An end of the championship in the “bubble” of Orlando, a wall of virtual spectators to ensure the atmosphere, a policy of health tests of remarkable scale and efficiency … The 2019–2020 season of the American championship basketball tournament, which ended in early October, confirmed the league’s incredible ability to innovate.
LeBron James has won his bet. The iconic American basketball star, 35, intended, by joining the Los Angeles Lakers team in the summer of 2018, to clinch a fourth NBA championship title. It’s done. After a sixth game against the valiant Miami Heat, the Ohio native was able to lift the trophy once again. The King remains the King. Six games, therefore, for these unprecedented 2020 finals played in isolation, without an audience, on the site of Disney World Park, in Orlando (Florida), after a hectic season, interrupted in March and then restarted in July because of the global pandemic situation.
“A whole new game”
At the end of this exercise, LeBron James will not have been the only one to have succeeded in his bet because, for the professional basketball league, the resumption of the season was not obvious. When Adam Silver, the “boss” of the NBA, announces his hiatus on March 12, with 259 games still to be played, no one knows if a champion will be crowned at the end of 2020. The coronavirus is rife all over America and a first case was diagnosed among the players, the unfortunate Frenchman Rudy Gobert who, a few weeks before, was still joking about the pandemic.
In such a time, sports entertainment may seem secondary, but when it comes to a business as colossal and oiled as the NBA, nothing can stop the machine. Not even a pandemic. The show must go on.
To be able to restart its championship, the NBA therefore imagined a new device, a “bubble”, an end of the championship under a bell, within the walls of the Disney World amusement park in Orlando. “A whole new game”, hammer the league. 22 teams are invited to Florida. They will each play six regular season games before starting the play-offs, the final tournament which must designate the champion.
A drastic health protocol is in place. A 113-page bible is written to indicate behaviors to follow and to avoid. In addition to the 341 players invited to join the bubble, the staff of each team is limited to 37 people. Strict silos are made between the teams and the rest of the organization. Visits are prohibited, contact inside the bubble limited. Covid-19 positivity tests are daily. Players and staff are spread over three hotels, each with their own room, and the matches take place in three different venues.
An over-connected bubble
Beyond the daily tests, a profusion of technological means is implemented to monitor the health of the players and the staff. A connected bracelet, the “Disney Magic Band”, usually used in the amusement park to unlock hotel rooms and access attractions, makes it possible to follow the movements of the wearer. Connected rings allow you to read temperature, heart rate and a whole series of health data in real time.
More than 2000 “Oura” connected rings are, on a voluntary basis, also distributed to the players. They allow you to read temperature, heart rate and a whole series of health data in real time. Players are invited to report any symptoms in an application made in NBA, NBA’s MyHealth, itself interfaced with bluetooth thermometers and oximeters, in order to measure the amount of oxygen in the blood and thus detect the slightest disorder. respiratory.
If the players agree to abide by such a protocol, it is in their best interest to see the championship resume. This is what Joshua Mendelsohn explains in great detail in his book The Cap: How Larry Fleisher and David Stern built the modern NBA (Nebraska Press, 2020). If the NBA was able to take off and become the colossus it is today, when it was competed with other basketball leagues until the mid-1970s, it is precisely because it has knew how to make themselves attractive, to financially interest the players in the revenues generated by the league, to give them a place in all the discussions, in particular through their union, the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA).
It is a kind of partnership which has thus been forged between the league, the clubs and the players, one of the great architects of which was the lawyer and sports agent Larry Fleischer, “the most influential man in history. professional sport ”according to Joshua Mendelsohn. Fleischer notably succeeded in obtaining in 1976 the right for players to become “free agents” at the end of their contract with a club, and thus to bring into play competition between franchises before signing a new deal. Until then, players were linked to their club in perpetuity. This is what history will remember as the “Oscar Robertson Case”, which marked a watershed moment for the NBA.
