ATLANTA — The NBA is here in Atlanta because it wants to make some money in a financially trying season and it also wanted to add some normalcy to what has been the most unusual time in league history.
After concluding its 2019-20 season in a bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., 4½ months ago, the league is conducting the 2020-21 season in mostly empty arenas, including Sunday’s All-Star Game, which will be played in front of a limited audience at State Farm Arena.
There is hope, however, for fans looking to attend NBA games as the coronavirus vaccine is further distributed. Commissioner Adam Silver said Saturday he hopes arenas can be populated by the time the playoffs arrive in May.
“I don’t rule anything out just because one thing we’ve all come to understand over the last year is that the virus is firmly in charge,” Silver said. “We need to adjust to circumstances as they present themselves.
“But I’d say maybe for the first time in the past year, I’m fairly optimistic right now that as we see fans returning to our arenas, as we see public health officials across the country begin to open up sporting events, theaters, restaurants, other forms of entertainment, I feel pretty good that we’re going to continue pace.
“By the time we reach the playoffs in mid-May, things will even be considerably better than they are now. Also, obviously here in the United States, we’ve been making excellent progress in terms of vaccinations. That will be very helpful in getting people back in the arenas.”
The NBA has lost money during the pandemic, obviously, because most teams have not been allowed to host fans, but Silver said the league is strong financially.
“Between last year and this year, we’re looking at considerable losses,” Silver said. “I generally don’t talk about that publicly because teams are largely privately held. We’re not suggesting that is anybody else’s issue but ours. Last season, and this season, has required a significant investment on the part of the team owners. They accept that. Players will end up taking a reduction in salary this season because they are partners with the league and teams on revenue. The executives, team executives, have all taken haircuts on their salary.
“I think when we all step back, we feel very fortunate to be working under these circumstances. My sense is the players feel the same way.”
While there was a pushback from some players, including LeBron James, about playing the All-Star Game, all players who were selected decided to participate, including Celtics forwards Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Many of those players have expressed excitement about playing on Sunday, which will also include a Skills Challenge and 3-point Shootout.
“It’s my job to look out for the overall interest of the league,” Silver said. “To me, when I say ‘Economic interests are a factor,’ it’s less to do with the economics of one Sunday night on TNT in the United States. It has more to do with the larger brand value of the NBA. The fact this is our No. 1 fan engagement event of the year. Because we went forward with the All-Star Game, not only did roughly 100 million people vote for the All-Stars on a global basis, but based on past ratings, well over 100 million people will watch the game and the ancillary competitions.
“For me, it would have been a bigger deal not to have it. I know that some players have made public comments of course suggesting they’d rather not be at the All-Star Game. I’m almost 30 years in the league. Many have told me directly they’re thrilled to be All-Stars. They recognize their careers are relatively short.
“For several of them, there’s several first-time All-Stars here, there’s many who only had been an All-Star a couple times. Even for them to be able to gather here, even over a short period of time, is truly meaningful.”
Silver finally added that he doesn’t believe players will need to be vaccinated for fans to fully return. He also said he does not know if any current player who has been vaccinated. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was vaccinated last month, but the NBA is not mandating vaccinations.
“I don’t think that every player certainly needs to be vaccinated for fans to come back. I mean, that’s not anything that the health authorities have suggested to us,” Silver said. “I think we’re now fairly familiar with those kinds of engagements that can lead to people getting the virus from someone else. There may be a herd immunity aspect to this, which means whether in our community or in [other] jurisdictions, a certain percentage of people, who have been vaccinated or have antibodies, will cover others.
“I also think, being realistic around the NBA, as I said, we have no plans to mandate that players get vaccinated. For any sort of large-scale, required vaccinations to take place, that can only happen with the Players Association. As I said, we’ve only talked about educational efforts.
“So I don’t see every player needing to get vaccinated as an impediment to fans returning to the arena. No more do I think the fact that every fan won’t be vaccinated is an impediment of fans coming back to the arena.
“I think it’s with a combination of vaccines, antibodies, herd immunity in communities, proper safety and cleanliness protocols, we’ll be able to return to something that looks a lot closer to normal beginning next season, at least based on the information I have available to me today.”