Yes, we have bigger problems in this country than whether the NBA returns or not this season. However, as I was thinking of test cases to re-open the economy, the NBA actually would be one of the easiest ones to execute with the added bonus of providing some much needed relief from the news. It can also serve as a data lab for epidemiologists to demonstrate the efficacy of new practices.
Step 1: Creating the Bubble
Games will have to be played at a neutral site and without fans. That is a given. So the first step is finding a safe neutral site. It would have to be secured where nobody else can reach the players and with the players unable to leave.
There seems to be general agreement on Vegas given the NBA uses it for Summer League and there are enough empty hotels connected to the convention center where players wouldn’t need to go outside.
I’m uncertain if this is adequate. It requires the entire Strip remaining shut down to prevent the risk of outsiders entering the bubble (or players leaving). If this can be ensured, then Vegas is ideal. If not, pick a college town.
Lawrence, Kansas is in the middle of the country. KU has a big time college arena with plenty of amenities. The kids aren’t in school so players can live in dorms. Pick a different campus if you like, but someplace like that works really well and without the temptations of Vegas.
I should also make clear we are starting the season at the playoffs. This eliminates half the teams, so we are down to 240 players to monitor. After a week of so, half of those will be eliminated and it gets even easier. If May 1 isn’t feasible, another option would be to just start at the second round later in May. This reduces the player pool to 120.
Step 2: Testing the Players
The biggest impediment to re-starting the season is obviously the concern that more players would get infected. However, I think some things have changed regarding our knowledge of the virus that should lead to a reconsideration.
The biggest change is a lot more people have already been infected than commonly realized. The best evidence of this was a study done in the German town of Gangelt, which was the epicenter of a German outbreak.
Virologists at the University of Bonn tested 1000 residents. While only 2% had tested positive for the virus, 14% had the antibodies. This means an awful lot of people had the virus but were asymptomatic so never got tested to see if they were infected. Another estimate from a Chicago hospital (thought not a controlled study) suggests >30% of those tested have antibodies.
The point of this is many NBA players likely have the antibodies. Those players all would have no trouble playing. I’m willing to go out on a limb and predict Steph Curry has the antibodies. He missed a game on March 7th for “the flu”. The NBA shut down March 11th. We know California had it before most other states. Connect the dots!
Give Steph the antibody test. When it comes back positive, it will make other players want to take it. Every NBA player should be tested for an active virus presence and for antibodies.
It is also worth mentioning that while we know some NBA players have tested positive, none have died. None have been hospitalized. Heck, none have even reported more than mild symptoms. NBA athletes are about as low risk a population as we can have.
Step 3: Player Tracking
If players want to play (and get paid), they need to give up some freedoms. This means they need to prove they are not leaving campus. This could be done through phone surveillance, ankle bracelets, or some other means. Players could have families stay with them, but the family would need to agree to the same restrictions.
Why would players agree to this? Because there is a lot of money at stake and because it’s the only way they can compete for a title. If the season doesn’t return, the players will likely lose some of their salary. A full playoffs probably generates enough $ to convince the owners to pay full salaries.
Step 4: The Schedule
Believe it or not, the playoffs usually start right about…now. We are not that far off a normal schedule. However, the players are out of shape. Most have limited ability to work out or even shoot a ball. There is elevated risk of injury when they return. Thus, we need a training camp of 2-3 weeks.
Coincidentally, this is how long people need to be isolated after a positive test. So, any player who tests positive when they report to the playoff site will be isolated and hopefully cleared in time for the first game.
The playoffs will start on May 1. Typically this is when the second round starts. For expediency, the first round will be best of 5, instead of best of 7. Also, because there is no travel, we don’t need so many days off between games. Teams can play every other day. Thus, the second round can start by May 10th, so we’re less than two weeks behind normal.
If any players does somehow show symptoms after they are in the bubble (perhaps their initial test gave a false negative), then they are immediately isolated and other players are re-tested. Given the history of other players having mild symptoms, there is no reason to cancel the playoffs because one player tests positive.
What if a star players tests positive and it causes a team to be upset? Oh well. It’s no different than physical injury risk. Like I said, some players are going to get injured because they got out of shape during the time off. We’re not going to pause the series for them to get healthy.
There could be a rule where if say five or more players on a team test positive that a series could be suspended. That would be something for the NBA to negotiate with the players.
Step 5: The Coaches
Coaches need to be treated differently than players. They are older and are more likely to have pre-existing conditions. Thus, coaches should sit up in the owner’s box rather than on the bench.
However, they can still be set up to communicate with the players. The easiest way would be a speaker phone on the bench. Another option is to have a younger assistant who can safely be on the bench and relay instructions. Drawing up plays can be done on a tablet that transmits to another tablet on the bench.
Step 6: The Money
Staging the playoffs is worth a lot of $ to the NBA. Staging it when there is nothing else on TV will likely produce NFL like ratings and increase interest in the game. It is of immense marketing value.
As I mentioned above, getting the playoff revenue also should mitigate any dispute between the players and owners over whether the players are entitled to their full salary. The union can certainly demand a guarantee on salaries to stage the playoffs.
Furthermore, players can agree to donate any playoff bonuses to charity. The NBA can agree to provide a matching contribution to the winners of each matchup.
Now, since games will be played in empty arenas, there is no ticket revenue…or is there??? I have a plan to sell “virtual seats”. Here’s how it works:
- Put a tablet in every seat with Zoom installed.
- Let fans bid for the rights to login to a Zoom session.
- Winning fans can make crazy noise from home so the players can experience crowd noise.
You might ask why anyone would pay for this. Well, these are neutral site games like at the Final Four. Whichever teams fans are willing to bid the most can create a virtual home court advantage. There are definitely people who would pay for that!
Paging Adam Silver
There is no practical reason this plan couldn’t work. I’ve addressed player safety, coach safety, logistics, and finances. It would be a great boost to the public spirit to see some resumption of normal activity. Bring back the NBA first. When they show they can do it, then we start opening up other activities under similar principles.
Since somebody will probably ask, yes, restarting baseball is a lot harder. There are more players. There are a lot more games to play. More venues would be required.
However, the same principles of upfront testing for a current infection as well as for antibodies would apply. A good starting place would be any players with antibodies can use spring training facilities to get in shape. Any player who is not currently infected can also report if they agree to be locked down at the team facility.
Now the key is to get the decision makers to consider this idea. Someone tweet Adam Silver. If you want, tweet Nate Silver. Tweet at LeBron and Giannis. Send it to NBA reporters or Mark Cuban or Magic Johnson. We need to make this happen!