With the Covid-19 pandemic wreaking havoc throughout the world, the prospect of two of North America’s major sporting leagues descending on one location to continue their respective seasons might seem ludicrous. But for the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Major League Soccer (MLS), that is exactly what will take place.
What’s the setup?
The Disney World resort in Orlando, Florida is playing host to these two properties, with the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex housing 26 MLS teams and 22 NBA franchises playing throughout the summer. The aptly named ‘MLS is Back’ tournament began on 8th July and concludes on 11th August, while the NBA will have 13 Western Conference teams and nine Eastern Conference teams play eight regular season seeding games before its playoff tournament begins on 18th August.
Spanning 220 acres, the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex features a 9,500-seat baseball stadium, three indoor arenas and 17 outdoor fields that can be fitted for a multitude of sports, including soccer, baseball or football. Aside from the playing facilities, there is a 2,500-square-foot broadcast centre at the complex, with eight editing bays allowing for ESPN, a national broadcast partner of both MLS and the NBA, to produce and air the game feeds.
What are the financial implications?
Disney-owned ESPN reportedly pays the NBA US$1.4 billion a year to televise games, while ESPN and Fox have a domestic broadcast deal with MLS that is valued at US$600 million, according to CNBC. A number of MLS games are also streamable in the US via the ESPN+ over-the-top (OTT) platform.
Protecting that all-important revenue stream was key for both leagues. From a financial standpoint, the NBA stood to lose over US$1 billion in revenue had its season been cancelled, according to a report by CNBC, which added that, collectively, players would have lost out on approximately US$600 million in salary payments.
Shortly after play was suspended on 12th March, MLS commissioner Don Garber revealed that his league could also suffer a US$1 billion loss in revenue due to the pandemic. That prompted the league’s executives and its players’ union to agree on certain financial concessions amounting to more than US$100 million, while a revised collective bargaining agreement (CBA) was hurriedly hashed out that now runs until 2025.
However, both organisations have been implementing new strategies to help provide some much-needed revenue for their respective franchises.
�� for #MLSisBack
— New York City FC (@NYCFC) July 8, 2020
MLS teams will be permitted to have sponsors on both jersey sleeves, as well as on their shorts. At the beginning of the season, teams were allowed to have a sponsor on their right sleeve, but now teams will be able to have a separate sponsor on the left sleeve, typically reserved for the MLS shield.
In a statement, the league said it wanted to “provide premium opportunities for partners to connect with clubs during the MLS is Back tournament.” There will also be a large digital screen at the main soccer field at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex that will allow advertisements for both club and league partners.
Florida has already played host to another sporting franchise restarting its activities – the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returned to action in Jacksonville on 9th May, with three events taking place at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. But it is the sheer scale of the expansive facilities on offer at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, coupled with a number of large-scale hotels in close distance, that made Orlando a logical choice for MLS and the NBA.
Both leagues have tremendous backing from a number of political figures in Florida, too. Florida governor Ron DeSantis stated in May that “all these professional sports are going to be welcome in Florida”, adding: “What I would tell commissioners of teams is, ‘if you have a team in the area where they just won’t let them operate, we’ll find a place for you in the state of Florida.”
Meanwhile Jason Siegel, president and chief executive of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission, told SportBusiness that “the media value associated with the exposure of hosting the two leagues over the course of the next few months, in our estimation, exceeds the value of the Summer Olympics.”
He added: “That combination of television audience, exposure generated on multiple channels international and the US, not to mention the popularity and social media following of these truly international superstars is a tremendous opportunity for our community, not only to welcome the athletes here for a period of time but also to enhance what is already a wonderful reputation that Orlando has.”
How will the leagues co-exist?
MLS players and team staff will all stay at the Swan and Dolphin Resort at Disney World, while the NBA players and officials will be stationed at one of three hotels: the Gran Destino, the Grand Floridian or the Yacht Club.
According to a report by the Miami Herald, MLS will take approximately 1,200 people to Orlando, while the NBA will have around 1,600 people on site. Given the NBA will set up camp in Orlando for a longer period of time in comparison to MLS, its players will have no shortage of entertainment options to keep them occupied. A report by The Athletic said the stars of basketball’s preeminent league will have a players-only lounge that includes arcade gaming, ping pong tables, DJ sets and movie screenings.
