NBA Returns with Fans in Some Arenas and Revenue Shortfalls Everywhere

Barry M. Bloom
·5 min read

On Tuesday night, the National Basketball Association opens the 2020-21 regular season with a pair of games: The Golden State Warriors, having traveled 3,000 miles during the peak of the pandemic, will play the Nets in Brooklyn, while the Lakers and Clippers are staying put to meet in their shared Staples Center home as coronavirus cases surge in Los Angeles.

There will be no fans in the stands, which will be the season-opening norm in most of the 29 NBA arenas. Five games are slated for Friday, per Christmas tradition.

If the entire 2020-21 campaign, shortened to 72 games, were to be played sans fans, the NBA would stand to lose 40% of its revenue, Commissioner Adam Silver said Monday during a conference call with the media.

The sport generated $8.76 billion in 2018-19, the last full season played before COVID-19 spread across North America earlier this year. A 40% loss related to ticket sales, concessions and parking would amount to about $3.5 billion. This season’s projected losses are a little less, with fans attending games in a handful of NBA arenas.

“It’s a huge priority to get fans back into our arenas,” Silver said. “As of today, recognizing that circumstances can change day to day, six of our teams are planning to begin the season with at least some fans. That’s relatively small, but we’re excited to learn from it and hope that if it happens safely it may cause some public health officials to rethink the rules in place in their markets.”

Those six markets—Utah, Orlando, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Memphis and Houston—will allow attendance of anywhere from 1,500 to 4,000. There are others: In Cleveland, 300 have been invited, and in New Orleans, 750 more. Dallas and San Antonio are also anticipating opening their gates to limited crowds early next year where the Texas state government allows up to 50% of capacity.

Tampa’s Amalie Arena, the temporary home of the Toronto Raptors—who have been displaced from Canada because of travel restrictions at the border—will have one of the largest audiences at 3,800.

Silver said he doesn’t expect limited attendance in some markets to create a revenue imbalance in the league overall.

“We’re not planning to pool the revenue from teams directly that are having fans,” he said. “But because of our revenue sharing system, a portion of that revenue will end up getting pooled just because of the way the formula works.“

But major markets like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington will be without fans for the foreseeable future. These are the NBA’s largest revenue markets. So is Toronto, which has not been host to a live basketball game since Feb. 28, a full two weeks before COVID forced the NBA to stop regular season play.

As far as reimbursing expenses accrued by the Raptors from playing all of its games in the U.S., Silver said:

“Everything is on the table with our teams. We recognize that at the end of the season, we’ll access all of the special circumstances for all of our teams. One thing that’s wonderful about our league is that though the 30 teams go after crushing each other on the court, off the court they’re business partners. The Raptors are dealing with extraordinary circumstances; my sense is that their partners will look favorably at assisting them.”

League expansion is now back on the table as a possibility of curing two seasons of revenue shortfall, Silver added.

“We’ve been putting a little more time into it than we had pre-pandemic,” he said. “But it’s certainly not on the front burner.”

It’s been almost exactly a year since former commissioner David Stern was having lunch at a Manhattan restaurant when he slumped in his chair, the victim of a cerebral hemorrhage. On New Year’s Day, Stern was dead at 77. That’s the way 2020 began for the league. It has yet to recover.

Before the end of January, Kobe Bryant would be killed when the helicopter carrying him, his daughter and some friends crashed into a Ventura County hillside during a foggy Los Angeles winter morning.

By March 11, as the coronavirus began its destructive sweep across North America, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the virus, ending the NBA’s regular season as we knew it. The playoffs were played this fall at the cost of $150 million in an Orlando bubble, where the Lakers defeated the Miami Heat in six games to win the championship.

There were no fans in the stands then, either.

On Monday, Silver said he was comfortable coming out of the bubble, following Major League Baseball and the National Football League traveling to play games in the arenas and stadiums of each market.

“Though we finished the season without a positive test for COVID-19, we think it’s untenable to go back to the campus environment for an entire season, which is why we shifted our attention to go back to team markets,” Silver said. “We’re starting our season now during the current state of the pandemic, because we’re comfortable with the health and safety protocols that have been designed.”

Despite consultation with health and safety experts and the NBA Players Association, Silver said he knows there will be problems along the way. MLB reported 57 positive coronavirus tests during its abbreviated 60-game season and one more during the playoffs, and the NFL said 201 of its players and 359 other personnel had tested positive through Dec. 19. Previously. the NBA and National Hockey League said there had been no positive test results in their respective playoff bubbles.

Despite all this and super-spreader events plaguing some MLB and NFL teams, those seasons went on. Silver said the NBA intends to closely monitor the situation and may take a different approach. A bubble or hub could still be a viable alternative.

“If we found a situation where our protocols weren’t working and we’re witnessing spread among one team and even to another team, that would cause us to suspend the season,” he said. “We are prepared for isolated cases and watching other leagues playing outside the bubble, it seems inevitable. We’re prepared for all contingencies.”

(This story has updated the number of positive COVID tests in the NFL in the 21st paragraph.)

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