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‘It will forever be known as the Disney model’: How Orlando made the NBA and MLS bubbles a reality

When two of North America’s major leagues announced plans to restart in the same location, many doubted whether it could be done safely. As it turned out, no cases were recorded inside the NBA and MLS bubbles in Orlando, a city now synonymous with sport’s post-Covid recovery.

11 November 2020 Sam Carp

In 2018, Orlando welcomed a record-setting 75 million tourists, but for a few months this summer the most-visited destination in the United States made a success out of shutting itself off from the rest of the world.

In doing so, the Floridian city became the epicentre of the resurrection of professional sport in North America in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Typically accustomed to hosting everything from sporting events to conventions and trade shows, Orlando provided the backdrop to two of the more enterprising resumption efforts in global sport, as both Major League Soccer (MLS) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) descended on Disney’s 220-acre ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex to return to action in their now-notorious bubbles.

For MLS, which resumed with a month-long tournament from 8th July, the Disney site provided 17 playing fields and 1,900 rooms to house 24 competing teams. Meanwhile the NBA, which got back underway on 30th July, booked out three hotels to accommodate players from 22 franchises, in addition to coaches, team staff, media, broadcasters and league personnel.

I think it’ll almost read like a good bedtime novel: you’ll have the before, during and after.

The facilities were there, but so too was the risk. By late June, Florida had become a national hotspot for coronavirus, so there was understandable anxiety about the potential consequences of two major sports leagues convening in Orlando. Any apprehension, however, would ultimately prove unfounded. Both MLS and the NBA entered their bubbles armed with detailed health and safety documents – those put together by the basketball league spanned 113 pages – and emerged without recording any positive Covid-19 cases inside their sealed off campuses.

It was ultimately vindication for those who never doubted that the Orlando bubble was the safest place to be.

“I think it’ll almost read like a good bedtime novel: you’ll have the before, during and after,” Jason Siegel, the president and chief executive of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission, tells SportsPro.

“[Firstly] the work that our community did to build the concept, to create a concept. Then, to have the guts, fortitude and vision to execute on both of those opportunities, to pull the trigger, to have the relationship with both sets of players’ associations, to march forward and compete in these unique environments.

“Then, obviously, to get to the finish line and be able to reflect back and say what was the economic impact, what was the media value associated, what kind of a legacy did this leave? I think it’s a culmination of all of those conversations when they write this chapter in Orlando’s tourism and certainly within the sports tourism history.”

‘There were literally 100 different models we looked at’

NBA fan or not, most followers of sport are now familiar with the name Rudy Gobert. It was the Frenchman’s positive test on 11th March that prompted his Utah Jazz teammates and the Oklahoma City Thunder to be ordered from the court in front of a full Chesapeake Energy Arena, essentially serving as the catalyst for professional sports leagues across the US to be suspended.

As Alex Martins, the chief executive of the NBA’s Orlando Magic, recalls, it was a chain of events that caught everyone off guard.

“My recollections of the days leading up to it were certainly some trepidation based on the proliferation of the virus at that time and concern about large crowds being together as we led up to [it],” he says. “But I think for the most part in those days leading up to [it] none of us really contemplated the fact that sports would come to an end or be suspended because of the virus, so the reality certainly hit on the evening that the league suspended play.”

A bird's eye view of Disney's Coronado Springs Resort, where a number of NBA teams were stationed

Despite the initial shock, there wasn’t much time for those at league and club level to process what was going on. Broadcast partners were suddenly left without any live sports content; sponsors, too, were wondering what value they could extract from their partnerships in the absence of games. According to reports in March, cancelling the NBA season outright would have cost the league upwards of US$1 billion. Shortly after MLS was suspended, commissioner Don Garber warned that his organisation could also suffer a US$1 billion loss in revenue due to the pandemic. 

Much was at stake and the leagues had to get moving.

The NBA soon formed a restart committee, which was broken down into various sub-committees that explored issues such as health and safety and arena cleanliness measures. Martins was part of a group focused on the format of play and what that might look like if and when the season restarted.

“There were literally 100 different models that we looked at as to what possibilities could exist,” he states.

However, as the league started to understand that gathering every franchise in one location would be the safest way to resume, Martins says a familiar name soon came to mind. 

“I think you’re aware of the fact that we, at the Magic, have a very strong partnership with our friends at Walt Disney World,” he notes. “Their brand appears on our jersey, from an investment standpoint they’re one of our top corporate sponsors, and at one point the president of Walt Disney World came to me and asked what possibilities could exist of the league restarting.”

The NBA game and practice facilities on campus included 4,627 hardwood panels

Disney’s positive relationships with the NBA and MLS, both of which hold broadcast partnerships with the media giant’s sports network ESPN, would prove pivotal. And while the NBA considered heading to Orlando, similar conversations were being accelerated elsewhere.

“I remember texting [president and managing director of MLS Business Ventures] Gary Stevenson,” begins Alex Leitao, the chief executive of Orlando City SC. “[I said,] ‘Gary, I have this crazy idea. I spoke with the guys at Disney. They feel like there’s something we can do. What do you think?’

