How NBA fandom has changed due to COVID-19

COVID-19 Updates
COVID-19 Updates

A COVID-19-sniffing dog in a socially distanced line at AmericanAirlines Arena greets Steve, a 32-year-old attorney who didn’t want to use his real name out of fear that he’d be judged for attending a Miami Heat game, where he fills out a questionnaire.

Inside, he finds the seats next to his zip-tied shut, so fans can’t congregate together as the game progresses. Ushers in each section ensure the patrons are wearing masks.

All this, just so 1,500 Heat fans can watch the Charlotte Hornets run away with the game in overtime.

About half the NBA has opened its doors to fans in some capacity. The Dallas Mavericks are giving free seats to vaccinated essential workers, while the Houston Rockets are hosting fans at 25% capacity. Anyone sitting within 30 feet of the floor must present a negative PCR test or take a rapid test on site. Some arenas have upgraded their air filtration systems, but it’s not the same as being outdoors.

“I just think about what happens when they do indoor pyrotechnics in enclosed arenas,” said Susan Hassig, an associate professor of epidemiology at Tulane University. “That smoke hangs around for quite a while. That means that virus particles can hang around.”

Hassig also voiced concerns about fans attending games in suites, which are much more confined than the rest of the arena.

The fans Yahoo Sports spoke with also had concerns about COVID-19, but they chose to attend anyway. If that sounds irrational, consider: irrationality is the straw that stirs the NBA’s billion-dollar enterprise. An exceptional amount of resources and creativity are funneled into this frivolous, unnecessary pursuit. But it’s the very frivolousness of it that attracts fans and breeds connection and loyalty. Extreme sports fandom is astounding, garish, disturbing, inspiring.

Teams have gone to great lengths to connect fans to seats and debit cards to ATM portals, and fans are willing to go to great lengths to attend. But fandom, they’re learning, is different this year.

Fans look on during the fourth quarter between the Miami Heat and the Toronto Raptors at American Airlines Arena.
About half the NBA has opened its doors to fans in some capacity. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Trying to replicate the arena experience virtually

When the Golden State Warriors’ ambitious and likely unfeasible attempt to rapid test and host 10,000 fans at the Chase Center was shot down by the California legislature, the Warriors pivoted to the DubHub, making them the only team in the NBA still hosting virtual fans.

“As we moved closer to the start of the season, it sounded like [no fans in the arena] was going to be the most realistic scenario so we really started looking at some options around that,” said Jen Millet, Warriors senior vice president of marketing. “How do we take what the league did in Orlando and potentially even evolve on it, and create a great experience for Warriors fans?”

When you first log into the DubHub, the first thing you notice is yourself. In the left-hand corner of the screen, your disembodied 2D face is clustered with five other fans. Staying locked in the present without darting one’s eyes to the corner of the screen is not impossible, but it takes practice.

Cartoons play in the background of one fan’s stream. A father chats with his daughter, who eventually emerges on screen to shyly say hello. The experiences capture the cadence of a living room more than a crowd.

The DubHub is meant to be interactive, with “defense” signs and virtual slapsticks for when opponents line up at the free-throw line.

As fans are making small-talk, Yundi Chiu, a fan in the room, is spotlighted on-screen. When asked if she knew she was going to be featured, another fan steps in to congratulate her. Asked a second time and she starts her reply without realizing she’s muted.

This stopping and starting makes small talk evolving into a real conversation challenging but the collective effort of the Warriors should be applauded for building a free way for fans to engage, of the fans who show up and try to grasp at a few stolen moments of connection.

“It's nothing like the arena experience,” said Velma Wilson, an Antioch resident and Warriors fan, “but it does give you that arena feel.”

The Warriors caught wind that Wilson was receiving the Contra County Board of Supervisors’ 2021 Humanitarian of the Year Award and featured her in the DubHub during a game last month.

She loves the virtual tunnel, where fans watch players run out and cheer them on. Sometimes players will stop and chat with the 20 voices that coalesce into one speaker. In one game, Kent Bazemore found the exact location of the mic. On another occasion, Millet said she saw Draymond Green reaching out high-fiving the screen, the closest thing to going through the screen and touching a fan.

A general view as the Golden State Warriors play the Los Angeles Lakers in the fourth quarter of their NBA game at the Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif., on Monday, March 15, 2021. Fans still aren
Fans are still not allowed at the Chase Center in San Francisco. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)

'It felt honestly safer than going to the grocery store'

While the Heat played the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 of the NBA Finals at the Disney World bubble, 230 miles away, the AmericanAirlines Arena in downtown Miami was empty.

There were no watch parties to attend, no packed streets littered with Heat jerseys, no bars to drink their sorrows away in. Confined to their living room, Steve and his wife tried putting their mark on the result in the time-honored tradition of all fans who feel close but remain far away: superstition. The orange WNBA hoodie was deemed lucky. Heat gear was not.

“Everyone's in a bubble pretty much — in separate bubbles,” he said, “and there's just none of that magic you get of being a sports fan, especially in the home city you're in.”

Steve and his wife were watching at home when they realized Jimmy Butler’s almost-triple-double would be for naught.

“I just remember being deflated a bit,” he said. “You turn off the TV as fast as you can after the game’s over. You don’t want to see anything. You don’t want to talk to anybody. It was just me and my wife sitting there processing disappointment.”

Miami’s NBA Finals run heightened the joys and pains of fandom for Steve. Sports — the ultimate distraction in the absence of all other distractions — consumed him more than ever.

