Potential Repercussions From the NBA’s Suspended Season

Potential Repercussions From the NBA’s Suspended Season
Fri 13th March 2020

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last 48 hours, the NBA has decided to suspend its season indefinitely in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak and, more specifically, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell falling ill on a chaotic Wednesday night.

Adam Silver moved quickly as soon as the news of Gobert’s positive test broke. The league had already been exploring the possibility of playing games without the presence of fans, – as per the recommendations of several states across the country – and the obvious next step was to suspend play entirely.

For obvious reasons, this causes all sorts of headaches for the league, the players and the broader economy of sport (let alone the world). It raises a plethora of questions about. not least of all being – what the hell happens next?

The NBA is the third-highest grossing sporting league in the world. The impact of its suspension is vast and wide-reaching. Here are just a couple of thoughts, questions and theories about what might unfold from here.

Can the NBA stop paying its players?

This might not be a question at the forefront of most fans, but it is certainly one worth considering.

Per Article XXXIX of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement (‘CBA’) with the National Basketball Players’ Association, the league is entitled to fail to perform its contractual obligations to the players (i.e. not pay them) in any number of circumstances. These include, but are not limited to, chemical warfare, “acts of god” (natural disasters), terrorist attacks etc.

One of the included circumstances which would make it impossible for the league to perform its contractual obligations is an “epidemic”. Without getting too technical – there’s really no need at this point – what we are seeing unfold across the world as a result of COVID-19 is quite clearly an epidemic. The NBA is thus entirely within its contractual rights to stop playing its players at any point while this situation remains active.

The real question, though, should be “WILL the NBA stop paying its players?” The answer – quite emphatically is “No,” at least for now. The NBA and the NBPA have an excellent relationship and neither party is going to want to do anything to jeopardize that. Cutting off the players is undoubtedly something that would drive an irreparable rift between the two.

That being said, the NBA and its teams are not a bottomless pit of money. Should this saga drag on there will almost certainly reach a tipping point where franchises begin to run out of money, particularly if – as the Cleveland Cavaliers have done – they commit to paying support staff during the suspension period.

The salary cap is going to drop. Significantly.

At the start of this season there were serious concerns that Daryl Morey’s ill-timed comments about the Hong Kong riots would cause enough effect to the NBA’s total revenue that the salary cap for next season might be reduced.

How petty that seems now. As per the CBA, the NBA and the NBPA split all basketball related income (‘BRI’) – a pool of money which includes the broadcasting rights, ticket sales, intellectual property etc. 

The higher the BRI is for any given season, the higher the salary cap is for the teams and thus the higher the individual salaries are for the players. While the Morey/China incident will have caused a fair whack to the BRI, it will prove to be nothing in comparison to the cost of suspending (at minimum) over 20% of the NBA regular season + playoffs.

Even if we are lucky enough to see some portion of the season continue, it’s likely to be severely curtailed and/or rushed beyond recognition. The likelihood of ticket sales and TV audiences for those games being anywhere close to what they would normally is minimal.

Long story short, the $109.14 million cap we saw this year is not happening next year, and it might take a long time before it gets anywhere close to that again.

Will more NBA players get COVID-19

No one knows, but it is a distinct possibility.

The Jazz – who are effectively the epicentre of the NBA outbreak – played the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors in the last nine days. All are in self-isolation.

Basketball is a contact sport, and a sport which requires an extraordinary amount of contact between players. The idea that Gobert has infected other players is not just possible, it’s probable.

Teams are currently not allowed to practice and the league is recommending all players remain within the market in which their team operates. At this point the players are no more than ordinary citizens, and with some estimates saying the total infection rate may end up at somewhere close to 50%, you can take it as a given that more stories of players being struck down are still to come.

This is the most depressing NBA season of all time. Bar none.

Kobe, David Stern, the aforementioned Morey/China incident, and now this? Yeah, it’s not even close.

Basketball as a sport and the NBA as a league had both been on a meteoric rise over the last decade. The amount of young, fresh, exciting talent among the playing corps, the even spread of superstars across the league and a slate of memorable series, moments and champions had ensured that television ratings and general interest among the world’s populace was at never-before-seen heights.

Whilst recognizing that a lot of sports across the world are facing the same problems, and without wanting to be too dramatic, the NBA has lost more out of this crisis than most. The momentum it had gained through this spectacular period is now lost – who knows if it’ll ever come back? We were building towards an epic Western Conference showdown between two LA teams; the old vs. the new; the King vs. Contender.

The East was an intriguing battle between the proven Raptors and the desperate Bucks; between the MVP and the team that lost its MVP. 

Now, who knows where we go from here? Will we ever get to see LeBron vs. Kawhi in front of a rabid Staples Centre crowd for seven games? Will Giannis make the leap from super-star to all-time great?

It’s impossible to say.

So, what happens next?

The short answer is that no one knows, but it’s an interesting exercise to speculate.

The league is in constant consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and infectious disease experts, who will effectively determine when the right time is to restart play.

The league’s clear goal is to finish the season at some stage and crown a champion, even if that means culling a serious proportion of games. That wouldn’t be unprecedented; in 1998-99 there was a 50 game season and there 66 in 2011-12, both due to lockout.

This, however, is a completely different beast to a simple labor dispute. COVID-19 is not something we’ve seen the likes of in the world before, let alone in sport. The NBA does not have the luxury of just postponing indefinitely, as is available to the MLB and NFL (whose seasons have not yet started). There will be a date at which it is no longer possible to finish the season. Arenas that host NBA games also host things like concerns, hockey games, conferences etc. – there is every chance those arenas are booked out in a way which means it is impossible to simply push the NBA season back.

We have no idea when the COVID-19 outbreak will slow, and thus we have no idea what timeframe we’re looking at for the NBA. It might resume in April and start the playoffs straight away, it might start in May and have a brief end to the regular season and then playoffs – we honestly have no idea.

Rest assured, though: the NBA needs to return to your screens and arenas as much as you need it. 

More to come as this continues to unfold.

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