“Half an hour later we were in a Zoom call with commissioner Garber. I repeated the idea, he liked it. He said: ‘Let’s put together this call, let’s see.’”

By mid-June both leagues had announced that they would be heading into separate bubbles in Orlando. And just like that what started out as a “crazy idea” was about to become a reality. 

“In some strange way it was similar to the process we go through to bring an All-Star Weekend to our cities,” adds Martins. “We go through a formal bid process in that case, but we promote, we try to encourage the league office to make the decision to bring the All-Star Weekend to our cities, and once that decision’s made there’s an army of experts at the league office in putting on these large and huge events.”

‘Disney is well known to be a safe place’

Perhaps the greatest achievement in amongst all this was that the Orlando bubble succeeded in keeping out a highly contagious virus that had derailed virtually every industry in its path. David Weiss “became an expert in coronavirus testing”, claims Martins, who adds that the NBA’s senior vice president of player matters was in contact with “literally every professional sports league in the world” as the basketball organisation mapped out its health and safety protocols.

The situation was no different for MLS, which consulted infectious disease specialists, government officials and public health entities to devise a plan that would protect players, coaches, officials and staff. All teams had to travel to Orlando via charter plane and arrive no later than seven days before their first match, prior to which all members of the travelling delegation had to undergo two tests 24 hours apart. Upon arrival in Florida, all individuals were given an additional test. Then, for the first two weeks in the bubble, people were tested every other day, after which tests were conducted regularly, including the day before each game.

Leitao, who was not even able to visit his own team’s practice facility on campus under the stringent guidelines, believes there was a key reason for the bubble’s success.

“Disney is a company that’s very well known to be a safe place,” he says. “They follow the rules, they follow protocols. So I think the facility itself, the complex, the hotels and the fact that it was Disney – that helped a lot.”

Orlando City SC players on the move inside the bubble

According to Martins, the NBA “in essence created a small city” to cater for every player and coach’s needs over an extended period of time. That meant not only providing the facilities required to play basketball games, but also the services necessary to ensure that those adhering to the bubble’s strict rules could retain some normality in an abnormal situation.

Barber shops were set up on campus to keep haircuts looking sharp. On average, 700 packages were delivered daily to the distribution warehouse at Coronado Springs as players ordered in to keep themselves entertained. There was no shortage of leisure activities, either. According to league sources, more than 1,800 games of pickleball were played on the NBA campus. In addition, over 525 fishing excursions were booked as a way to pass the time.

For Martins, the NBA would not have been able to find such an all-encompassing environment anywhere else.

“You really have everything there in one location,” he says. “You have first-class hotels to the extent that everyone could be spread out and minimise interactions from a health and safety standpoint. You have one of the most incredible food and beverage operations in the world, an incredible transportation and infrastructure system, the opportunity to provide all types of leisure activities and off times for those that were in the bubble, and ultimately a controlled environment where we could keep everyone safe and healthy.

“I don’t believe there’s any other location, certainly in our country, where we could have had that kind of accommodation, those kind of basketball facilities. I really don’t think there is another location in the country where all of that could have come together in such a complete fashion, and most importantly in such a health and safety fashion.”

‘The media value alone exceeds hosting the Summer Olympics’

While finding a way to play during the pandemic was in the commercial interests of the NBA and MLS, the return of both leagues ultimately helped stir a city that had lay dormant since the Covid-19 outbreak. 

It is no secret, according to Siegel, that the Orlando community is “reliant on tourism”, with its 125,000 hotel rooms usually filled with beachgoers, theme park enthusiasts and business travellers. It was also well-documented that Disney’s resorts business had been hit hard by the pandemic, which forced the company to furlough roughly 100,000 employees in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak before announcing job cuts later in the year.

To that end, it came as no surprise that Florida governor Ron DeSantis was keen to stress that the Sunshine State was open for business, telling a news conference in May that “all these professional sports are going to be welcome”.

And when it became clear that MLS and the NBA would arrive, various industries within Orlando started to mobilise again. Siegel commends the efforts of every individual, “no matter how big or small”, who formed a behind the scenes community that provided the backbone for the restart – from bus drivers, chefs, time clock operators and law enforcement, to hoteliers and frontline workers who helped oversee testing.

“Obviously we were hit just like the rest of the world was hit in a very substantial way,” he admits, “but I think two things happened with sports restarting here in our community. 

“The lift in morale within our hospitality industry was palpable, and it also meant that our partners – Hilton, Marriott, those big brands – they had an opportunity to start all the innovations and policies and protocols and procedures that they were putting in place to open in a safe manner.

Giannis Antetokounmpo during one of the 3,600 Zoom media availability sessions conducted by the NBA 

“The other thing that was wonderful about our community coming together was how you had to work in lockstep. There had to be so many synergistic conversations, and everyone had to be in lockstep. I’m really so impressed with how far out both entities thought about all of the different variables – from transportation, to testing, to numerous properties that were involved in the process.”