“Losses add on to an already incredibly stressful time and wins are your reprieve from that,” he said, “and it felt like the best way to forget about everything else.”

Steve was conflicted about the NBA forging ahead with the 2020-21 season while cases spiked, but when the Heat opened the arena to season-ticket holders, he contemplated going. He yearned to actually see the team he’d invested so much emotional real estate into.

Friends and family of the Minnesota Timberwolves attend the game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Phoenix Suns at Target Center on February 28, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This was the first game any fans were allowed into the arena. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Friends and family of the Minnesota Timberwolves attend the game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Phoenix Suns at Target Center. (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

He researched Miami’s plan and told himself he would leave if he was uncomfortable.

“It’s a risk,” he said he decided, “but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.”

Steve bounced back between excitement and fear as the game approached. The precautions the Heat took did make him feel safer. As the game wore on, he couldn’t shake the sense that something was missing. The artificial crowd noise felt canned, impeding on his hope to hear some strategizing on the court.

“It felt honestly safer than going to the grocery store at this point,” he said. “That's how secure it feels.” He paused. “It's also sterile. It's the downside of being sterile.”

Two definitions of “sterile,” per the Cambridge Dictionary.

  1. Completely clean and free from dirt and bacteria.

  2. Lacking in imagination, ideas, or enthusiasm.

Steve was hoping for a release valve, a slice of normalcy to hold him over.

“It was kind of just more of a big reminder of, hey, this is like the last year has been like,” Steve said. “The things that I like aren't things that you really can manufacture or fake back in.”

Things like the sacred beliefs communicated by organic crowd noise, like the excited murmurs that rise when Duncan Robinson pulls up from three, unexpected jeers and boos, and the dance great players do with crowds — invigorating them, inspiring them, silencing them.

“I'm just going to wait until it's OK to do that stuff again and then I'll go back to the game,” he continued. “But until then, I'm going to stay at home.”

A potential sneak peek into the future

Shweta Julka and her mom, a physician at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, were relieved to find vaccination cards were being checked at the gates.

Living in Texas, which dropped its mask mandate, Julka doubles up on masks. But the arena felt like a bubble, a potential sneak peek into the future.

“With only vaccinated people allowed, it’s literally a different universe. You can be confident everyone around is vaccinated, and it’s being checked and you can’t cheat the system,” she said. “I don’t have that same level of comfort or confidence walking around in Dallas.”

At first, the old normal jolted her. She grabbed a slice of pizza from the concession stands and when she sat down, she remembered she’d have to take her mask off to eat. She removed it while taking bites and put it back on again to chew.

“I just kind of would a little bit, turn my head in the other direction, keep my mask on, just instinctive things, I guess,” she said.

She noticed behavioral changes as the game progressed, like fans cramming together onto the escalator to leave the arena.

“It took some warming up, getting used to again, being around so many people,” Julka said.

Against the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 3, the crowd’s attention turned to Boban Marjanovic, a giant, bumbling fan favorite whose chorus of made threes has turned into an impromptu halftime show. You can hear the nerves escalate with every follow-through, the momentum build with each swish.

These moments with no pumped-in crowd noises are Julka's favorite part of the experience. Some people enter crowds to get swept up in their tide — to be quiet when it’s quiet, loud when it’s loud. Imagine screaming into the silence and getting no response outside of your own echo.

It’s like prematurely clapping in a crowded audience. Some fans just felt too seen to express themselves.

“For example, my family members were actually more discouraged to be vocal because it was so silent,” Julka said. “They felt like everybody was looking at them if they were louder.”

But she likes the silence.

“I personally thought it was cool. I thought it was great that I would be heard, and I wanted to be heard,” Julka said. “I wanted them to know that we're there and we're there to support them.”

At halftime of one Mavericks game, Luka Doncic’s teammates walked off while he stayed back to do an interview. Right before he put his headphones in, Julka yelled, “I love you, Luka!” and was thrilled when Doncic actually looked up.

 The national anthem is played before a game between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Dallas Mavericks in the first quarter at American Airlines Center on February 12, 2021 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Only vaccinated fans are being allowed at Dallas Mavericks games so far. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Individual fans can engage with players more than ever, creating a unique challenge for the NBA. Elijah Williams, an event security employee at State Farm Arena in Atlanta has always been on the lookout for fans who say something “over-the-top disrespectful,” but now he has to account for every drunk fan that might sneak an F-bomb into a nationally televised broadcast.

Until crowds are large enough to accommodate the broadcast, artificial noise will continue to jostle against the fans, who yearn to be heard.

As of now, no arena has hosted a 50% capacity crowd, and Hassig worries about the logistics of trying. The Warriors’ ambitious plan would require a separate testing area that could house a lineup that could accommodate 10,000 people. Some metro areas might be able to test fans in cars, but what about metropolitan areas where the majority of people arrive via transit or ride-sharing platforms?

The NBA has no current plans to require attendees to be vaccinated, but Mavs owner Mark Cuban hopes the vaccine can shift the current reality by the postseason.

“We’re playing in April and May. It wouldn’t be inconceivable if vaccines are readily available, and we have more vaccines than people wanting them, to open the arena up back to 10,000, 15,000 or more,” Cuban told Colin Cowherd on “The Herd.”

But even the vaccine rollout will present new challenges and uncertainties about its strength in fighting off different variants and their long-term efficacy. If the NBA has learned anything over the past year, it’s that it’s dangerous to make predictions based on predictions.

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