Amid postponements NBA awaits vaccine, mulls mandate

Editor’s Update: Adam Silver spoke about the NBA’s vaccine policy today (1/19/21) on Sportico’s NBA Valuations Panel. Silver highlighted the role that players might have in promoting vaccine efficacy to skeptical populations. Specifically, members of the African American community may understandably mistrust the vaccine given the racist history of vaccination in this country. Silver also reiterated that the league would wait until public health officials agree it’s the right time to vaccinate players.

It is not uncommon for a team’s roster to fluctuate in size as a result of players’ injuries or other personal reasons. However, nowadays rosters seem to be thinning faster due to contact tracing and other COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Last Sunday’s game between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat was postponed after Miami fell short of the eight-player minimum due to COVID-19 contact-tracing concerns. Per ESPN, Miami guard Avery Bradley was out due to health and safety protocols. Forward Kelly Olynyk, guard Goran Dragic, and center Meyers Leonard were also among the players potentially unable to play due to injury. The Celtics, however, do not have a brimming roster to boast of as of now either. Last week, seven players on the Boston team were out due to health and safety protocols. In fact, Jason Tatum has recently tested positive and is undergoing a 10-14 day quarantine. The Philadelphia 76ers are also currently missing players as Seth Curry tested positive earlier last week, which meant that four of his teammates had to also go into quarantine per the league’s health and safety protocol.  

Teams appear to be short-handed at this point in the season; however, according to ESPN’s Wojnarowski, the NBA has no plans to pause the season. The 2020-21 NBA Health and Safety protocol is reported to be extensive at 158 pages; however, it does not list criteria for the season to be suspended. Monitoring the virus and preventing outbreaks is significantly more challenging outside of last season’s Orlando bubble; however, teams have avoided a single large outbreak. Since last week, twelve more games have been postponed, bringing the total to fourteen. The thing that seems to be counteracting the considerable inconveniences, such as precarious competitive balance across teams and continually disrupted chemistry, is the collective sense of hope for a vaccine and a less volatile latter half of the season. The league’s health safety protocol states, “Once a vaccine is available, the league and the National Basketball Players Association will negotiate whether players, coaches, and staff will be required to receive it. If it is not required, adjustments to the safety provisions — such as requiring more masking or testing of those who choose not to receive the vaccination — might be implemented.” 

Decisions surrounding the distribution of the vaccine will be interesting to observe across professional sports leagues given that considerable skepticism already seems to exist. For example, Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors told USA Today, “I’m a guy that don’t really take any vaccines. I try to stay away from a lot of medicine.”  Moreover, Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. raised some eyebrows over the summer when he suggested that coronavirus was “being used for a bigger agenda” and revealed that he had never been vaccinated. Porter contracted the virus earlier in January and is currently on the list of players sidelined for the duration of their quarantine. Undoubtedly, a mandatory vaccine (assuming it’s ethical, safe, and effective) of all players, coaches, and staff could very much ease the season’s flow and ensure a quicker return to normal. So, can the NBA mandate a vaccine? Take the flu vaccine, for example. The league “strongly recommends” it, and all players and their households receive the option to take the vaccine. In the case of denial, the respective team has the right to provide the player with an educational course on the vaccine’s benefits. However, in 2021, the world is dealing with much more than just the annual flu, so how will the process be handled?

While the NBA has avoided comment on how it will handle the issue so far, history may provide insight on the legality of a potential mandate. A most relevant landmark case is Jacobson v. Massachusetts; a 7-2 decision held that Cambridge, Massachusetts could fine residents who refused to receive smallpox injections during the 1905 epidemic. Jacobson’s side argued that introducing smallpox to a healthy functioning immune system is a violation of the 14th Amendment, specifically of life and liberty. In response, the court reasoned that under the 10th Amendment, states have the authority to enact reasonable legislative action to protect public health. While this decision is over one hundred years old, there is little precedent on vaccine mandates and the NBA may look to this holding as a means to justify enforcement.  However, this determination seemed to grant power to respective states and it is uncertain how it can be applied in the context of an organization. Interestingly, although personal and ethical views are usually insufficient, “sincerely held religious belief” may qualify an exemption from a mandatory vaccination policy under Title VII. However, the current pandemic is largely uncharted territory. The consequences of a player or a coach denying the vaccine may be significant. In light of this, the conversation surrounding risk-management is likely to develop further, and shift legal determinations. Additional federal and state guidelines will likely also inform league decisions surrounding vaccination protocols. For now, Adam Silver has commented that the NBA will not “jump the line in any form whatsoever” in terms of receiving the vaccine.

