So much for a Christmas Day present: Commissioner Adam Silver doesn’t see the 2020-2021 NBA season beginning until January, as the league struggles with logistics and economics in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The official stance from the NBA is that the league was shooting for a December launch to the 2020-2021 NBA season, first on December 1 and then later on December 25–a traditional launch date for the NBA broadcast year in the days before cable saturation.
Now, you can throw out the nice Christmas Day debut; Silver now says a January launch is the most likely target. He made these comments in a CNN panel discussion:
“I continue to believe that we’re going to be better off getting into January,” Silver said in a discussion with Bob Costas during part of the “Citizen by CNN” event. “The goal for us next season is to play a standard season … an 82-game season and playoffs. And further, the goal would be to play games in home arenas in front of fans, but there’s still a lot that we need to learn.”
The NBA hasn’t played in arenas filled with fans since March 11, when the league suspended its season because of the coronavirus pandemic. A very small number of fans — maybe 30 or 40 per game — have been allowed to watch inside the NBA’s restart bubble at Walt Disney World in recent weeks, all of them family members or close friends of players. Those guests all are tested daily for coronavirus, like everyone else in the bubble.
A typical NBA season has a regular season that lasts for nearly six months, followed by about a two-month postseason. If next season is typical — and there’s no way of knowing that it will be, or even could be — a January start could mean a June or July regular-season finish, with playoffs concluding in August or September.
Compressing the season to a schedule where the playoffs end in August, especially if the schedule contains more off days and fewer travel days, probably won’t be seen as too sacrilegious by too many fans. But there is one casualty to these decision: this would limit the ability of NBA players to participate in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
The NBA is already in the midst of figuring out how to allow fans back into arenas next season; another bubble campaign is highly unlikely. The NFL has been allowing partial crowds into stadiums when allowed by local guidelines, and MLB is planning for a spring training season with plenty of social distancing and COVID-19 mitigation. But those sports compete in outdoor venues, and the stakes are different at an indoor arena. Leading arena-management firms like ASM have laid out COVID-19 mitigation measures featuring reduced capacity, touchless ticketing and concessions, and social distancing.