With the NBA in limbo because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, we are in this weird state. It seems like the offseason has begun, yet the league is still exploring ways to keep the season going on in some form. Most recently, the league is looking to see if there could be a “bubble city” where all teams play the remainder of the 2019-20 season as well as the playoffs.
At some point, the pandemic will end, but the landscape around sports will change forever. Here are some things I can see happening once NBA basketball starts AND when fans are allowed to watch games once again.
There won’t be many fans in attendance leaguewide, even after arenas open up.
It isn’t uncommon to see Wizards games with spotty attendance in the last two seasons because the team hasn’t played .500 basketball. However, it’s hard to see contenders like the Los Angeles Lakers or Toronto Raptors be in similar situations.
Seats in NBA arenas (or really, any stadium), are way too close to each other to be called “social distancing.” People will be way too hesitant to watch games in person, even after a COVID-19 vaccine or cure is found. So games are likely to be played in front of sparse crowds until this happens. It wouldn’t surprise me if arena operators enforce some form of social distancing, where fans have to sit several seats away from each other during games.
Teams will lower ticket prices
The Wizards have decided to keep season ticket prices flat for the 2020-21 NBA season. However, those prices were made with the assumption that there wouldn’t be a pandemic like COVID-19. In fact, pretty much no one anticipated that the coronavirus would wreak havoc on the league.
Once this uncertain time passes, if there are fewer fans, the NBA’s teams will likely do whatever it can to keep season ticket holders happy. Therefore, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see ticket prices drop across the league as part of an effort to keep them.
The NBA probably won’t be as international as it was in years past
Given the pandemic, non-Americans who aren’t permanent residents aren’t allowed to travel to the United States if they were in transit from many countries, including those friendly to us, such as the European Union’s Schengen Zone, China, Mexico and Canada. This also includes including professional athletes on P-1 visas.
NBA teams have increasingly looked at other countries to expand their talent base. In the 2019-20 season, there were 113 non-American players on opening day rosters, a record. However, teams and the league are likely looking within their borders.
This will be understandable, because it will be tougher, if not nearly impossible, for teams to get visas for non-American players, regardless of who wins the 2020 presidential election. The NBA’s situation will be further complicated by the Toronto Raptors because they are not based in the United States.
Since Canada and the United States mutually agreed to stop all non-essential travel right now, it could be difficult to see how they operate until there are regulations passed that allow American and Canadian professional athletes to work on both sides of the border.
Assuming the NBA becomes more American, what happens to European players? It’s likely that they will stay within their continent, if not country, where the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague and EuroCup’s teams are likely going to see a higher level of play than in the past. Ultimately, non-American players want an opportunity to come back home without the risk of not being able to get back to work across the Atlantic Ocean, so it shouldn’t be surprising to see some European free agents decide to stay closer to their homes, assuming the pandemic is protracted.
Salaries will probably drop long-term, but perhaps not as precipitously as you might fear
So far, this piece as been pretty negative. This next point will just add to that, because the NBA’s teams are dependent on ticket revenue from those who attend games. But ticket revenue isn’t the primary driver behind the NBA’s revenue. Rather, it’s the league’s nine-year $24 billion television deal that started in 2016. This revenue is guaranteed, barring the pandemic cancelling a significant number of games moving forward.
It’s unclear how much the salary cap will drop over the next few years. But in the long term, it’s quite possible that player salaries will drop over the next several years.
The NBA will probably have more digital subscriptions than ever to archived content
There is one truly positive nugget that the coronavirus pandemic provides us. We are finally able to reflect on the NBA’s past, whether it’s by watching highlights of the 2019-20 season or comparing eras against each other. Sports networks are also looking for content to air and are resorting to old games.
The demand to watch old games will not override the demand to watch current players square off against each other, but it should be enough to give the league a new revenue stream that it never capitalized on just yet. It shouldn’t be surprising to see more people subscribe to the NBA’s digital properties so they can watch past games and other archived content they missed out on.
How will the post-pandemic NBA world appear to you? Let us know in the comments below.