Last month, the National Basketball Association became the first US professional sports league to postpone play due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The might soon become the first league to cancel the rest of their season for the same reason. The ‘party line’ has been–and as far as the league is concerned still is–that the NBA is just waiting for the ‘right time’ to set in motion the steps to resume play.
The problem is that no one else involved with the league looks especially anxious to do so. More problematically, the NBA itself is terrified to look like they’re doing anything to get up and running again. Earlier this week, the league took tentative steps to re-open practice facilities in markets where the ‘stay at home’ orders would allow it. There wasn’t exactly a ‘backlash’ other than a few sparsely sourced ESPN stories but the NBA turned around and bolted course like a scared rabbit, delaying their plan within 24 hours. What’s strange is that the move was little more than symbolic. Even stranger–the NBA has a pretty good rationale behind their desire to re-open team practice facilities thinking that players are likely safer there than at a random gym or fitness center.
Now it’s starting to look like the NBA might have reversed course to buy them some time rather than admit that their players and executives don’t want to play hoops again this year. There was a bit of ‘writing on the wall’ in a ESPN story released earlier this week in which Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said that his team is operating as if the season is over:
“It feels like the offseason. And, in fact, we had a Zoom call, Bob Myers and I got on a Zoom with our players, our whole roster last week. And it was just a chance to check in, but it was also a chance for Bob to update the players on his contact with the league and the latest news, but it also kind of felt like our annual team exit meeting. Our coaching staff and I have been undergoing staff evaluations, offseason plans, so we are absolutely in offseason mode right now.”
Kerr spun his comments as if this vibe was unique to his team–the injury ravaged Warriors are a league worst 15-50 and already eliminated from the playoffs. Instead, it might be a more universal feeling. Earlier today, CNBC (though, curiously, not ESPN) reported that NBA team executives and agents are ‘calling on the league to cancel the rest of the 2019-2020 season’:
Team executives are starting to feel the pressure, frustrated with the lack of information from the league and pushing for an outright cancellation of the season so everyone can focus on safely resuming play next season.
NBA team executives and players’ agents spoke to CNBC in recent weeks about the challenges in resuming play. They said team owners are concerned with liability issues and are conflicted about whether or not to give up on the current season. The individuals spoke on condition of anonymity as they aren’t authorized to discuss league matters publicly.
That last bit probably explains why you haven’t (for now) seen the story–a pretty big news report within the sports ecosystem–on ESPN. This also underscores why a sports handicapper just can’t depend on ESPN for information. They’re a business partner of the ESPN and as such they’re going to defer to the league when a story like this comes across the transom. They’ll eventually report some version of this narrative but only after the NBA signs off on their angle.
In fairness to the NBA team execs, their position is understandable. The CNBC report quoted one unnamed team executive who summed things up nicely:
“What [owners] are saying is, ’If we return, where is the revenue that is going to justify the additional cost of returning? They are looking at the cost side versus the revenue side. What revenue comes in now?”
The NBA released a fairly generic statement when contacted by CNBC:
“It is the responsibility of the league office to explore all options for a return to play this season,. We owe that to our fans, teams, players, partners and all who love the game. While our top priority remains everyone’s health and well-being, we continue to evaluate all options to finish this season. At the same time, we are intensely focused on addressing the potential impact of Covid-19 on the 2020-21 season.”
From the sound of it, they’re going to try and salvage the postseason but many of the same financial, logistical and health/safety issues could also put this kibosh on that. According to the CNBC report, the NBA’s decision could influence what other leagues do. Stay tuned….