COVID-19’s Impact on Sports Broadcasting and Salaries

It’s been just over two weeks since the last live broadcast of a professional sporting event and the effects are rippling through the world of sports business. COVID-19’s arrival and subsequent spread across the United States prompted the suspensions of the NBA’s, NHL’s and XFL’s seasons, as well as the delay to the start of the MLB season and countless other disruptions throughout sports. Much like almost every other area of the U.S. economy, sports have taken an enormous hit and while fans and organizations alike are eager to see their favorite athletes return to competition, it is uncertain as to when they will be able to safely, and lucratively, do so.

Between the timing of COVID-19’s lockdown on U.S. sporting events and the ambiguous 2-to-6 month timeframe medical experts are forecasting for a full recovery, each league has tailored its own plan in response to sudden halt of play. Below is a quick summary of just a few of the major sporting organizations’ financial and/or scheduling proposals.

NBA: After announcing that players would receive full salaries on the April 1st due date, the NBA announced earlier this week that it would be reducing the pay of 100 of the leagues’ highest-paid executives by 20% for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. Moreover, the league has extended its credit limit to $1.2 billion for added flexibility in covering its coming expenses. While there is no set plan on when play for the current season will resume, league commissioner Adam Silver has insisted that regardless of timeline, the league would prefer to salvage some portion of the season and crown a champion for the 2019-2020 season. Among the avalanche of proposals of how to “save the season,” Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, recommended permanently pushing back the start date of the NBA season to December and concluding with the NBA Finals in late summer, given the current season would optimistically end in August or September. Moreover, Brooklyn Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie tweeted out an interesting idea in which the NBA season would resume with a March-Madness style tournament involving all 30 teams.

MLB: The MLB reported this week that it had reached an agreement with the MLBPA on a loose framework of financial and scheduling logistics regarding the upcoming season. Perhaps the most shocking news was the revelation that IF the season is cancelled, players would receive the same amount of service time they received the season prior. This means that players with a year remaining on their contract, such as recently-acquired outfielder Mookie Betts, will hit free agency in 2021 without ever playing a game for the Los Angeles Dodgers who traded valuable assets for his services this year. Also, in the event that the season is cancelled, the MLB made it clear that players would not be able to sue for full salaries, however all players will be receiving a $170 million advance over the next two months. Despite these insurance measures, Commissioner Rob Manfred is hopeful that the MLB resumes play this summer, while he acknowledges that a full 162-game season is likely off the table. The reported contingency plan includes 1) beginning the season once there are no bans on mass gatherings that limit the ability to play in front of fans, 2) no travel restrictions, 3) medical experts determine that games will not pose a risk to the health of teams and fans. Moreover, if/when play resumes, the MLB noted that doubleheaders, a 14-team playoff format, and a neutral, warm-weather location for a November/December World Series are all in serious consideration.

NHL: While the NBA and MLB have quickly pivoted to rescuing their seasons, the NHL has not matched their optimism nor their speed in announcing contingency options. The league has not yet united around a financial agenda, yet both the Dallas Stars President and General Manager have taken voluntary 50% pay cuts. Meanwhile, the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens announced layoffs as their own responses. While many see the cancellation of the rest of the season as the most realistic scenario, others have proposed a timeline similar to that of the NBA with the season picking back up in July/August and ending in August/September. Most notably, star players Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby said that they would be “OK” with skipping straight to the playoffs if and when the season is able to resume, however they acknowledged the question of fair play and keeping the integrity of the sport.

