Professional sport has resumed in a ‘bio-secure bubble’ amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Major European football leagues are played in empty stadium while cricket aims to follow suit when England host West Indies next month.
The National Basketball Association (NBA) though will cast a wary eye on the fiasco that was Novak Djokovic’s Adria Tour, where a lack of safety precautions led to the world No.1 and three other players testing positive.
All-star forward Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets too has tested positive after being pictured hugging Serbia compatriot Djokovic during the tennis event. NBA though is going ahead with plans to restart the 2019-20 season in Orlando, Florida. It is tentatively fixed to run from July 31 to October 12.
While Jokic has gone into quarantine in native Serbia, the number of cases in NBA has touched double digits. News emerged this week that at least six more players have tested positive—four unnamed members of a Western Conference playoff team and two from Phoenix Suns.
On Wednesday, Indiana Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon, and Sacramento Kings’ Jabari Parker and Alex Len revealed they have tested positive. The Athletic sports website reported that Kings guard Buddy Hield also has Covid-19, though it has not been confirmed by the player or NBA.
“I recently tested positive for the COVID virus and am currently in quarantine. I’m doing well, feeling well and progressing well. I plan to join my teammates in Orlando for the resumption of the NBA season and playoffs,” Brogdon said in a statement on Wednesday.
Parker too issued a statement, released by his franchise, saying he is on course to return when the season resumes. “Several days ago, I tested positive for Covid-19 and immediately self-isolated in Chicago which is where I remain. I am progressing in my recovery and feeling well,” he said.
NBA has made no comments while moving the pieces for the restart at the Walt Disney World in Orlando, where it plans to set up a ‘bio bubble’ for players and support staff from 22 teams. Each team will play eight seeding games, selected from its remaining regular-season match-ups. Three arenas will be used and the teams will be put up in three hotels. With each team allowed to have 37 people inside the NBA campus, there will be 814 persons besides match officials, NBA staff and broadcast teams.
Despite this organisational challenge, NBA plans to invite sponsor representatives to fill the stands. Add the Disney World staff at the hotels, besides those in the arenas and people managing ancillary services, the bio bubble could resemble a Mumbai suburban train in peak hour.
NBA though has put in place protocols—teams must self-isolate in hotel rooms for up to 48 hours, until they have two negative Covid-19 tests; players and staff can’t enter other rooms. Through July 21, players cannot socialise with players staying in the other hotels and will be tested regularly. It is still possible that there are no such stringent protocols for the Disney staff.
The Disney employees union is negotiating with the management over reopening on July 11, a few days before the NBA teams arrive. It could put at risk the health and safety of more than 1,500 persons. That number is likely to increase in August end as NBA plans to allow players’ families to join.
Another concern is the rising number of positive cases in and around Orlando, which has emerged the second-most Covid-affected city in the region. The cases topped 5,000 on Wednesday.
NBA’s financial stake though is massive—an estimated $1 billion is to be split between team owners and players. NBA and players are also concerned about the impact on their collective bargaining agreement. Owners can nullify the deals citing force majeure if the season does not resume. It could possibly set potential earnings back by a decade, a prominent website reported. As per the current agreement, even the junior most player will earn a minimum salary of $898,310.
Though players can opt out—some have done that—the deadline for that was Wednesday. They will not be paid for the matches they miss. They may also not be picked for the next season, though NBA plans to guard against such action.
The stakes for NBA with its lucrative TV deals, for the teams as well as the players who have multi-million dollar personal endorsements, are huge. One of the world’s premier sports leagues though will have to ensure the ‘bio-bubble’ does not burst.