Siegel says it is too early to put a number to the economic impact of hosting the NBA and MLS – it was reported that the basketball organisation spent more than US$150 million on its bubble – but says both restarts afforded Orlando unprecedented levels of publicity. Games were watched by millions of viewers domestically and broadcast into hundreds of countries worldwide. On social, NBA channels generated more than 5.3 billion video views after the restart, while more than three million followers had been added to the league’s accounts since 1st July.

We always have challenges on a year-to-year basis in operating these leagues and our teams, but this is not anything that anyone learned in a textbook.

Away from the live action, too, the bubbles became subjects of fascination in and of themselves. Countless column inches and podcasts were dedicated to stories emanating from inside the campuses, whether they related to the issue of athlete protests in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, or more lighthearted anecdotes, such as Houston Rockets veteran P J Tucker ordering an 85-inch television for his hotel room.  

In any case, whenever people look back on 2020, all of those memories will be linked to Orlando.

“It was incredible to watch any of these broadcasts and see the beauty shots coming in and out of Wide World of Sports and the mention of Orlando over and over again,” Siegel says, “so I think all of that plays into lifting the morale of the community, and certainly most importantly our ability to get that many more folks back to work.

“It was such a unique situation to have 50 days of soccer and three and a half months of basketball all from one location. Our agency had done the research that just the media value alone associated with hosting these two leagues far exceeds the value of hosting a Summer Olympics, just to put it in perspective.”

‘It gave us an opportunity to put ourselves back in business’

By the time the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat played game one of the NBA Finals on 30th September, the two teams had lived inside the bubble for 85 consecutive days. By that point, the MLS is Back Tournament had long concluded, but only after beaten finalists Orlando City had spent a total of 49 consecutive days on the Disney campus.

Leitao is particularly keen to give credit to the players, who, while providing much-needed entertainment for sports fans around the world, were asked to push themselves to the limit both physically and mentally, all while having to stay apart from their families. As a result, though, MLS is now heading into its playoffs having been able to return to teams’ home stadiums to complete its regular season. With that in mind, Leitao certainly believes the ends justified the means.

“It was huge,” he says of the bubble experiment. “It gave us an opportunity to save a little bit of the year, to fulfil some commitments that we had, to put ourselves back in business. We had commitments with TV, we had commitments with sponsors. As much as we couldn’t have fans at that moment, the fact we were able to have our sponsors there and have the games on TV, and for our fans to be able to continue following soccer – that was a huge success for us.

“We learned a lot over the process about the virus itself in order for us to be where we are at this point of the season, playing in our home stadiums and in our home markets, so the tournament gave us a lot of knowledge for the league and for the clubs and for the players, so now we know how to deal with that.”

The Portland Timbers celebrate with their fans virtually after winning the MLS is Back Tournament

The NBA, meanwhile, is now looking ahead to a December start for its 2020/21 campaign having reportedly preserved US$1.5 billion in expected revenue by virtue of crowning a champion for last season. With the focus on getting fans back into arenas, it looks unlikely that the league will be willing to return to a bubble again, despite the issues faced by the likes of Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Football League (NFL), both of which have been forced to postpone games after choosing not to use hub cities for games.

But Martins shares in Leitao’s belief that the lessons from the bubble will help the NBA navigate the impact of the virus in the months ahead.

“There’s no doubt that there’s a template here and there’s a lot of learnings, a lot of education that’s taken place,” he considers. “It’s something that despite all of our experience none of us have been through in our career. We always have challenges on a year-to-year basis in operating these leagues and our teams, but this is not anything that anyone learned in a textbook or was educated to be prepared for.

“I would say it’s historical. We’ll look back on this as a season like no other, but one that in certain ways changed certain operational aspects of the way that we will go about doing our business in the future.”

The Lakers celebrate winning their 17th NBA championship after spending over a quarter of the year in the bubble

The fact that MLS and the NBA emerged from their bubbles unscathed also bodes well for Orlando at large as its bid to persuade potential tourists that it is safe to visit again. Some of the city’s theme parks have reopened at limited capacity with robust sanitation and cleaning measures in place, but it remains to be seen whether people will have the same appetite to attend such venues until a vaccine is in circulation.

In the meantime, though, Siegel feels that Orlando has at least reminded the world of its leading credentials both as an event host and holiday destination – and also given hope to other cities looking to open up again.     

“We’ve always been very bullish about our place – not just in the United States but in the world – as a major event host,” Siegel asserts. “We have a portfolio which truly traces back to the 1994 [Fifa] World Cup of successfully hosting events, and we think that this next level of hosting will only lend itself to future opportunities.

“I think our ability to pivot as quickly as we did certainly shines a bright light on Orlando, and because of that we’ve had multiple inquiries from many other industries and associations who are looking to Orlando when they restart.

“It’ll forever be known as this Wide World of Sports Disney model, this bubble concept, so there’s an awful lot of interest in duplicating the effort in other destinations. We’re getting a lot of attention behind the scenes as to how you safely go about copying this model that’s [been] in place.”

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