XFL: I really feel for the XFL here. Riding a strong start in its inaugural season, the decision to not only suspend but cancel its remainder must have been decisively more difficult than those of other sporting leagues. The XFL was exactly at the midway point of its season having played through five weeks of its ten week schedule (excluding a two-week playoff in April). Though the eight-team football league had been dealing with declining ratings following its initial excitement, it immediately committed to paying its players’ full salaries and returning refunds or credit to its ticket holders. The XFL also announced that it will be back for a 2021 season and has great reason to do so. Ten former XFL players have already signed contracts with NFL teams for the upcoming season with more likely to follow in the coming days.

MLS: Major League Soccer was in the midst of only the second week of its season when it made the decision to postpone its season for 30 days. As updates of the spread across the U.S. have come in, the Commissioner Don Garber pushed the deadline back to May 10th, but will likely have to do so again under the current climate. Garber, however, is adamant that when soccer returns, the MLS will play a full season’s worth of games even if it means extending the calendar of the season. While there has not been an unanimous response to salary fulfillment across the MLS, one team came under scrutiny for sending an email to its game day staff suggesting they file for unemployment while naming corporate partners who might be hiring.

BIG3…?: I was hesitant to include the Big3 in this rundown of major sporting organizations, however its response to the coronavirus crisis may just elevate its status to that of the leagues listed above. For those who are not familiar with the Big3, it is a 3-on-3 basketball league composed of former NBA and college players such as Amar’e Stoudemire and Joe Johnson. The games are played half-court style with rule oddities that differentiate it from the NBA such as the addition of a 4-point shot and first team to score 60 points as the winner. As for the coronavirus’ impact on the BIG3, originally games were supposed to be played around the country in Memphis, New York and more. However, BIG3 co-founder Ice Cube announced yesterday that the organization will be partnering with the producers of reality TV show “Big Brother” in efforts to air a basketball tournament-reality TV show hybrid to fill the significant void in the sports world. It was reported that the tournament will feature 16-22 players, who be previously tested for COVID-19 and if selected, will be quarantined in a house together for the duration of the season with anyone who breaks quarantine being kicked from the house. It was also reported that some of those selected may even in former top women’s basketball players.

The idea is that the three-person teams would shuffle teams each round and once an individual player accumulates three losses they would be eliminated from contention. Then, the final three players would win cash prizes with the top prize being at least seven figures. The goal is to air the tournament starting in May and given the current sport’s climate, or lack thereof, the BIG3 will surely see a large opportunity to scoop up hungry sports fans across the country craving any form of live competition. There is no word yet on whether or not these fans will be able to bet on these contests, however given the nationwide craving to slowly restart the economy, it wouldn’t a surprise to see Las Vegas announce the lines once the details of the BIG3’s proposal are ironed out. In any event, every other aforementioned league is looking at June start/resume dates in their most optimistic scenarios, so at the very least the BIG3 has at least a month to show us all what it has to offer, and hopefully hold us sports fans over until our favorite teams are back in action.

WNBA & WNBPA to announce new CBA this week

Facing the looming October 31st deadline of a new collective bargaining agreement, the WNBA and WNBPA agreed to extend the current CBA 60 more days. The new CBA is expected to be announced this week on the 15th and will carry significant changes, most importantly one that deals with the WNBA’s most contentious issue, player salary.  Revenue sharing is one of the principle reasons that the WNBPA chose to opt out of the previous CBA in 2018. The new agreement will go into effect immediately as teams adjust to the new regulations in preparation for the start of free agency which begins on February first. So, what exactly does this new CBA mean for the short-term future of the WNBA?

The central issue revolves around the pay and respect WNBA players rightfully feel is long overdue. Many players, even stars such as Brittney Griner, go overseas to earn fair compensation immediately after the conclusion of the WNBA season. In fact, this very problem caused the Washington Mystics to cancel their championship parade last season because so many players had already committed to play for international clubs.

However, the salary problem is only half the issue as the lack of respect WNBA players are afforded is equally troubling. Last season, the WNBA refused to give first-class plane tickets to those playing in the All Star Game and poor travel conditions were responsible for the forfeiture of a game by the Las Vegas Aces who missed the playoffs by one game. These disappointing WNBA norms have some reminiscing about the glory days of women’s college basketball where they routinely fly private and never face game cancellations.

