As conference finals begin this week inside the NBA Bubble, it’s tough to classify the league’s effort as anything less than a success. And yet, for all of the focus placed on the personality and talent of its players, it’s worth acknowledging the real reason to convene, in the midst of a pandemic, amid nationwide protests against police killings of Black citizens. The NBA is a multibillion-dollar business, accountable to shareholders and corporate partners.
The COVID-19-shaped hole in the season—$470+ million in lost gate receipts, without taking into account in-arena advertising, merchandise sales and concessions—was atop of the league’s estimated $400 million loss in the Chinese market (its largest outside the U.S.) this season. Even as no games were being played, Disney and Turner continued making scheduled payments for national TV rights—not as charity, but prepayment on a good-faith attempt by the league to salvage the season.
Which is why, in mid-July, 22 of 30 teams—more than a thousand players, as well as coaches, media, technology, support and maintenance staff—sequestered at ESPN’s Wide Sports of Sports Complex, at Walt Disney World in Orlando.
On August 23—roughly a week into the NBA playoffs—the world saw chilling video of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, being shot in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, while attempting to break up an altercation. He was the latest addition to a tragically ever-growing list of Black victims of such violence.
Two days later, the Milwaukee Bucks decided to forfeit Game 5 of their first-round playoff series with the Orlando Magic, just minutes before its start, unbeknownst to the league and the players’ union. Refusing to accept the victory, the Magic also left the floor.
This “wildcat strike” (a strike undertaken by unionized workers without union leadership’s authorization) quickly swept through not only the NBA bubble, but across the country, with numerous players and teams sitting out in solidarity. The WNBA, whose players have long led the charge on a range of social issues, postponed games for that night and the following night. Five Major League Soccer games were postponed, as were three Major League Baseball games. U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka, whose father is from Haiti, also opted out of a semifinal, citing “much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention.”
Ultimately, the NBA postponed that night’s remaining games, along with those on the following two days. Concerns of a prematurely burst bubble only grew when a meeting among players fell apart, with members of the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers voting not to continue the season, and several—most notably LeBron James—leaving early.
The timing of the strike was dictated by events wholly unrelated to basketball, but it did occur at a point when the stakes were disproportionately in the players’ favor. NBA salaries are only for the regular season. The only postseason payment is a “playoff share,” paid to all members (players, coaches, trainers, etc.) of each playoff team. In 2019, each member of the championship-winning team received $220,000—a relatively small sum compared to both the average NBA salary of $7.7 million and the median salary of more than $3.3 million.
However, the playoffs are a monumentally important time for the league owners, when TV ratings—and advertising rates—peak. Canceling the playoffs would have delivered a devastating blow to the NBA’s power brokers, turning the $170 million bubble into an embarrassing sunk cost. Players would by no means have escaped unscathed, as, per comments from NBPA executive director Michele Roberts and senior counsel Ron Klempner, a decision to sit out the remainder of the season would have cost 25 to 30 percent of next season’s salaries, with a risk of ownership terminating the collective bargaining agreement.
After emergency meetings between the NBA’s Board of Governors and representatives from both sides, ownership committed to contributing $300 million over 10 years to a new, charitable foundation—the league’s first. Playoffs resumed on August 30.
A partnership with the NBA Players’ Association (which will hold three of eight board seats), the NBA Foundation aims to create economic opportunity and advancement in the Black community, in large part by funding national and local organizations that themselves provide support to high school, college-aged and career-ready Black men and women across the US and Canada.
In addition, the league announced a “social justice coalition,” which will advocate for “meaningful reform” in policing and criminal justice, as well as a “social justice plan,” which includes increased efforts by the league and its partners to encourage civic engagement.
Most prominently, the NBA announced that it would work alongside organizations like the Election Centers Super Project, which looks to “supplement familiar neighborhood polling places with additional locations for safe, secure, convenient voting” and More That A Vote, a voting rights group created by LeBron James and a number of athletes and celebrities, to turn sports venues into polling sites and voting centers for the U.S. general election in November. A movement that began in late June and early July, with the Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks, now includes nearly three quarters of NBA teams.
Securing sports venues for such purposes would be extremely valuable in “normal times,” as they’re often in centrally located and densely populated areas and provide ample technological infrastructure. They offer a vital added benefit now, as their size and capacity allow for social distancing on a large scale.
While there’s only limited publicly available data on revenue generated through the non-basketball use of NBA venues, it’s generally accepted that the cost of renting out an NBA arena in a prominent market can exceed $100,000 per day. The essential donation of a number of professional and college sports venues (20-plus NBA arenas, along with Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, CenturyLink Field in Seattle and Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, among others) is a far more substantial investment.
Viewed through a certain prism, it’s easy to declare that there was simply too much at stake for the NBA’s wildcat strike to ever truly endanger the season. Some, in fact, will cynically disparage players for having the temerity to question the structure of a system that’s afforded them a certain amount of wealth and privilege.
While brief, what unfolded in late August in Orlando is not to be dismissed. It was a powerful signal, a shot across the bow of the league’s almost entirely white, extremely wealthy, and politically influential owners. It’s not just the greatest assertion of player power in years, but a stark reminder that sports’ existence is contingent on players playing. There’s no substitute for that.