Expert Advice from Epitome's Production Safety & Risk Management Specialists


Evaluating the NBA’s response to COVID-19

The entertainment industry is comprised of different commercial enterprises. We have already looked at film and television from several different angles. We have broken down iconic shots, scripts, travel, and so much more, all from the vantage point of this pandemic. We now turn our attention to a new category within the entertainment industry. One that is part live theater and part television show: Sports. 

This article is part of an on-going series that will explore the realm of professional sports with an eye towards COVID-19 safety. In this installment of “Sporting Chances,” we will examine the state of COVID-19 within the National Basketball Association. 

To do this, we will divide this article into four parts:

  • The size of the operation
  • Current COVID-19 protocols
  • Areas for improvement
  • The bottom line

Before we look at what the NBA is currently doing to keep its players safe and on the court, let’s take a look at just how large a lift this effort requires. 

The Size of the Operation

The National Basketball Association (NBA) consists of 30 teams across 21 states, Washington D.C., and Canada. They are divided into two conferences, Eastern and Western, which are in turn divided into three divisions each. The regular season, in a regular year, consists of 82 games—41 away and 41 home—and runs from October to April.

In addition to its 15-player roster, an NBA team can have upwards of 230 staff members. From CEOs and coaching staff to trainers, broadcasters, guest relations representatives, sales agents, and finance staff, each NBA team requires the equivalent of a blockbuster film crew to keep the organization running. And this does not include vendors, concessionaires, and various retailers within the arenas, as they are primarily sub-contractors. Nor does it include the tens of thousands of in-person fans.

The NBA is one of only two major sports leagues in North America where every team plays at least one game against every other team in the league (the NHL is the other). This necessitates a lot of travel and logistics. Teams can end up traveling almost 60,000 miles each season. 

All NBA teams are valued at over a billion dollars with the most valuable team, the New York Knicks, topping the charts at a whopping $5 billion. 

Suffice to say, this is far more than just teams playing games. This is a multi-billion dollar league with tens of thousands of employees, millions of fans, and over $8B in annual revenue

The pandemic put it all in jeopardy. 

Current COVID-19 Protocols

On March 11, 2020, just as the Utah Jazz were about to take the court against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the NBA season stopped cold. NBA commissioner Adam Silver postponed the season indefinitely. Soon after, the rest of the sports world followed.

The season re-started several months later in Orlando, Florida, for a modified playoffs in “the bubble.” This multi-layered quarantine zone was like nothing ever attempted in sports history, and it was a resounding success. All the scheduled games were played, a champion was crowned, and there was no COVID-19 outbreak. 

There was, however, a giant loss in revenue due, primarily, to the lack of ticket sales. When planning began for the 2020-2021 season, it was apparent that an entire season in the bubble was not in the cards. 

To make this pandemic season possible, the NBA developed several important pandemic protocols and concessions. We want to highlight three:

  • Shortened season
  • Modified travel schedule
  • Relaxed procedures when vaccinated 

Shortened Season

The NBA season began only a few months after the Lakers won the 2020 NBA Championship in the bubble. Despite starting so quickly, the December 22 start date was still two months later than normal. 

This calendar squeeze made the likelihood of an 82-game season highly unlikely to begin with. After serious negotiations, the NBA decided to shorten this season to only 72 games. The ten games cut were conference games which allows every team to still play every other team at least twice this year. For those concerned about parity in the league, this shortened season kept things balanced. 

It did, however, mean that the travel schedules had to change as well.

Modified Travel Schedules

The NBA took a page out of the baseball playbook to make their shortened season possible. In prior years, there could be months between rematches, especially between players in opposite conferences. But not this year

This year, teams travel to a city and play that team two nights in a row. This limits the amount of travel and allows teams to create good COVID-19 safety and security around their hotels and locker rooms. 

As the massive vaccine rollout continues, some of these safety and security procedures can become less stringent for those who are fully vaccinated.

Relaxed Procedures When Vaccinated 

The CDC recently released new guidelines for fully vaccinated persons. In much the same way, the NBA has released new procedures for vaccinated players and teams. Here are a few highlights from those new NBA guidelines:

  • Visitors allowed: Fully vaccinated players can have visitors both at home and when traveling without testing or registering the visitors with the team.
  • In-person marketing events permitted: Fully vaccinated players can now promote their brands and sponsorships with in-person events.
  • No more quarantining: Fully vaccinated players no longer have to quarantine after exposure to COVID-19. 
  • The return of support staff: Fully vaccinated members of a fully vaccinated player’s support staff—chefs, trainers, physical therapists—may return to work without submitting to COVID-19 testing. 
  • No masks at practice: Fully vaccinated teams are now allowed to practice without wearing masks. 

These new procedures not only align the NBA with the new CDC guidelines, they also serve as an incentive for players, coaches, and staff members to get vaccinated. 

By shortening the season, modifying the travel schedule, and relaxing procedures for vaccinated players and teams, the NBA has made several necessary changes to its lucrative product in an effort to increase safety. But it could do more. 

Areas for Improvement

The NBA is a multi-billion dollar organization with enough resources and know-how to run its business safely during a pandemic. We are not suggesting that we are smarter than the NBA’s staff. We are simply drawing from our own extensive COVID-19 safety experience and years of risk management to see if we can spot any missed opportunities. 

What we offer here are only suggestions from an outside perspective and not a complete system safety diagnostic. When we look at our proven COVID-19 safety procedures, we see one area where the NBA could improve its own safety procedures (and it is not alone). 

Like much of America, the NBA is conflating vaccination with immunity. As Dr. Marvin Hausman has pointed out in his recent article on COVID-19 passports, the only way to verify current immunity is through antibody testing. This is vital because we do not yet know how long immunity lasts after vaccination. 

The NBA is not vaccinating everyone all at once. It is, instead, vaccinating them in stages, just like the rest of the country. This puts the NBA (and the rest of the country) in a vulnerable position. There are no outward signs that the vaccine has worn off. Without regular antibody testing in place, the only sign we might get is another outbreak. 

To prevent this, Dr. Hausman and others are advocating for a national policy for immunity tracking. The NBA could lead that charge by creating an immunity tracking system for the league. It would help protect everyone from any potential future outbreaks.

The Bottom Line

The television sports producer Don Ohlmeyer’s famous mantra was, “The answer to all of your questions is money.” The NBA’s product is worth billions of dollars and loved by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. When the pandemic threatened the NBA’s bottom line, they responded with one of the most impressive logistical feats in sports history: the NBA bubble. 

When the time came to plan a regular season outside the bubble, the NBA made many decisions that both increased safety and helped to generate revenue. It has shortened its season, changed its travel schedules, and incentivized and rewarded vaccinations by relaxing procedures once players and teams are fully vaccinated. 

This has helped the league to stay on schedule with minimal COVID-19 related delays. It has also returned its beloved product to the fans and the airwaves. By tracking immunity as well as vaccinations, the NBA could protect itself from a potential future outbreak that could halt the sports world yet again. 

The key point is that by keeping its players safe and its games on schedule, the NBA protects its own bottom line.  

Join us next month for another edition of Sporting Chances, when we will look at the world of golf, just in time for the PGA Championship. Until then, please remember to go get vaccinated. For help finding your nearest vaccination location, please visit the CDC’s website.

Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.

DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before participating in organized athletics during a pandemic.