The NBA should heed MLS's warning signs and move its restart from Orlando to Canada

The NBA sure is lucky that Major League Soccer volunteered to be its guinea pig. For if MLS’s nightmare in getting its monthlong Orlando tournament off the ground is any indication, the NBA might want to follow the lead of another league and finish its coronavirus-cursed season not in Central Florida, or even the United States.

It might want to move to Canada.

While the U.S. continues to report record numbers of new infections — Florida had more than 10,000 on Sunday for the second consecutive day — America’s neighbor to the north actually has a handle on this heath crisis. That’s why the National Hockey League, which shares 11 arenas and an almost identical schedule with the NBA, ultimately decided against restarting in Chicago or Columbus or Las Vegas or Los Angeles after much consideration. The remainder of the NHL season will instead be staged entirely north of the border, in Toronto and Edmonton.

The NBA and MLS identified Orlando as an ideal site to restart early in the pandemic. Back then, the plan made sense. Florida had few cases. The state was determined to reopen. The sprawling Walt Disney World complex was perfect for housing thousands of players and team staff in a tightly controlled “bubble,” and both leagues already had long-standing relationships with Disney-owned broadcaster ESPN.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks are among the NBA teams that have shut down their facilities following COVID-19 tests. Playing in Orlando isn't going to make this situation any better. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks are among the NBA teams that have shut down their facilities following COVID-19 tests. Playing in Orlando isn't going to make this situation any better. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Now, with NBA players scheduled to report to Orlando beginning this week, the landscape has changed dramatically. On Monday, MLS pulled an entire team out of the competition after at least nine players tested positive for COVID-19.

“We see what’s going on down in the U.S. — people are not taking things seriously and it’s completely, in a lot of ways, out of control,” Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney said last week, before his team flew south. “The problem is, the bubble is only as good as what gets into the bubble.”

While it’s true that the players from FC Dallas and another six from Nashville SC who failed tests upon arrival in Orlando were almost certainly infected before they left, the huge spike in cases occurring in Central Florida is a major concern. Already there have been reports of protocol breaches inside the MLS bubble which, strictly speaking, isn’t really a bubble at all.

Some players and staff will inevitably break the rules, putting themselves and everyone they come into contact with at risk. Hotel workers will be allowed to come and go everyday, as they will under the NBA’s scheme. At Disney, it’s a lot more likely that one of those workers will have the coronavirus and give it to an athlete than it would be in Toronto or Ottawa or Montreal.

Neither the NBA or MLS seem to have a Plan B, should the situation in Florida deteriorate further. But while it’s probably too late for MLS, which is set to kick off the MLS is Back Tournament on Wednesday, the NBA still has time to make a change. The NHL’s model would provide the template.

As North America’s fourth-largest metropolis (after Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles), Toronto has the infrastructure to accommodate another entire league on short notice. The province of Ontario (and neighboring Quebec) has multiple sports venues from which to broadcast games, headlined by Scotiabank Arena, home of the NBA champion Raptors. Furthermore, that venue would be available after the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs, when the four NHL teams left standing decamp for the conference finals in Edmonton.

Surely Canada would welcome the opportunity to host the NBA. Its federal government waived the 14-day quarantine requirement for NHL players. Basketball has never been more popular in Canada thanks to the Raptors’ 2019 triumph. Hell, the sport was even invented by a Canadian.

How realistic is any of this? Not very, probably. Preparations have been made. Pulling out now would be expensive and highly embarrassing. And while nobody in the U.S. batted an eye when the NHL announced that it would avoid the lower 48 states — hockey is Canada’s most popular sport, after all — ditching the country that is home to 29 of its 30 teams could cause political blowback. Like MLS, the NBA seems hell-bent on making it happen in Orlando unless its hand is forced.

If the global pandemic has taught us anything, though, it’s that plans change. Sports leagues have to be nimble enough to adapt on the fly. If MLS ends up having to cancel its tournament — and the pressure is mounting with each passing day — the NBA will be left scrambling for an alternative.

At that point, Canada might be the only viable option.

“To be able to go into that environment as a team,” Vanney said, “would be a lot more comfortable than going down to what has essentially become the epicenter of the virus.”

The NHL is already heading to Canada. If finishing its season as safely as possible is the goal, the NBA should look at what’s happening in MLS and seriously consider doing the same.

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