Of course, both of these problems rely on the WNBA’s revenue which in and of itself is a whole other conversation. According to Forbes, the WNBA and its teams are not required to share their financials and have made no effort to do so. Moreover, they claim that the WNBA loses $10 million each year leaving little flexibility for increases in player salaries and job benefits. However, one study estimated that the WNBA’s revenue has grown to $60 million since the last CBA and figured that the league shares about 20% of its revenue with the players, whereas the NBA splits its revenue 50/50 with its own.

In either event, it is clear that the lack of transparency should be the definitive starting point in navigating this disparity; accordingly the new CBA should redistribute a much more fair percentage of the revenue the league generates. Moreover, the league should also see this as a good thing for a few reasons beyond just ethics.

The first is that several of the leagues best players are unrestricted free agents meaning they can sign with any team when free agency opens in a couple weeks. Among this group are stars such as Elena Delle Donne (2nd in points per game last year with 19.5), Courtney Vandersloot (1st in assists per game with 9.1) and Jonquel Jones (1st in rebounds per game with 9.7). Besides filling up box scores, these players are the faces of the league. In a similar way that NBA players dominate offseason headlines with record contracts, the WNBA and WNBPA can benefit from endorsing and sensationalizing the players with their own record salary agreements.

On top of this free marketing, the NBA and WNBA are teaming up with media networks to step up their WNBA promotion efforts. Similar to the NBA, the WNBA gained another revenue stream with the addition of jersey sponsors, and A’ja Wilson’s 2018 endorsement agreement with Mountain Dew represents a step in the right direction. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and WNBA Commissioner Lisa Borders have been outspoken about improving the marketing of the league, and just last year the WNBA announced a partnership with Sylvain Labs for a long-term growth strategy.

These are both encouraging signs for the WNBA as it prepares to pave the next generation of interest in women’s professional basketball. However, the best opportunity for the WNBA’s big break may not arrive until close to 2030, when Kobe Bryant’s 13 year old daughter, Gigi, becomes eligible to sign a professional contract. Despite the young age of “Mambacita,” as many are already calling her, she receives just as much, if not more, media coverage than any WNBA player does. I mean, just check out her highlights and you can see that she’s on the fast-track to the league. Given her talents and notoriety as Kobe Bryant’s prodigy, it is not hard to imagine that Gigi Bryant’s impact could drive the WNBA’s popularity just as Lebron James did as coming out of high school as the future face of the NBA. However, until that dream becomes a reality, the WNBA would be best served by prioritizing the pay and respect of its players, and hopefully, the announcement of a new CBA this week reflects exactly that.

 

NBA looks internationally with G League Franchise in Mexico City

The NBA just showed everyone why it is the most dynamic league in sports with the announcement of its landmark partnership with the Capitanes, the first professional G League team outside of the U.S. and Canada. Between the NBA, NFL and MLB, all three associations have had an eye towards international expansion and have played games in Mexico, England, Japan, China and Australia in recent years. However, the NBA has become the first to officially open a franchise outside of the U.S.-Canadian markets. The Capitanes were established in 2016 and currently play in Mexico’s own professional basketball league, la Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional, however will debut in the G League in the 2020-2021 season for an initial term of 5 years.

The possibilities with this move are endless and really allows the NBA to become creative in rethinking the G League and minor league basketball as a whole. For one, the Capitanes will be playing at the Gimnasio Juan de la Barrera in Mexico City which represents the largest media market in North America. The NBA can test this market for its viability for professional basketball, leaving the door open to a potential NBA league team in the future and could even become a two-team city like New York or Los Angeles down the road.

As evidence, for the fourth season in a row, Mexico City has been the host to two regular season games and saw the Mavericks and Pistons play this week in an event that underscored the global nature of NBA. Before the game, Luka Doncic, a Slovenian 20-year old who played for Real Madrid, addressed a crowd in fluent Spanish while representing a team from Texas. You can watch the clip here and instantly recognize the opportunity that exists for the NBA in Mexico.

