playoffs. The suggestion is so far beyond the norm that it’s hard to believe anyone would accept the winner as a bona fide NBA champion. A typical postseason takes nine weeks; the 2020 playoffs were supposed to begin on April 18 and end on June 21. If the 70-game “regular season” ended in the second week of July, a customary nine-week postseason would conclude by the second weekend in September.

What does this mean for the 2020-21 season?

Resuming the season in July instead of calling 2019-20 a scratch altogether pushes the NBA’s next season even further back. On Friday, the NBA officially delayed its May draft lottery and combine. The announcement felt like a mix of optimism—maybe the season won’t be canceled, after all—and logistics: You can’t set a draft order without the season officially ending. Free agency will almost certainly be next to be pushed back. But most importantly, the board of governors are discussing starting the 2020-21 season in December, not October.

In March, apropos of nothing COVID-related, Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin advocated for permanently opening the season in December to avoid overlapping with football and baseball. It’s not the first time the suggestion’s been made—start around Christmas; have the Finals in late August. The schedule change is logical, maybe even unavoidable in this particular situation. But moving the NBA’s start and end dates is a massive shift that the league might have never been able to do otherwise. The season is notoriously long and seemingly never-ending, from training camp in September to summer league in July. Their hand might be forced now (or, for longtime supporters of the switch, read: this is their chance), because adjusting the schedule for 2019-20 might mean permanently adjusting it. There are only so many months in a year, and the NBA already inhabits all but one.

What are the potential complications of a “bubble” city?

Werner called Disney a “self-contained city.” If it partially reopens for the NBA, the devastating risks affecting blue-collar workers in the real world will inevitably bleed back into Disney’s proverbial one. Finishing the NBA season and postseason in a bubble city, even a meticulously planned one, could endanger thousands of workers if initiated too soon.

In April, Disney World furloughed 43,000 employees. To care for 30 NBA teams—15 players per roster, coaches, medical staffs, trainers, officials, broadcast crews, and their families—means recalling quite a few of them. Isolating a hotel or two full of guests is a hazard in itself, but that’s before accounting for hotel concierges, who have to interact with the guests; maids, who have to clean where others have slept, breathed, lounged, and bathed, and who have to launder their clothes; kitchen staff and servers; and sanitation crews, both in the hotels and the arenas. When I remember March 11, the day the NBA was indefinitely postponed, I see that clip on SportsCenter of the worker in Chesapeake Energy Arena wiping down chairs long after everyone had been told to go home. As the Disney proposal gains traction, I think about him more.


What else does the NBA need to consider?

Playing the rest of the season in a bubble location like Disney poses health and safety implications at every step. But the only way the NBA can ensure its personnel are safe is to do widespread testing, and to do it constantly. That preventive measure is necessary, but it could be horrible for optics if it’s put into action too soon. After Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus, the Utah Jazz received 58 tests within hours—more tests than were available to certain states at the time.

Oklahoma officials later explained that they sent the tests in the interest of public health. It wasn’t privilege that got the Jazz tested, the argument went, it was the players’ potential as a “super spreader” because they interact with hundreds of people each game. Still, the response to millionaire athletes being promptly tested while the rest of the country scrounged for care was sharply negative. “We wish them a speedy recovery,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wrote on Twitter after Brooklyn Nets players were tested. “But, with all due respect, an entire NBA team should NOT get tested for COVID-19 while there are critically ill patients waiting to be tested. Tests should be not for the wealthy, but for the sick.”

In Florida, where Disney is located, the black community had the second-highest death rate from the coronavirus despite having the lowest number of cases as of April 11. The data is changing by the hour, but it remains true that minority communities are being acutely and disproportionately affected. (Florida also had a number of patients’ race omitted on their cases, which community leaders “worry … could be hiding the same racial disparities other states are seeing.”) In 2014, FiveThirtyEight found that the league’s fan base “appears to be majority-minority”—that minority communities in fan bases outweighed their white counterparts. The league has made its “NBA Cares” community-outreach push a focal point of its branding. To frequently test players while a portion of the NBA’s fan base struggles to gain access to doctors—let alone a single test—could be worse for its perception than they anticipate.

Do fans support this idea?

A recent ESPN study found that 76 percent of fans support the return of sports so long as fans are kept away and players “were kept in hotels” and “their contact with others was closely monitored.” That wording—players being “kept in hotels” as a condition—is shortsighted. Hotels don’t operate without the people running them, nor do practice facilities, restaurants, arenas, or even, as Smith suggested, leisurely Disney swimming pools. Will the NBA require those people to isolate in the Disneyverse? I’m in no way suggesting that, or anything that keeps someone from home during this time. But if each night those workers are going home to family who live in the real world with real risk for exposure every day, then those employees are bringing potential transmission into work with them each day.

An earlier version of this piece misstated that players receive payment from regional sports network contracts. Instead, the point is that, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, teams fulfill their RSN contracts once they play 70 games in a season.