By Eddie Gonzalez
Amid skepticism amongst media, fans, medical professionals and some of the league’s biggest superstars, the NBA persisted in its plan to resume the season, inching closer and closer through the early weeks of summer. Eventually, the NBA and the WNBA each settled on what was dubbed a “bubble,” a radical contained-site concept that required a massive commitment from the players, staff and everyone else connected to the league. The NBA set up shop in Orlando, Florida at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex, while the WNBA migrated 100 miles away at the IMG Academy in Bradenton.
Now, with the NBA’s regular season officially complete, and six of the 22 teams that entered the bubble heading home it’s time to declare the format a rousing success. Both the NBA and WNBA have recorded zero positive COVID-19 tests since players entered their respective bubbles. The leagues’ success has been a stark contrast to the constant complications the MLB has faced, including multiple postponements after 18 Miami Marlins tested positive for the virus. The NFL has faced hurdles even starting their season, with dozens of players opting out of playing altogether, and many unanswered questions remaining less than a month before the season is set to kickoff.
Health concerns going into the bubble were obviously valid, but so were concerns about the lifestyle changes necessary to enter such isolation. While photos of the initial lackluster meals inside the bubble went viral, along with some of the living conditions of the WNBA bubble, the amenities afforded to the players seemed to eventually win both the players and the outside world over.
“I really just didn’t know what to expect coming into this,” said Boston Celtics All-Star Kemba Walker via text message. “But it actually turned out to be kinda dope.”
Walker has used his time inside the bubble to connect with his colleagues. “(I’m) really getting a chance to chill and bond with my teammates on another level,” he said. That includes taking advantage of the bubble’s golf course, losing a few rounds to his teammate Jayson Tatum. “I’m terrible”, he said. “I’m just a beginner. Hardest sport in the world.”
While Walker spends his time in the bubble growing closer to teammates both old and new, two opponents in the WNBA bubble have made waves with their new audio partnership. The league’s last two Rookie of the Year award winners and fellow All-Stars, Las Vegas Aces’ A’ja Wilson and Minnesota Lynx’s Napheesa Collier have come together inside the bubble for their podcast, Tea with A & Phee. Lighthearted and endearing, just four episodes in Wilson and Collier have displayed a natural chemistry and amassed a star-studded guest list that includes Kevin Durant, reigning WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne and seeding games MVP Damian Lillard.
While both had concerns going into the bubble, including being away from their families and puppies, both cited the podcast and the togetherness as positives they’ve taken away from their time in isolation at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
“I like being so close with everyone, it feels like college,” said Collier. “(I’m) pretty much doing the same things I did last year. Going to practice and games and hanging out in my villa.” While Wilson said she enjoys “not having to travel as much,” she also pointed out something at the heart of both bubbles, “I know I’m here for something bigger than myself and basketball.”
While the NBA touted their league and the time in the bubble as a platform and an opportunity for their players to make statements and speak out about police brutality and social justice, the WNBA dedicated their season to Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman who was killed by Louisville police in her home in March.
“We’re using basketball as a tool to bring awareness to people that have been killed by police brutality,” Wilson said in a post-game press conference on August 1st, when asked about the “Say Her Name” t-shirt she wore during the Zoom call. “We have the platform to do it, and I’m so glad that I’m here to be able to do that and play the game at the same time. But at the end of the day we’re here for one thing, and that’s justice for Breonna Taylor and that’s justice for all these women who have lost their lives.”
Walker has used his time in the bubble to issue a similar statement, adding “Love Us” to his uniform and taking the time to ask for justice for Taylor as well. “We need justice for Breonna Taylor,” he said before one press conference. “We as a group, this is what we want and this is what we need. This is what the world needs."
In giving their players the platform to make those statements, the bubbles have been rousing successes. They’ve also managed to keep their players healthy and away from COVID-19, at least temporarily, and brought the game of basketball back to the forefront. The WNBA’s opening game on ABC between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Phoenix Mercury was the league’s most-watched opener since 2012. Viewership for ESPN’s four game opening slate across ABC and ESPN was up 63% compared to last season’s average.
In contrast, the NBA’s viewership has taken a dip, continuing year-long trends for the league after a surge in viewership on the league’s first night back, declining 4% from its pre-pandemic average in the league’s first week of returning to action. Many factors come into play, including a crowded schedule, teams choosing to be cautious and sitting various players during marquee matchups and a diminished product that includes digital fans and piped-in crowd noise. Still, the league draws a higher average viewership than current competitors the NHL and MLB, and the final week of the season drew similarly to the final week of last season. Even with the viewership dip, the NBA has found ways to monetize other portions of the product. This includes partnerships with Michelob Ultra for the virtual fans and Microsoft for the 17-foot-tall LED screens where they’re displayed each night, giving fans a chance to be intimately involved and mitigating losses in one fell swoop.
TV ratings remain a constant topic of conversation for both leagues, but the most important number for the NBA and WNBA bubbles for the rest of these seasons will be zero. That number has been maintained as zero players have tested positive for COVID during their time in either bubble. That alone makes each of them a success, even if it took drastic measures and unparalleled isolation for each league to actually play in and navigate this climate.
Plus, the experiment has benefited the country and world as a whole as well. An NBA and NBPA-funded and Yale-developed COVID test known as SalivaDirect was utilized on players and staff in the lead up to their league’s return to play. The test is not only more cost-effective than other competitors on the market, it’s also a simpler process, allowing for more labs around the country and world to employ this saliva-based alternative and process results faster. After the success of the test within the bubble, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency authorization, allowing for public use.
There is a wee bit of irony in the current setup for Walker, as he’s set to play in the first playoff series of his career where he has home court advantage. His previous two series both were against the Miami Heat, and now “home” is in Orlando, on a neutral court as the Celtics face the Philadelphia 76ers. “Being in the comfort of my own crib,” Walker lamented. “That’s what I miss the most right now.”