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Roundtable: Should the NBA stay in a bubble or in the United States for the 2020-21 season?

The 2019-20 NBA season’s bubble has been executed as well as we would have hoped. But that doesn’t mean that the 2020-21 NBA season can just go on in cities without fans.

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics
The NBA’s players were safe in a summer bubble. But what are the concepts on how basketball could go on in a full season that’s supposed to start in December?
Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

This is the third and final roundtable the Bullets Forever team had right after the end of the Washington Wizards’ 2019-20 season. In this topic, we will get to the world story that affects all of us the most: the coronavirus pandemic.

Before I write an introduction, you can also read our previous general roundtables from earlier in the week:

According to Johns Hopkins University, over 22 million people have contracted COVID-19 and over 750,000 people have died from it as of Aug. 19. In the United States, nearly 5.5 million people have contracted it and over 170,000 have died.

While we know more about COVID-19 today than last winter, and facemasks are quickly becoming more accepted by the American population, the spread in the United States is still much higher than other developed parts of the world like Canada, South Korea or the European Union. Because of that, Americans are banned from non-essential international travel to many places they otherwise have visa-free travel to, like Canada and the EU’s Schengen Area.

For now, the health experts believe that the coronavirus will spread more easily this winter as people congregate more in indoor spaces. That time also coincides with the start of the 2020-21 NBA season, with a regular season start date of around Dec. 1.

The current bubble in Orlando, Florida has worked out as well as we could have hoped. Since 22 teams entered and finished initial quarantines last July, no players tested positive for the coronavirus.

However, players will ultimately head back home at some point where they could be exposed to the virus again. And though NBPA Executive Director said in July that it’s possible next season would have to be in a bubble again, it’s unclear whether the players are willing to spend another lengthy period of time in another isolated environment.

Since the Orlando bubble is working, it’s possible the NBA just washes, rinses and repeats it for 2020-21. But besides cooling temperatures, we could have possible political leadership change after the November federal elections which may cause a period of unrest through January. Given the political climate in America, that also should be taken into consideration.

And because of that, it wouldn’t be surprising if the league considers moving overseas, presumably to a part of the world where virus management has been stronger and where the political environment isn’t so polarized.

The NHL moved to Canada for their bubble so it’s a possible landing spot for the NBA because of the Toronto Raptors. And in a world where the crazy has become possible, it wouldn’t shock me to see the NBA move to Europe or Korea for a season while things sort themselves out in America.

How does our team feel about it? Our responses are below.

Albert: The coronavirus has shut down fan attendance in professional sports for the foreseeable future. The next NBA season is supposed to begin in December, right as flu and another wave could be upon us. Should there be no fans in a hypothetical 2020-21 NBA season?

And should the NBA consider moving the league overseas to other countries that have managed the virus better (Canada, Australia, European Union, Korea) if the players do not want to be in another bubble for an extended length of time?

Osman Baig: The NBA deserves credit for what they’ve been able to do in the Bubble. There was a lot of skepticism as to whether or not this would work (knock on wood it continues) and at least my take is we should take a step back and let the NBA do its thing.

The league earned the benefit of the doubt and I’m sure they’ll have a plan A, B and C that will take player and fan safety seriously. If I were to guess, I think regional bubbles make sense with the option to re-evaluate as they move deeper into the 2020-21 schedule. I have a hard time imagining the league going overseas.

Matt Modderno: It definitely seems like a consensus the players won’t be on board with another bubble. Especially one that would need to last much longer than this one did.

It’s a foregone conclusion to me at this point that there will be no fans in a 2020-21 NBA season unfortunately. I wouldn’t mind seeing the NBA temporarily relocated to a cool destination like New Zealand (you didn’t mention them, Albert!) and if Bullets Forever wants someone onsite to cover that, sign me up!

Albert: New Zealand, Matt? If the NBA were allowed to go into exile there, I’d say that maybe every team should incorporate a Haka before each game!

Ben Becker: I can’t think of a group of people less qualified to answer this question than our little cohort of internet basketball dorks (!!!).

That said, I think that of all the sports that have returned, the NBA television viewing experience is the best by a wide margin. I’d expect the league to prioritize the game telecasts for the sake of their media partners.

Also keep in mind that fans bring enhanced risk to players, coaches, games ops staff, etc. So any marginal benefit from gate receipts may well be offset by the additional risks to the “product.” Opening games to fans is also likely going to be very (perhaps prohibitively) expensive until there’s a vaccine and/or rapid response testing. So, I’d expect the NBA to build on what has worked in Orlando for next season with teams staying in America.

Kevin Broom: Moving overseas creates a scheduling challenge for TV in the states. Teams play weeknights for a reason.

One idea I like: regional bubbles where 5-6 teams get together in one location and basically play round robin. The league could probably do something fun with the format to reward teams for “winning” their bubble. I think it would be unwise for them to plan on having fans at the games next season.

