The second Sunday in October Twelve months after the National Basketball Association's 74th season of preseason play began, the league finally crowned a champion – the Los Angeles Lakers. It was a television moment: LeBron James won his fourth title and, more historically, with his third team. James led the Lakers to victory against the bustling Miami Heat – the team he won his first two rings with – and ended his mission to restore the famous franchise to its former glory. He also cemented his claim as one of the greatest players of all time.
But the night was so much more than the triumph of James and his teammates. It also laid the foundation for a year of unprecedented turmoil, which included a financially painful spit with China last fall, the unexpected death of former Commissioner David Stern on New Years Day, and the tragic death of retired Laker superstar Kobe Bryant in a helicopter weeks later Crash. And that was all before the NBA canceled their March 11 season after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for COVID-19 – a turning point in the early days of the pandemic that compounded the severity of the impending health crisis.
That James was able to win the Larry O'Brien trophy in the first place is evidence of how the NBA recovered in the weeks and months after the closure. The outline of the story is now known. The NBA, which was closed for much of spring and early summer, drew up a plan for a Disney-hosted bubble in Orlando and worked out an agreement with the players to resume play with 22 of the league's 30 teams. (The bubble ruled out teams without a realistic shot in the playoffs to reduce staff numbers.) Then, 172 games were played over two months without a single player, league official or team member testing positive for the novel coronavirus has been.
The NBA's broken season came at an enormous cost. Spending on bubbles alone was roughly $ 180 million, and the league fell as much as $ 1.5 billion below its preseason revenue projections due to the pandemic. However, the NBA's overall success in the face of adversity is something many other companies can only dream of. Not only did the bubble save the financially devastating year, it also put the league's product into focus worldwide. And it bolstered the reputation of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who is considered by many to be the best in professional sports.
To create practice space in the bubble, the NBA installed seats in a ballroom of a Disney hotel. Joe Murphy – NBAE / Getty Images
Restarting a season after being coldly stopped has been an operational feat of epic proportions. And pulling it off with a minimum of dissent and drama is a textbook case of labor relations done right – a non-trivial feat given the amount of money and the size of the ego involved. The feat is all the more remarkable considering that it took place at a time of upheaval in the social justice of the generations that profoundly affected NBA players, from superstars to scrubs, and threatened to torpedo the season at more than one point.
Those with the most participants seem to appreciate a shortened but healthy season to win. "I think the league has done a tremendous job generating revenue for both the teams and the players," said Steve Ballmer, owner of Los Angeles Clippers, former Microsoft CEO and a member of the NBA's Board of Governors met weekly during the crisis. "I find it just phenomenal to balance these interests and be ready to generate significant costs with significant benefits."
The NBA wasn't the only sports league to lose sight of victory in a pandemic. The WNBA had a similar bubble experience in Bradenton, Florida, on the state's west coast. NHL teams ended the season between two Canadian cities, Toronto and Edmonton. And even Major League Baseball has managed to penetrate deeply into its playoffs with television games in stadiums with cardboard cutouts for fans, despite being hampered by multiple outbreaks of the virus over the course of a shortened schedule.
SCREEN TIME: In order to virtually bring the fans into the mix, the league installed huge video displays in the arenas. Fans attending Game 1 of the Finals included television host Robin Roberts, retired NBA star Shaquille O'Neal and former President Barack Obama. David Dow – NBAE / Getty Images
By ruling the bubble like this, the NBA once again showed why it is considered one of the best-managed sports leagues in the world. "I don't think there is a brand in America that is more consistent than the NBA," said David Carter, professor of sports business at USC's Marshall School of Business, strategic marketing advisor and longtime observer of the league. "To me, a brand is a promise and you know what you will get out of the NBA just as you know what you will get out of Tiffany and Harley-Davidson."
Compared to other professional leagues, Carter said, the NBA seemed "more unified, more in step with how it handled major issues, whether it was COVID or social justice, or whether they were putting together a working bubble." And to understand why companies and executives gain valuable insights far beyond sport.
Chris Paul, The Oklahoma City Thunder Star Guard and the President of the National Basketball Players Association have firsthand knowledge of what and who it took to get the bladder going. When he arrived in Orlando, he said he went to see Kelly Flatow, executive vice president of events for the NBA. "I just wanted to hug her the most," says Paul. "Because we were in all these zooms together, where we talked about it, talked about it, talked about logistics."
The logistics were like nothing Flatow, a 14-year veteran of the NBA, had ever seen. Her group hosts more than 200 events a year, from All-Star Weekends to games outside the US. However, the planning for these events starts years in advance and there are never more than two teams involved. "There were 22 teams and about 350 players, all of whom came together in one setting," she says. "There was no playbook or blueprint for it."
