NBA teams are scheduled to begin traveling to Florida next week, with staggered arrivals between July 7 and July 9. The league plans to resume the season on July 30 at Disney World, despite a surge of COVID-19 cases in the area.
In an interview with TIME Magazine, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said that it is "never 'full steam no matter what,'" but the league is moving forward. "Our best understanding of this virus is that it's not going away anytime soon so we feel we have to find a way to move forward, and this is our way," Silver said.
The interview touched on a number of topics, from health risks to potential protests and on-court profanity. Perhaps most interesting was his claim that the NBA's return to play plan is not about money. His full quote:
Sean Gregory, TIME Magazine: You mentioned, Adam, economic necessity. How much is that coming into play here?
Silver: It comes into play in that we feel an obligation to our sport and to the industry to find our new normal. And so, I mean it doesn't come into play in terms of dollars and cents because frankly, it's not all that economical for us to play on this campus. It's enormously expensive. Obviously, we don't have fans. I should've mentioned earlier, so, we're not selling tickets. But as I said, we almost see it as our duty to find a way that we can still provide the sport of basketball to our fans and to the broader community. This is how we're going to do it. This is not a sustainable model over the long term, that's for sure, at least based on the way we've conducted our sport historically. But again, we view this extraordinary circumstance. You know, as Dr. Fauci and others have said many times, this will end. This will not be our new normal forever. And whether that's another year or another two years, again, we felt it was incumbent on us to find a way that we can do what we do, which is to say play NBA basketball.
This is not the first time Silver has said something like this. On ESPN's "Return of Sports" special two weeks ago, he said that "the incremental difference between at this point playing and not playing isn't nearly as great as people think especially given the enormous expense in putting this on." He also argued that it would be "a respite from enormous difficulties people are dealing with in their lives right now," and that the NBA had an "obligation to try this because the alternative is to stay on the sidelines."
In essence, Silver is making the case that sports returning has an intangible benefit to the nation's psyche, that the NBA will give people something to look forward to and enjoy, that this massive operation is for the greater good. This idea is not without merit, and in fact some public-health experts have spoken recently about the intrinsic value of sports.
"There are a lot of benefits of having sports," Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told ESPN's Zach Lowe. "An entire year and a half without sports would be painful for our country. I'm supportive of attempts to try to get sports back."
There is a difference, however, between highlighting the non-financial benefits of the return and downplaying its obvious financial benefits. Silver has done both of these things, and in doing the latter he has chosen to compare the amount of money the NBA will make from the restart to what it would make in a normal season with fans in arenas, rather than comparing it to the real-life alternative: playing no games and making no money.
The NBA should aspire to be more than a money-making machine, but it is also a business. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban acknowledged as such to TIME on Tuesday.
"I mean, I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't say that [money] had something to do with it," Cuban said. "You know, is it for the money? Yes, that's a big part of it. Is it because our guys are professionals and they want to do their jobs like any other professional in any other industry? Yes, that's a big part of it. Is it because we know that the American citizenry needs a distraction and wants something to root for and cheer for and that professional sports…can really play a big role and improve the mental health of this country? Yes, that plays a role in it as well."
Your mileage may vary on how much of an effect you think the return of sports will have on the mental health of a country that is dealing with a deadly pandemic and rampant unemployment. Reasonable people can also disagree about how risky it is for the NBA to be setting up its campus in an area where there is a particularly scary outbreak. There should be no confusion, however, about the financial incentive for the NBA here. It is immense.