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The Path Not Taken: What if the NBA had decided to resume the 2019-20 season overseas?

For this exercise, we consider Auckland, New Zealand

Previews - FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015 Photo by Alex Livesey - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Over the past few weeks, the NBA has slowly revealed the details of its plan to resume the interrupted 2019-2020 NBA season at the Disney World Wide of Sports complex in Orlando, Florida. This decision is not without its risks; case numbers in central Florida are rising again after lockdown restrictions were relaxed.

When it emerged that Disney staff would be free to come and go between their homes, JJ Reddick was prompted to remark on Twitter “Not much of a bubble.” Kyrie Irving and Avery Bradley have questioned whether participating in a tightly controlled bubble will allow players to contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement to the extent they want to. The NBA’s health and safety protocol is a hundred-page long document — the resumption of play at Orlando will be tense, and tightly controlled with heavy restrictions on players.

But I’m going to paint a picture of a different way forward for the NBA: one they might have taken, and could perhaps still end up taking if events skew significantly for the worse. Before dismissing the possibility entirely, just remember that a month is a long time in this new coronavirus world.

What if the NBA had opted for a safer bubble? One located overseas?

To be clear, I’ve seen no information to suggest that the NBA ever seriously explored relocating the remainder of the season overseas, or that any foreign government approached the NBA about that possibility. But it’s probably an idea worth considering as a counter-factual to the Orlando bubble.

Around the world, a diverse and eclectic collection of countries has not just controlled the Covid-19 but completely smashed it: Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iceland, Montenegro, the Faroe Islands, and New Zealand, to name a few. In this article, I’ll focus on the potential of the NBA resuming in my own home country of New Zealand, but many other countries deserve recognition for their success in controlling the virus, and could provide alternative options. (Taiwan and Vietnam in particular probably deserve far more attention than they’ve gotten for the quality of their handling of the virus).

What is the current situation in New Zealand? To date, we’ve had 1507 confirmed and probable cases of Covid-19, and 22 deaths. The country went 24 days with no new cases reported, and between June 8 and 17 there were no active cases in the country. After enduring 5 weeks of an extremely restrictive lockdown, and several weeks of graduated loosening of restrictions, New Zealand lowered it’s Alert Level to 1 on June 9. While tight border restrictions remain, there are practically no restrictions on everyday life within New Zealand. According to the Government Stringency Index maintained by Oxford University, New Zealand’s score of 22 now makes it one of the least restricted places in the world.

What would the advantages of a theoretical season in New Zealand versus the Orlando bubble be?

  • The testing regime would not have to be as rigorous once the NBA had completed its managed self-isolation requirements on entry. With no known community transmission in New Zealand at the moment, the need to test and retest players and staff would be much lower. New Zealand also has extremely high testing capacity if needed (in the order of 7000-8000 tests per day) and has one of the highest per capita rates in the world in terms of population tested to date. (Trailing Iceland though — their per capita testing numbers are off the charts).
  • Player freedom. The NBA’s 100-page health and safety protocol emphasizes how tight the bubble will be. No mingling between hotels. Little mingling between teams. Heavy restrictions of where they can go, and who they could interact with. A New Zealand bubble would need no such restrictions. The entire country of New Zealand would be the bubble.
  • Live crowds. No restrictions means sporting events in New Zealand can resume with actual audiences. This weekend New Zealand’s Super Rugby Aotearoa competition started with packed stands, one of the first sporting competitions in the world to do so. Forty thousand people gathered at Eden Park with no masks and no social distancing. No need for piped in NB2K crowd noises, when you can have the real thing. (And while basketball isn’t one of the major sports in New Zealand, there are more than enough NBA fans to fill arenas).

What would the challenges and disadvantages be?

  • Logistics: Packing up the whole league and moving it to Florida is one thing. Moving it to another country completely is a different story, particularly if they stick with the 22 team plan.
  • Auckland has reasonably mild winters, but it’s still not Florida in summer.
  • Political pressure. The Trump-led government would hardly be enthusiastic about the optics of one of their main sports leagues opting to leave the country entirely to continue their season.
  • Black Lives Matter. Players could feel that flying to the other side of the world would take them even further from where they are needed. New Zealand has held “Black Lives Matter” solidarity marches, and players would have greater freedom to participate in marches in New Zealand than they would while in the Orlando bubble. Ultimately, however, this is a decision for individual players.

How would relocating the league to New Zealand actually work?

The first thing the NBA would need is an exemption from the New Zealand government to enter the country. Entry is currently restricted to New Zealand nationals only. Exemptions have been granted for personnel essential to economically important projects - most controversially for some key staff on the Avatar sequels which are filming in New Zealand.

Providing it could be done safely, the New Zealand government would probably be amenable to granting the exemption. Tourism is one of the country’s key industries, but the international market is non-existent right now. That means a lot of empty hotels and tourist facilities going empty. New Zealand also never misses an opportunity to promote itself as a tourist destination — providing a safe place for the NBA to resume would be marketing gold.

The biggest challenge would be “managed isolation,” two weeks of quarantine in the practical if not legal sense. Could New Zealand accommodate a group the size of the NBA party arriving within a short space of time of each other? Managed isolation isn’t just about finding hotel facilities. There are health professionals conducting daily wellness checks. Security staff to monitor compliance. Tests to be done. The state of the managed isolation process was thrown into the spotlight this week when the first two cases in almost a month were reported this week. Two women were granted compassionate leave to be with a grieving relative, and allowed to leave managed isolation without being tested. When they got themselves tested and were found to be positive, it exposed numerous gaps in the isolation protocols. The NBA’s isolation would be rigorous and thorough, with tests conducted at the three and 12-day marks. No one would be allowed to leave isolation without a negative test. Any person who showed symptoms would be put in official quarantine.

However, once successfully past the managed isolation phase, life for players and NBA staff would be close to normal. Players could leave their hotels to explore Auckland and the rest of New Zealand. They could go shopping. Eat out at restaurants. Sample the Auckland nightlife. Talk to locals. Learn about the local cultures. Behave like normal human beings doing normal human things instead of sheltering in anxiety at the Happiest Place on Earth.

New Zealand is in a favourable time zone for running games. During the regular season, early games on the East Coast typically start around noon, with the late West Coast games starting in the late afternoon. Auckland has one modern arena in the Spark Arena, plus several smaller, older arenas in different parts of the city that could also host games. Splitting games across sites, you could easily run four games a day, perhaps starting around 10 a.m. NZ time, and starting every two hours thereafter. Alternatively you could hold all the games at Spark Arena, but run only three games per day with longer gaps between games. Sky, the local pay television provider, has outside broadcast infrastructure and the experience of broadcasting New Zealand Breakers games. Their broadcasts might not include every bell and whistle NBA fans have come to expect, but they are more than capable of doing the job.

Barring sudden and catastrophic developments in Florida, or a strong pushback from players to all the restrictions of the Orlando bubble, I fully expect that the NBA season will resume on U.S. soil. But as the players spend day after day after day in their rooms at the Disney resort, I wonder how many might wish that the NBA had investigated other options a littler harder?