The Flatow team spent late spring and early summer zooming in and texting Slack from their respective homes near New York City. After arriving at Disney World's ESPN World Wide Sports Complex, home of the bubble, a core group of 15 people met every day at 8 a.m. to discuss the day's assignments – whether it was building seven exercise facilities including one going upstairs in a Disney World hotel ballroom or building a fanless game broadcast center. Every Sunday Flatow organized an all-hand meeting for the nearly 150 cross-functional employees, which covered everything from communication and medicine to IT and security.
Number of players in the bladder who tested positive for COVID-19
Number of games played in the NBA bubble after restarting
When the Games were in full swing, it took an even larger number, a proverbial village of 6,500 people, to supply the entire community in the Orlando bubble. "I compare it a bit to when you go into a movie and see the actors on the screen and then the credits start rolling at the end and they keep rolling and they keep rolling," said Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner at a press conference before the start of the final series. (Silver playfully tried to convince people to use the word "campus" instead of "bubble". Everyone called it a bubble.) He highlighted Flatow as praise, calling her "essentially the concierge" for the assembled crew .
She “did everything from making sure the buses were on time, to those of you in this room who requested feather pillows. I know who you are. I know all of the personal inquiries that everyone has made here. "
BUBBLE BUDDIES: NBA Commissioner
Adam Silver (who was interviewed before a final game) was consistent
Communicating with the Players Union President Chris Paul when the bubble plan came together. Douglas P. DeFelice – Getty Images
Seriously, the NBA also had to reinvent health protocols from the ground up. A former corporate attorney named David Weiss, senior vice president of player affairs for the NBA, learned about infectious diseases and tests quickly enough to work with a team of doctors to devise elaborate bladder health rules. Weiss also regularly informed the owners. "It was absolutely impressive how quickly some of the league's employees got up to date on health issues," says Ballmer.
The league set a daily testing program for everyone who stayed on campus and cost more than $ 100 per test. Anyone not playing, exercising, or directing games had to wear masks around others, especially since the support staff had left the bladder after their shift.
While league leaders were able to stay one step ahead of the virus, there were other challenges they did not anticipate.
August 26th In the middle of the playoffs, the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to come out of their locker room to play the playoff matchup with the Orlando Magic. They decided not to play to protest the shooting of a black man named Jacob Blake by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin. What started out as a strike in a game – some called it a boycott, while Silver was announcing it. He preferred a "work hiatus," which quickly resulted in a complete suspension of the game in the NBA and other sports leagues. The next day, the remaining players and coaches gathered in Orlando to decide whether to return to the field. The season – and the revenue all parties would derive from the conclusion of the playoffs – was at stake.
Before the meeting, Paul, the players union president, spoke to Silver. The directness of the exchange shows the trust that both sides have in each other. "I just said, 'I'll let you know," Paul says. "I know it sounds easy. But that's real, you know? After all, of course, we're partners and it's all about the game. But me am a player. I know how the players feel. And that was bigger than the game. "
The meeting itself was an extraordinary moment of mass catharsis for the athletes. "It wasn't fun, but it was really amazing to see 150 men screaming, screaming, laughing, crying, but ultimately getting together as brothers for hours in this crowded banquet hall," said Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. "I've never seen anything like it. This is what democracy looks like. And it was pretty breathtaking."
Chris Paul (who drove to the basket for Oklahoma City in a playoff game in August) was in constant communication with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver when the bubble plan came together. Nathaniel S. Butler – NBAE / Getty Images
After further discussion the next day, the players agreed to go back to work, encouraged by an agreement with the team owners that stadiums across the country would be used as polling stations for the upcoming elections.
Companies around the world, especially those with a unionized workforce, had to grapple with sensitive industrial relations issues during this time of pandemic-related business gaps. But more than most leagues, the NBA entered its troubled year and enjoyed a history of mutual housing with its players. "Silver and Roberts have a lot of credibility," says Joshua Mendelsohn, an employment attorney and author of The Cap, a new history of labor relations for the NBA that focused on the introduction of a salary cap in 1983. Income stopped flowing to the owners couldn't have paid the salaries anymore. You didn't do it. "The owners continued to pay the players," says Mendelsohn. “The union did a good job of negotiating, including increasing liability if someone got sick. They listened to the players. Without the players there is no game. "
This mutual understanding paid off before the game even started in the bubble. Following the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis in late May and the spike in social justice demonstrations that sparked it, many stars of the league were unsure whether to continue the season. They feared they would be distracted from the national talk about race.
