Previewing an unprecedented and intriguing NBA season

Like any other sport navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, the NBA, or National Basketball Association, has worked diligently to ensure a relatively smooth and complete season. But these changes will inevitably come at a price: projected decreased incomes for teams across the NBA.

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NBA players were mandated to inform their respective teams if they wished to opt out of this season by December 1. No known player chose to exercise this option. | Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons

As the 2020-21 NBA season inches closer, fans are eager to watch their favorite players and teams take the court once again. The season kicks off on December 22, and there is a very specific reason why: it is right before Christmas. Over the past five years, the average number of viewers for the highest-watched Christmas Day games each year has been 9.81 million. To put that into perspective, throughout the 2017-2018 NBA season, the average viewership during a regular season game was 1.89 million. It’s clear that they want to use Christmas as a way to jump-start enthusiasm for the season. 

The NBA regular season will look different than it normally does. Only 72 games will be played in the regular season, as opposed to the typical 82. The season normally starts in mid-to-late October, but due to COVID-19, opening day has been pushed back. This explains the shortened season. The NBA will make the schedule for the first half of the season, and then create the second half of the schedule using the information they gained from the first. Due to COVID-19, the NBA is unable to predict if the way they structure the season will be optimal. Essentially, the NBA wants to be able to reevaluate how they run the season. 

The playoffs are structured differently as well. The seventh and eighth seeded teams in each conference will compete in a play-in tournament for the seventh seed in the playoffs. The ninth and tenth seeded teams in each conference will compete in a play-in tournament to play the loser of the former game for the eighth seed. All other seeding will be normal.

Like all other professional sports leagues, the NBA has greatly altered the number of fans in stadiums. The Philadelphia 76ers have not yet officially announced their fan situation for the Wells Fargo Center. As of now, the majority of teams have either not made an official announcement on their future plans or are planning on hosting fans later in the season. A few teams, such as the Utah Jazz and the Cleveland Cavaliers, have decided to host fans at a very limited capacity.

In the upcoming season, money and income may be a substantial issue for the NBA. According to the Association, salary cap, tax levels, and players’ salaries will remain unchanged for the season, but this is largely unlikely. COVID-19 as a whole will likely negatively affect the NBA, with mandates like limited stadium attendance, less TV viewership, international income, and more. According to Adrian Wojnarowski, an NBA analyst and insider for ESPN, the NBA warned teams of a potential forty percent drop in income. This loss would certainly reduce the salary cap and the amount of money the players would make. 

It’s expected that some players may even opt out of the NBA season altogether, athletes from other professional sports leagues have opted out due to COVID-19. In total, 22 MLB players opted out of their shortened season this past summer. Nine players opted out of the NBA restart in the Orlando bubble last season. Even still, no big-name players were in this group. While far from certain, fans should not expect to see any star players opting out of the season, and no role players have reported doing so as well.

Safety is a top priority this season in order to preserve the players’ health and to ensure a relatively-completed season. One of the many rules being put in place this season is that teams can only travel with up to 45 people, including seventeen players. Additionally, there will be daily COVID-19 testing of players and staff. Anyone who tests positive has two options to resume playing: they can wait twelve total days to play again, or can test negative twice at least 24 hours apart. The safety protocols used in the NBA restart in the Orlando bubble were a massive success, and the season was able to be finished without any major difficulties. This proves that this upcoming season can potentially be played out without too many issues.

Naturally, there is a lot of uncertainty leading up to this NBA season. The association has worked diligently to form a base upon which the season can be carried out successfully. Fans should be excited for a season with plenty of star action, many games to watch, and an intriguing new format for the playoffs. Yes, the NBA will be different than normal, but it will still be the same game with the players that you know and love.