Could Coronavirus be the NBA’s Next Experiment?

As the NBA prepares to play fan-less games, could empty arenas offer opportunities to experiment on broadcasts?

Photo by Daniel Absi

Almost three years ago to the day, the 25–38 New York Knicks attempted a daring NBA experiment. For the first half of their contest against the 51–11 Golden State Warriors, there would be no in-game entertainment.

As summarized on the jumbotron, the idea was to present “the game in its purest form.” The squeaks of rubber-soled Nikes rung throughout Madison Square Garden, interrupted only by a bellowing fan or referee whistle.

Televised by ESPN, the first 24 minutes of play ran at odds against the overproduced commercial bumpers of Disney’s sports network. After the game, some of the participants described the experience as nearly sacrosanct, likening the atmosphere to that of a church.

“You sort of take it for granted because every NBA game, you got all this stuff going on, music in the background. You don’t even think about it until it’s not there. It felt like church,” Kerr said (via ESPN). “It was very quiet. It is Sunday, after all. Maybe that’s why they chose it. It was strange. I kind of liked it better in the second half. It felt more normal with the music.”

Though the opening half of the Knicks’ game without entertainment was viewed less than favorably, it signaled an important characteristic of the commissioner Adam Silvers’ NBA: a willingness to experiment.

Since then, the NBA has seen changes in its shot clock and play review rules, as well as changes to allowable in-game attire (like mismatching sneakers) and a complete overhaul of the All Star Game. Some changes have been more favorable than others, but the NBA’s overwhelming openness to retooling its 73 year-old athletic institution is commendable (especially when the NFL and MLB struggle to shake stigmas of their own).

While the Association continues to tool with plans for improving fan engagement, it is already faced with another, potentially less voluntary change. Rising concerns about COVID-19, otherwise known as the coronavirus, could see the NBA play out in empty arenas until the pandemic passes.

Anticipating the continued spread of the virus, the league’s head office declared that all 30 teams prepare plans to combat the virus by Tuesday, March 10. Suggestions include limiting the number of staff that travel with the team, having access to doctors capable of COVID-19 testing.

In response to the potentiality of fan-less games, LeBron James, the NBA’s most notable spokesperson, lobbied his objection to playing in vacant stadiums.

“We play games without the fans? No, it’s impossible,” James said. “I ain’t playing. If I ain’t got the fans in the crowd, that’s who I play for. I play for my teammates- I play for the fans. That’s what it’s all about. If I show up to an arena and there are no fans in there, I ain’t playing. They can do what they want to do.”

The NBA might pursue an empty arena clause to protect the league’s greatest asset s— its players and fans — but its precautions will present difficulties for everyone else involved.

On March 6, the Warriors, amid 32 local COVID-19 cases, issued a statement addressing the extra precautions the team and its arena plan to take to protect gamegoers. Among staples, like encouraging visitors to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds and assuring fans that high-traffic surfaces — seats, door handles, etc. — will be sanitized regularly, is the blanket reminder that fans feeling unwell stay home.

“Any guest who is feeling sick, regardless of their symptoms, should not attend public events. In addition, the Warriors are also encouraging vulnerable populations, including persons with underlying health conditions, not to attend tomorrow night’s Warriors game at Chase Center.”

More important than the lost dollar on fans part for skipping games (the Warriors’ statement does not identify a refund policy) is the trickle-down effect a broader fan shut down could have on local economies.

In 2010, when then-Cleveland Cavalier James decided to take his talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat, the Cavs saw a decline in valuation from $476 million to $355 million. His mere presence is an economic stimulus package, drawing basketball fans to downtown areas littered with locally own shops and restaurants.

That season, Positively Cleveland, the city’s tourism group, estimated that Cleveland earned nearly $4 million for each home game. Apply those losses to the rest of the league, which fields a number of mid- to small-market teams, and you have a recipe for crushing downtown areas around the country.

Despite the possible economic consequences, the NBA and its media team could, at least temporarily, play barren arenas as a “feature” rather than a failure. Silent arenas could offer the opportunity to surround the hardwood with microphones for full games, effectively amplifying the league’s existing use of on-court sound bites.

Or, as the league has taken to for its online broadcasts of nationally televised games, camera crews could experiment with viewing angles, using a homebound fanbase as a mass market beta test.

With pro leagues around the world taking crowd control measures to prevent COVID-19’s spread, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see the NBA isolate itself to improve public health. How negatively the virus impacts the league however, is under as much of the NBA’s control as ever.



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Brandon Johnson

Brandon Johnson

Forever hunting for my new favorite music sample. Founder of & 🌴🦩