$ 180 million
Total cost to the NBA of putting the bubble on
$ 1.5 billion
Overall success for NBA revenue due to season hiatus
Number of workers required to make the bladder possible
But the players also recognized the platform they would have on their return. "We understand the economic and financial implications of not returning," said Andre Iguodala, the Miami Heat forward and first vice president of the players' union. “But the country's political landscape and what happened to racial relations made it bigger than money. And I think that's what made it special for many of us to say, "Let's do it for a bigger reason than just to go out and get a check."
So they negotiated that certain approved messages – like "Vote" and "Say Their Names" – be linked to the "Black Lives Matter" movement printed on the back of their shirts. It's the kind of compromise Silver and Roberts experience in negotiations. “I argued with Adam. It's not always in a good mood, ”says Roberts. "But at the end of the day, we act like adults."
No matter How successful the NBA has been this year in making the most of a bad situation, the fact remains that the pandemic weighed on the league's finances in the same way it has hurt so many companies around the world. The league stepped in expectation last fall of raising $ 10 billion for the season, with about 40% of that number coming from what's called game night revenue: tickets, concessions, merchandise, and the like. Even though the league had completed roughly 80% of its season before it was banned, that source of income disappeared once fans were unable to play.
The pandemic exacerbated the already financially traumatic year. When Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted a picture of supporting protesters in Hong Kong last October, Chinese authorities quickly canceled an exhibition game in Shanghai and withdrew NBA games from state broadcaster CCTV. Silver took warmth from several sides. The NBA initially called Morey's tweet "regrettable". But the league quickly pulled back, saying it wouldn't censor any players or team owners. The NBA estimates China's Imbroglio has lost $ 400 million in revenue and has jeopardized relationships with its fastest growing market.
At the end of the season there were signs of thawing: CCTV broadcast the last two games of the final. "We were given just 12 hours notice that we were going back to CCTV with little explanation," says Silver. “In the end, the feeling came from China that we would not change. We are who we are. We export American values. "
STEADY VOICE: Michele Roberts, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association and former public defender, advised the union on how to turn the bubble into one
Social Justice Platform. Courtesy Michael Patton / NBPA
Silver adds, "What came from the NBA in the last two CCTV finals were pictures of players wearing t-shirts with the words 'vote', 'equality' and 'freedom', not necessarily values that people traditionally have associated with China. "
Television was also challenged in the NBA's home market for very different reasons. The first game in the Best of Seven championship series to air on Disney-owned ABC reached the smallest television audience ever recorded for a single game in the NBA Finals – a 4.1 rating at 7.41 million According to analyst Jon "Paulsen". Lewis from Sports Media Watch. Lewis estimates viewership for this year's series is down at least 40% from last year.
I argued with Adam. It's not always in a good mood.
Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association
The NBA is hardly alone among professional sports leagues when it comes to seeing audience numbers drop. Lewis estimates the NHL's Stanley Cup final attendance has dropped 61%. And the revamped MLB regular season lost a quarter of its audience year over year.
The unfortunate timing is due in part to the NBA's rating slide. The final usually ends in June rather than October when it competes with soccer and baseball, among others. On an extraordinary day in September, events from 12 top sports took place, including Major League Soccer, WNBA, US Open in tennis and college football. The NBA was even struggling with a crazy election season. For example, in Game 3 of the finals, President Trump's surprising COVID-19 diagnosis was broadcast from wall to wall.
The end of the bubble means the beginning of a new, difficult chapter. We still have a lot of work to do – for the players, the owners and the league officials. Negotiations to review the collective agreement are already underway. The belated NBA draft is slated for November 18th. And the league has pioneered the idea of starting the next season in January, with the fans' presence uncertain. In fact, the biggest debate in the coming weeks is likely to be the best and fairest way to share the league's financial success. Roberts says, "It is no secret that the conversation involves how the loss can be spread over a longer period of time."
At least the 1,500 employees of the NBA in the league office received good news after the final. Silver emailed them that everyone would receive a one-time bonus of $ 1,000 plus four consecutive Fridays and the entire Thanksgiving week off.
I don't think there is a brand in America that is more consistent than the NBA.
David Carter, professor of sports economics at USC
The commissioner himself didn't fly north when most of the league's other staff fled the bubble after the final game. "Believe it or not, I'm still in Orlando," he told Fortune a few days later. "My wife and two daughters are down and we're going to Disney World for two days. It's like that commercial," What are you going to do after the championship? "We're going to Disney World."
It's not quite a fairy tale ending. After all, the pandemic is still raging. But it's about as close as anyone in a year like this.
Additional reporting from Andrew Nusca.
A version of this article appears in the November 2020 issue of Fortune.
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