Yesterday, the NBA officially resumed its season and playoff push inside its Walt Disney World Resort “bubble” in Orlando, Fla. With 22 teams and 300 players attempting to safely compete for a title, the league faces an immense challenge in keeping COVID-19 at bay. Fortunately, there’s a blueprint of just how it can be done: The Basketball Tournament, which recently completed 11 days of competition and crowned a champion on ESPN while also taking necessary measures to elude the coronavirus.
“There are four essential tools to make things work: testing, masking, social distancing and grouping,” The Basketball Tournament founder and CEO Jon Mugar said. “As long as you can control and deploy those four tools, you should be able to pull it off.”
TBT, an open tournament in which anyone over the age of 18 can compete for a $1 million grand prize, had been around since 2014. But it never faced a year as challenging as this one. Mugar counts himself lucky to have had total participation from the players and early counsel from Johns Hopkins Ph.D. and public health professional Tara Kirk Sell.
“It was a really good collaboration between public health and sports,” Sell said. “They wanted to do what was useful…. Everything that was happening was done along the lines of public health recommendations.”
It was also done with complete buy-in from the players, according to Mugar. “The essential part of all of this is compliance from everybody who’s participating. If one person is not on the same page as everyone else, it’s not going to work…. Anyone who’s going to try to do this in the future has to have buy-in from absolutely everybody,” he said.
TBT’s endeavor wasn’t without cost: The entire health and safety plan, including COVID-19 testing, set the organization back more than $1 million. The tournament also had to implement at-home testing, on-site testing, mask wearing, extreme social distancing, no media access and strict quarantine policies. Any divergence from the rules would put everyone within the tournament at risk.
Before players could even travel to Columbus, Ohio, to compete, they were all sent COVID-19 testing kits. They went through instructions with a league official via a Zoom call and mailed the kit back through UPS. The at-home testing results came back with an alarming positive rate of 7.5%, but after isolating individuals, TBT got the percentage down to 1.6% and eventually to 0. Mugar also brought in four alternative teams as a backup—unfortunately one tested out, leaving TBT one game short.
“That was the only downside, especially considering we achieved our goal of crowning a champion,” Mugar said. “[But] never having been through this situation before, our team and the players performed a 10/10.”
When the tournament began, no one was permitted to leave their hotel rooms until they received a negative on-site test. And even then, players could only exit for practices, games or to go to designated team rooms.
Outside of dealing with the virus, TBT also had to manage a unique game presentation. With no fans, the only sounds in the gym were game chatter, shoe squeaks and the consistent sound of basketballs bouncing. Despite ratings dropping 33% from 2019 (385,000 viewers to 258,000), organizers still consider the tournament a success—if for no other reason than making it through.
TBT and ESPN have maintained a relationship since 2014 and agreed to a three-year extension last year that’ll take it through 2022.
For the NBA’s bubble, similar precautions to TBT have been enacted, including mandatory masks and gloves, constant testing, social distancing and wearable devices that may detect a change in health. Any player that exits the bubble—purposefully or not—must quarantine for 10–14 days. And if a player were to contract COVID-19, he’d be forced to quarantine for a minimum of seven days.
The NBA has also set up a call number—dubbed the “snitch hotline”—available to anyone inside the bubble to anonymously report social distancing violations. And while the Athletic reported all players, team staff and guests will be required to certify in writing that they will adhere to all pre-arrival rules and league rules while on campus, the outlet said the hotline has already been put to use.
With months of preparation, The Basketball Tournament was able to sustain a successful basketball event for two weeks. Now the NBA faces the same challenge, except over the course of two months.