To date, there have not been any announcements on potential punishments for breaking the so-called 'quarantine bubble'. What’s interesting to note is that despite the two leagues being in close proximity in Orlando, there has been seemingly little collaboration between them when it comes to navigating any potential crossover issues.
MLS commissioner Don Garber told ESPN that the league has “been negotiating with Disney and our hotels to determine what our needs are operationally.” Regarding the MLS bubble, Garber added that “there will be a significant amount of player-engaged activities that our group is now working with Disney on” in order to dissuade any of the players from leaving the quarantine environment.
Despite the strict health and safety protocols being planned, athletes across both leagues aren’t exactly on the same wavelength. Nashville SC defender Daniel Lovitz shared his concerns ahead of the MLS coming back to play, saying: “I have been in contact with a lot of players from a lot of different teams in a lot of different markets during this whole process, and I can tell you there are some guys that are not excited about going to Orlando.”
Los Angeles Lakers star Dwight Howard voiced a similar sentiment. In a statement to CNN, Howard said that “basketball, or entertainment period, isn’t needed at this moment, and will only be a distraction.” He added: “This is a rare opportunity that, I believe, we as a community should be taking full advantage of. When have we ever had this amount of time to sit and be with our families.”
What precautions are being taken?
Orlando and the state of Florida have seen a rapid spike in the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases. At the time of publishing, the Florida Department of Health stated that over 80,284 new cases have been confirmed in the state since the beginning of July, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 232,710.
With the opening game of the tournament set to feature Orlando City against Inter Miami in something of a local rivalry, the anxiety levels among players and staff will only be heightened with the alarming number of new cases in Florida.
For MLS, which will be hosting two or three games each day, perhaps the most worrying aspect is that the staff at the Swan and Dolphin Resort will not be quarantined and are free to do as they please in the Orlando area. Throughout their time in the tournament, players, coaches and referees will all be constantly tested. Perhaps surprisingly, no MLS team is required to announce if one of their players tests positive.
To add to the already-heightened fears regarding the recent spike in cases, workers at each Disney hotel will not be tested and nor will workers at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. This would include staff who are heavily involved in tournament operations for both MLS and the NBA – although all workers will be subjected to temperature screenings as well as questionnaires.
For the NBA, a 113-page guide outlining the league’s safety protocols stated that players have the option of wearing a ring that will check their body temperature and heart rate. Additionally, all NBA personnel will wear a MagicBand that functions as a hotel room key, a check-in device for Covid-19 testing, and a security checkpoint clearance device.
In terms of interactions between the NBA players and the hotel staff, the league is implementing strict measures in order to limit the probability of the two crossing paths. According to CBS Sports, hotel workers will be required to wear a face mask and gloves at all times, while they must adhere to strict physical distancing by staying at least six feet away from all NBA personnel. Housekeeping staff are also not permitted into a room at the same time as a member of the NBA contingent.
What’s happened already?
MLS has seen two teams withdraw. FC Dallas had ten players and one coach test positive and were pulled out of the tournament before it started. Nashville SC had five positive tests among their playing group which initially saw their opening game against Chicago Fire postponed. When that number grew to nine on 8th July MLS pulled Nashville out of the tournament.
As a result of the withdrawals, MLS has reconfigured the tournament to consist of six groups containing four teams, with the Fire moving from Group A to Group B.
A number of high-profile MLS players announced that they would be opting out of the tournament. LAFC’s Carlos Vela will not participate as he wishes to be with his wife during her pregnancy, while Inter Miami’s top draft pick Robbie Robinson left the team to attend a personal situation and Real Salt Lake’s Nedum Onuoha wasn’t comfortable with being separated from his family for so long during the pandemic. The Vancouver Whitecaps will also be without five of their players.
It is not all gloomy news for MLS. The tournament's opening broadcast on ESPN averaged 464,000 viewers, the network's fifth most-viewed regular season telecast in five seasons, with an audience peak of 521,000.
While the return of the NBA is not until the end of July, there have also been a number of players deciding against participating in the upcoming games. Spencer Dinwiddie and DeAndre Jordan of the Brooklyn Nets opted out after both tested positive and consulted with team doctors. Avery Bradley of the Los Angeles Lakers will not be playing, either, stating: “At a time like this, I can’t imagine making any decision that might put my family’s health and well-being at even the slightest risk.”