Yanir Rubinstein: I think the pandemic is a great opportunity to try new formats. A new bubble is probably a must (perhaps multiple bubbles in space and time). I can go in any direction on where the NBA ends up playing the 2020-21 season.

This is probably the time to abandon the East-West divide, at least for one season and innovative ways to provide an entertaining season.

Alan Jenkins: I don’t think the NBA should consider moving to a foreign country if the virus spikes again as it’ll be a logistical nightmare and/or a TV scheduling nightmare.

I understand that guys don’t want to be away from their families for an extended period of time so I’m wondering if maybe have one (or multiple) bubbles going at once but then having breaks every so often so team personnel can see their families.

Kudos to the NBA as the bubble has been terrific so far both from a safety standpoint and the games still being great while feeling normal. I think this solution is showing that the only pathway to have a season would be in a bubble in the short term. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that there will be no fans but playing in empty arenas and flying from city to city isn’t the answer (ask baseball).

It isn’t perfect but I think the only way there’s a season next year is if they play in a bubble once again.

Albert: Good point on time differences, Kevin and Alan.

For example, if the NBA played games in most of continental Europe, like Frankfurt, Prague or Amsterdam, there is a six-hour time difference between a game there and Washington. It’s a nine-hour difference between there and the western USA.

It’s still going to be a logistical challenge, even if games were played very late or early there so American viewers can see it at a reasonable time. I don’t see players willing to play games at 2 a.m. Central European Time so it can air at 8 p.m. ET in Washington or New York City.

Marcus Atkinson: I’m no doctor, but I don’t think there should be fans in 2020-21. We are seeing states like Georgia that are struggling with schools reopening for in-person instruction.

Sports arenas present a new level of challenges that are even more unique than schools. If there is an outbreak, it won’t just scare fans off, but the team(s) affected will have a hard time convincing local governments to continue play. I think that’s asking a lot, so I say no to fans in the stands.

I also think moving the NBA into exile to a faraway land isn’t feasible for the reasons laid out previously.

I think the NBA should continue next season with a bubble, but change some things up. The NBA should consider breaking the season up in segments. It’s asking a lot for players to spend months away from their families. I would suggest having the same bubble set up that they have now, but run it in two month intervals.

So the NBA would play for two months, take one month off and then return for two more months and continue to do this until the season is over. It is not ideal and rapid-testing will have to be part of the picture so players can make the most out of their time in-between bubble periods. But this scenario gives players the opportunity to not be confined to the bubble for an extended period of time. And it also prevents players from burning out in case they want to start the 2021-22 NBA season on time.

Ben Mehic: If there isn’t a vaccine in the next several months, the NBA should continue to listen to the experts — and the experts tell us that large gatherings are a bad idea. A stadium full of people, even at a limited capacity, will seemingly spread illness. And that, by any reasonable person, is a no-no.

I expect the league to continue without fans for the foreseeable future, and perhaps in some remixed bubble fashion — maybe in a different location (Las Vegas, anyone?).

Asking the players to leave their families and perform overseas seems kind of difficult, as the bubble in Orlando was problematic for players with children.

I’ll say this, though: I’m impressed by the NBA and how they’ve put this together. I was admittedly skeptical, but we’re now weeks into it and it’s gone incredibly well. Kudos to the NBA.

In closing, the NBA’s bubble has been a success. But it provides challenges for the players, who can feel mentally isolated. Also, moving the NBA to another country besides Canada wouldn’t just be a logistical and a time challenge. It will be a diplomatic challenge since the men and women working on Wetstraat/Rue de la Loi in Brussels, Belgium for the European Union haven’t been too warm to their American counterparts on Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C. recently.

Though the EU opened the Schengen Area’s borders to some countries, Americans are still banned from non-essential travel. Americans also face a mandatory 14-day quarantine to enter South Korea.

So the only way the NBA and its mostly American player base can get into Europe especially, is through travel ban exemptions. Relations may be icy with Europe at the moment, but the NBA is a worldwide brand. And the American government extended the olive branch to Brussels in this regard since European athletes were allowed to enter the USA without quarantining in a third country. So I’d be optimistic about American athletes getting travel ban exemptions to go to Europe for work.

Of course, there is still one major wrinkle if the NBA moved to Europe for a season: Would the EU want to have the NBA, and several hundred Americans (players, team personnel) within their borders? And what kind of a positive impact would that have on their economies, especially if games have no fans?

Finally, would FIBA Europe, the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague and the 7Days EuroCup consider the NBA a threat, especially in countries where basketball is popular like Spain, Italy and Greece?

And for those of you who are from Europe or South Korea reading this site, would you be interested seeing the NBA in your backyard, even if games can’t be played in front of fans?

Let us know in the comments below.