During a May 8 conference call with numerous N.B.A. players, Adam Silver dismissed the praise he had received in some corners for suspending the 2019-20 season before other major North American sports and downplayed the notion that it was a bold mandate from the commissioner’s office.
“I’m not proud of shutting down,” Silver told the players. “I would be proud of finding a path that was safe and as risk-free as possible for us to play. I think that would be much more of an accomplishment than shutting down the league.”
Nearly a month later, Silver and the N.B.A. have committed to a path to putting the game back on hardwood amid evolving attitudes about the risk of the virus nationwide. It materialized in large part through Silver’s strong relationship with the Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul, the president of the players’ union, and their shared close ties to Robert A. Iger, the executive chairman of Disney, which Silver described on that same conference call as the N.B.A.’s “largest partner.”
Yet just how safe and close to risk-free the return will actually be, when 22 of the league’s 30 teams convene next month at Walt Disney World near Orlando to live and play out the rest of the season, is likely to be determined only once this first-of-its-kind reboot is operational. The N.B.A. has said it is working with infectious disease specialists, public health experts and government officials to establish safety guidelines to minimize the chances that the coronavirus can infiltrate its “campus,” but negotiations with the National Basketball Players Association are ongoing about the depths of the restrictions that will be implemented, which will not be publicly revealed until next week at the earliest.
“It’s a start and a good plan,” Robert Sarver, the owner of the Phoenix Suns, said via text message after his team, six games out of a playoff spot when they last played, was chosen for the restart as the last of 22 invitees.
“But there are a lot of variables — many of which we don’t control,” Sarver added.
“Lots,” said Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, echoing Sarver.
There was likewise no Disney FastPass that put the N.B.A. on its Florida course. The league’s hiatus will reach the three-month mark next week. As the N.B.A. faces what The Athletic recently estimated as a revenue loss approaching $1 billion if it fails to provide playoff games to its primary television partners, Disney and Turner Sports, concern is naturally mounting as with so many wounded businesses.
Officials from several clubs, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the league has discouraged public discourse about its finances, did not dispute the notion in interviews this week that monetary motivations are largely behind the comeback.
With no clear guidance from health experts about how far away states are from conditions that can approach pre-coronavirus levels of safety for sports leagues, and the knowledge that the N.B.A. might be forced to start next season with fans still barred from entry, many around the league regard it as financially unfeasible to simply cancel the rest of the season and start preparing for 2020-21.
The vibe has certainly changed since the early days of the March 11 shutdown. In Silver’s lone news conference since pressing pause on the season, conducted April 17, he identified a number of prerequisites before play could resume.
“We’re looking for the number of new infections to come down,” Silver said. “We’re looking for the availability of testing on a large scale. We’re looking at the path that we’re on for potentially a vaccine. We’re looking at antivirals. On top of that, we’re paying close attention to what the C.D.C. is telling us on a federal level and what these various state rules are that are in place.”
Quoting Iger, who had been the N.B.A.’s guest on a Board of Governors call that preceded the news conference, Silver summarized the position by saying the league’s return timetable would be dictated by “the data and not the date.”
The data did not change significantly in May. Florida’s Department of Health, furthermore, reported 1,419 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, and nearly two million recorded coronavirus cases, including more than 100,000 deaths, have been recorded in the United States. Yet Silver’s position appears to have softened.
By the time he addressed the union’s membership on May 8, Silver told players that he was confident that the league would have little issue, both practically and from a public-relations perspective, obtaining the requisite test kits needed for an N.B.A. bubble. Silver also told them that he anticipated the N.B.A. being able to adopt the strategy introduced in German soccer’s Bundesliga, and quarantine individual players who contracted Covid-19 and play on — in stark contrast to Rudy Gobert’s positive test on the day of Utah’s March 11 game at Oklahoma City that immediately shuttered the whole league and prompted numerous leagues to follow suit.
In front offices leaguewide, as well as within the player ranks, there is little mystery behind the pivot. This has been a catastrophic season for the league financially, starting with a tweet by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey in October in support of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong that did in “the hundreds of millions of dollars” in damage to the N.B.A.’s business relationships in China, according to Silver’s estimate in February. On his conference call with players, Silver said that 40 percent of the league’s annual revenue comes from ticket purchases and other in-arena fan expenditures, which means that an even more lucrative revenue stream than the one damaged in China is unavailable indefinitely.
Getting games back on television thus seems to have much more to do with mitigating financial losses, and players’ lost wages, than ensuring that the N.B.A., for the 74th successive season, crowns a champion.
Yet it’s also true that Iger, on top of the many years of collaboration between Silver and Paul, has been an aggressive facilitator for both his sports network, ESPN, and an expansive theme park that had to beat out a worthy bid from the casino company MGM Resorts International in Las Vegas.
In a pre-coronavirus world, Iger was scheduled to attend the April 17 owners meeting in person, as Silver’s special guest to talk about leadership and his business memoir, “The Ride of a Lifetime.” He ended up participating in the call via Zoom and, according to multiple listeners, made it clear how bullish he was on the N.B.A.’s future despite the difficult circumstances and the daunting nature of rebooting.
As the league intensified its negotiations to use the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida as its home base, Iger spoke with Silver and Paul “daily” according to one person with knowledge of the talks, who was not authorized to discuss them publicly. Iger declined an interview request and a Disney spokeswoman declined to comment.
The business lure for Disney is also no mystery. The trend of consumers cutting the cord on cable has weakened ESPN in recent years, but the ubiquitous sports channel remains a crucial engine for Disney. The company’s cable television business generated $5.2 billion in operating profit last year, a 4 percent increase. The problem: The coronavirus pandemic has left ESPN without live sports to broadcast, costing Disney hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising sales and threatening to speed up cord-cutting, as American households continue to get charged for a channel that, for months now, has been reduced to documentaries and reruns of historic games. Michael Nathanson, a media analyst, recently estimated that ESPN would lose $481 million in ad revenue if the N.B.A. did not complete its regular season and playoffs.
Disney World itself will also benefit if the N.B.A. can overcome its remaining hurdles and, as Cuban, the Mavericks’ owner, described, instill “sustained confidence” that the incoming 350 players “only have to worry about playing basketball when they get there.” At a minimum, analysts said, the N.B.A. will spend tens of millions of dollars at the resort in facility fees, hotels and dining. The league’s presence at Disney may also offer an invaluable marketing message to families contemplating vacations: This place is safe to visit again.
Silver can only hope his league has that effect. He has been criticized for his reluctance to address the news media during the shutdown, beyond interviews with league partners, leading up to a briefing he has scheduled next week to discuss the safety protocols. Yet such scrutiny is nothing to fret about compared with potential calamities given an unpredictable, easily spread virus in a contact sport that plays its games indoors.
The praise Silver alluded to on the player conference call was a byproduct of the N.B.A.’s leadership position among sports leagues in pressing the pause button and letting the world know how serious the Covid-19 outbreak was. Chances are that even more will be expected from the N.B.A. in terms of leading the way in its return to play.
Brooks Barnes reported from Los Angeles.