The NBA’s “Bubble City” and the Optics of Testing problem

By None
May. 09, 2020

The NBA is desperate to resume and save what it can of the 2019-20 season, and proposals for a bubble city have grown as there is a low possibility of all 50 states reopening up completely in time to save the season. Sports Illustrated reported that MGM “has offered to create a ‘bubble city’ for leagues like the NBA and WNBA on the Las Vegas Strip,” and there were other reports of the league using Disney World as an alternative location.

A bubble city is more feasible than having teams fly across the country and playing in empty stadiums. But there are major logistical issues both with creating and maintaining the idea. And the logistical issue of mass testing is a potential PR nightmare for the NBA and any sports league that tries to reopen.

How Much Testing

From the moment the coronavirus became a global crisis, the constant call has been for more and more testing. Shutdown and “flatten the curve” rhetoric was initially about staying in until the US could expand medical capacity and testing. But while testing numbers have been generally rising, it has been in fits and starts. The COVID Tracking Project reports that the biggest testing day was 314,854 tests on April 22. Meanwhile, KFF reports that the amount of daily tests needed according to medical experts ranges from 430,000 to as high as 23 million.

Perhaps the testing situation will have sufficiently improved by the time the NBA sets up any planned bubble city. But the more realistic scenario is that there will still be demand for more tests. And right when there is this demand, the NBA and sports leagues are going to have to use up a huge number of tests for this bubble city idea.

After all, it will not just be 450 NBA players who will have to be tested. There will be all the coaches and assistant coaches. There are the hundreds if not thousands support staff who will have to keep the players fed and supplied. Their families will have to be tested, as it is unrealistic to expect NBA players to play for months on end without seeing them.

Of course, not all of these people will have to be tested every single day. But a substantial portion will have to be. The NBA already faced initial scrutiny for how players like Rudy Gobert were able to get tested immediately when millions of ordinary Americans could and still cannot be tested like residents at Skylark senior home care. The outcry could very well be bigger if thousands of tests will have to be used up every day, to go to the exact same people again and again. And none of this even discusses the implications of what will happen if there is in fact a positive test, especially since no testing regime is perfect.

The NBA is trying to put a brave face on things, because admitting that the bubble idea would be a logistical and PR nightmare just makes it that much more likely that the 2019-20 season will be outright canceled. But barring a sudden improvement in coronavirus, fans should at this point assume that is the most likely outcome.