How Covid Failed To Prevent Basketball’s Superstars From Playing In Atlanta
The NBA knew they had a daunting task ahead of them with the 2020-21 season. Not only would they be dealing with the shortest offseason in league history, but they’d be doing so in the middle of a global pandemic, as the American sports league playing the longest season, the most games with the most travel and fresh off the heels of the medical marvel that was the Orlando bubble. In their initial schedule release for the season, the NBA announced the annual All-Star Game would not take place, though they scheduled a typical All-Star break from March 5-10. The official announcement from the league stated the game was “postponed,” awarding former host city Indianapolis the 2024 game, and “plans for a revised NBA All-Star 2021 will be announced at a later date,” leaving the door open for a game to still be played.
That possibility came to fruition on February 18, when commissioner Adam Silver announced the 2021 All-Star Game would, indeed, be played and moved to Atlanta for a one-day extravaganza with a limited audience of friends and family. “It’s a global event for us, and we’re making our best efforts to embrace all aspects of our league to the extent we can through this pandemic and this is just one more opportunity,” said Silver, adding that playing the game was the “right thing to do.”
That decision was instantly met with vociferous and harsh criticism, not only from talking heads and league pundits, but from some of the biggest stars in the NBA. LeBron James , the reigning Finals MVP, Western Conference captain and the league-wide leader in fan votes for the game said he had “zero energy and zero excitement” for the game a day after Silver’s announcement, adding he felt playing the game was a “slap in the face.” Reigning regular season MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo echoed James’ “zero excitement,” sentiments, citing LeBron’s quote and adding he “(doesn’t) care about the All-Star Game.” Kawhi Leonard addressed the multimillion-dollar elephant in the room, “We all know why we’re playing (the game), it’s money on the line. It’s an opportunity to make more money. Just putting money over health right now.”
The league has understandably and predictably dealt with its fair share of health concerns this year. To date, 31 games have been postponed due to COVID protocols, including multiple incidents where teams simply could not field enough players to play a game. The Raptors – playing their entire season in Tampa Bay due to Canada’s COVID-19 restrictions mandating a 14-day quarantine for anybody traveling into the country – recently played, and won, a game without their head coach Nick Nurse and five other staff members due to COVID-19 protocols. Leonard’s health concerns are obviously valid, but so too is his assessment of the money at stake. The New York Times estimates the value of All-Star coverage for league broadcast partner Turner Sports is between $30-60 million, and the NBA would “have to make that money up to Turner” if there was no game this year. Even with a three-day extravaganza stuffed into one six-hour block of television now that the Skills Challenge and 3-Point contest will take place before the game and the Slam Dunk contest will take place at halftime, the festivities are clearly valuable. For Turner, whose networks are not a part of the NBA’s Christmas Day schedule or the NBA Finals, the All-Star festivities are their premiere basketball event every year. Last year the game drew 7.3 million viewers for TNT, more than any Christmas Day game for Disney’s networks ABC and ESPN.
Appeasing a broadcast partner is paramount for the NBA, as their nine-year, $24 billion broadcast deal with Turner and Disney brings in $2.6 billion annually. Silver previously stated 40% of the league’s revenue comes from fans in arenas on gameday, which leaves the league facing massive losses as 15 teams have yet to bring fans back while the rest operate with reduced seating. As the league and the world inch closer towards normalcy, every dollar counts, but perhaps more pressing is the need for a new broadcast deal with the current agreement set to end after the 2025 season.
So, the NBA pushed forward, and despite the groans of some of the league’s brightest stars the game will go on. National Basketball Players’ Association President Chris Paul responded to players voicing their displeasure with the game. “Guys are entitled to their feelings, decisions and everything,” Paul said. “I think the job for the union is to try to make sure our players are healthy and safe. This is something that was a decision by the league, and we are definitely, day in and day out, trying to figure it out. But we have 450 players that we are always trying to get insight from, and it’s tough, so we are trying to figure it out right now.”
According to Silver, Paul was instrumental in the league and the NBPA coming together to give “ more than $2.5 million” to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as part of the game. “About a thousand,” fans from local HBCUs will be the only fans allowed to attend the game, alongside close friends and family members related to the players. The Clark Atlanta University Philharmonic Society Choir will also be on hand to perform “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Additional performances during player introductions will take place on campus for various HBCUs as well, adding another layer to the game’s pageantry.
In the end, the All-Star Game is a business opportunity the NBA simply could not pass by, risks be damned. There will be additional COVID-19 protocols for the players participating in the game and the surrounding activities, including a mandated “self-quarantine,” from February 27th until the game, private transportation to and from the game and regular testing for the players and their four allowed guests. There will be absolutely no social functions in Atlanta,” Silver said. “No ticketed events. No parties. It is a made-for-television event at this point, and it’s largely in Atlanta because that’s where Turner Sports is located who will host this event.” So the league and Turner are getting their game, just like Leonard said they would.