The league’s mode of operation, complex, thought out by Fleischer and David Stern, who will remain at the head of the NBA for thirty years, will also allow a redistribution of the profits of the league to the smallest clubs in order to invite them to spend, and make the NBA a real market, competitive and efficient. The strategy of David Stern, also a lawyer by training, of forging fruitful agreements with national and local television channels, then opening up to the international market by focusing on the arrival of European players and the conquest of foreign markets , will complete this expansion work.
Today, more than seventy years after its inception, the NBA is a steadily growing juggernaut, a global league whose games are watched on every continent. The Chinese market alone represents an annual NBA turnover of $ 500 million. India is the next country in the sights. The league’s annual revenues were $ 8.75 billion for the 2018–19 season, a figure that could be compared to the 5 billion euros for the English football league, the Premier League. Above all, David Stern has instilled a culture of innovation and constant reinvention.
An announced shipwreck
As described above, the NBA “bubble” designed for the resumption of the championship this year may sound like a billionaire jail, a technological dystopia. We can see in it a calamitous, almost stubborn company, destined to continue to run, at all costs, the crazy cash machine. That’s the sentiment conveyed by New York Times reporter Sam Anderson, who has joined Florida for the resumption of the season. “It all sounded ridiculous,” he wrote, “a parody of capitalism. In the midst of a global nightmare, the most powerful basketball league on the planet decides to end its season in the candy-pink refuge of the most famous amusement park in the world. The players were going to live in strict isolation and were going to have daily access to viral tests that the rest of the country had desperately demanded for months (…) The NBA bubble was the intersection of a circus, a seminar company and a space mission. To be honest, I was going because I was sure I would witness its sinking. “
What would become of the basketball experience, that intense, physical contact game that, in the case of the NBA, required an army of shadow workers? What atmosphere could we expect, when the matches were huge shows and usually gathered tens of thousands of spectators, for the lucky ones and the richest sitting on the very edge of the pitch, a few meters from their idols? ? Rémi Reverchon, NBA specialist and presenter of the NBA Extra show on BeIn Sports, admits a posteriori his skepticism: “I had the impression that we were going to attend a simulacrum of basketball, something tasteless, confides to us the journalist. Quite the opposite has happened. “
A sporting event from the future?
Indeed, to continue its spectacular tradition, the NBA is quick to imagine an answer to the absence of an audience. She formed a partnership with Microsoft, made her teams work and gave birth to an idea: a wall of screens, more than 5 meters high, on which slogans and videos could be displayed, but also and above all a “Virtual audience”. By relying on the Microsoft Teams video conferencing software solution, 320 fans would be able to attend each meeting, encourage their team and chat with each other in private rooms.
As curious as this experience may seem, called “Ultra Courtside” and naturally associated with a brand, it wowed the fans. “We could never have imagined the reception we were going to have,” said Sara Zuckert, director of the audiovisual innovation arm of the NBA, “but the feedback has been fantastic!” “. Above all, the device gives ample change when one finds oneself in front of his television (or another screen). “It was amazing how ‘normal’ it seemed, Sam Anderson said again, the NBA had managed to create an almost perfect replica of its pre-pandemic product. Everything was there: the brightly colored jerseys, the blond and shiny wood of the parquet, and even the fans around the field ”. For some, the experience even takes on an announcing significance, shaping the future of live entertainment and sporting events, ie a hybrid, interactive device, combining live performance and digital devices.
More broadly, the NBA bubble was able to meet another challenge: the protection of the health of its players and their supervision. In two months of competition, no case of coronavirus has been reported. The NBA and the players’ union have even worked with Yale University to develop a new type of test Covid-19, a saliva test, which is then put on the market. The players, for their part, will be mostly confined to having lived the experience well, despite the confinement and the distance from their families.
When Doctor Anthony Fauci, the White House’s ‘Mr. Covid’, has something to say, what does he do? He talks about it on a set with Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors player). A few weeks ago, it was Donovan Mitchell and Tobias Harris (respectively Utah Jazz and Philadelphia Sixers players) who were invited by Kamala Harris, senator from California! Sport has never been so important in society for the past fifty years.