A large part of the NBA’s appeal is its diversity, both domestically and internationally. It has been praised as the “industry leader among men’s sports for racial and gender hiring practices” by TIDES, the authority on diversity and ethics in sports, while also boasting players from countries around the world such as superstars Giannis Antetokounmpo from Greece and Joel Embiid from Cameroon as well as retirees like Yao Ming of China and Spain’s Pau Gasol. Interestingly enough, though Hispanic viewers represent 11% of the NBA viewership, outside of Dominican-born Al Horford and Argentina’s Manu Ginobli, Latin America is not known for sending much talent to the NBA. However, the league’s expansion to Mexico could inspire a generation of NBA hopefuls and the next Latin American-born star might be the spark that lights up basketball culture across the region.

This is exactly why a G League in Mexico now opens up so many possibilities for the NBA in the future. As it stands now, two of the NBA’s 30 teams, the Nuggets and Trailblazers, do not have a G League affiliate and instead send their developmental prospects to play on other G League teams. This is far from ideal given the lack of control they have over this development process, however the lack of uniformity could also allow the NBA to pivot completely from how G League teams are conceptualized.

Let’s get crazy for a second and imagine that the NBA adopts a structure similar to that of professional soccer in Spain and made tiers of teams that would be promoted and demoted based on season results. Thus, the NBA would represent tier 1, the G League would represent tier 2, and let’s say Mexico’s la Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional (LNBP) would represent tier 3. The NBA could then introduce a tournament toward the end of the regular season for the bottom four teams and demote the loser of the bracket to tier 2, meanwhile champion of the G League would move up and take the spot of that losing team. The same would happen the last place team of the G League and the champion of the LNBP.

As wild as it is, it would completely take the incentive away from tanking, while adding another “playoffs” of sorts that avid NBA fans would tune in for. Moreover, the ability to reimagine G League teams lowers the barrier to entry for other G league teams that formerly would have needed to be an affiliate of an NBA team. It also allows the opportunity for a team like the Capitanes to have a chance to become an NBA team by winning the G League title and affords more market freedom to both the players and teams.  Again, the possibilities are endless but at the very least, ensure that the future of professional basketball is in good hands with Adam Silver’s focus on the international stage.

Quick note: Sending thoughts and prayers out to former NBA commissioner David Stern who underwent emergency surgery for a brain hemorrhage he suffered this week. Stern served as commissioner for 30 years and was instrumental in expanding the NBA from 10 franchises to 30 and broadening the NBA to a more global audience.

Daryl Morey and China’s Blacklisting of the NBA

Harden china

A snowball has turned into an avalanche for Daryl Morey and the NBA after the Houston Rockets GM weighed in on the current political climate in China this past week. A simple tweet, now deleted, lies at the heart of the controversy, as Morey posted an image lending support to the protestors in Hong Kong who are entering their 18th consecutive week of public demonstration. The unrest stems from a bill the Hong Kong government proposed that would allow authorities to detain and extradite criminal fugitives in the territory to mainland China. Protestors fear that this bill would subject Hong Kong residents and visitors to mainland Chinese jurisdiction, which the region is not currently under, jeopardizing the semi-autonomous status it received after the United Kingdom returned the area to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

Days after the NBA showcased its first preseason game featuring the Rockets and the Shanghai Sharks, Morey’s tweet has fractured the relationship between the ever-expanding basketball organization and China. Since his post on October 4th, several Chinese businessmen have dropped ties with the Rockets, the Chinese Basketball Association has cancelled games with the NBA’s G-League affiliate, and China’s state-run CCTV has suspended broadcasts of all of the NBA’s preseason games, including those scheduled to take place in Shenzhen and Shanghai. The fallout has been swift and severe and has reportedly put as many as four billion dollars at stake, that includes a five-year, $1.5 billion deal with Chinese broadcast giant, Tecent, as well as other lucrative sponsorships.

The Rockets, who have long been “China’s team” thanks to Yao Ming, have certainly tried their best to rectify the situation to no avail. Hours after the initial post, Rockets owner, Tilman Fertitta, took to Twitter to distance the team from Morey, emphasizing, “@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets” and, “we are NOT a political organization.” The ownership even mulled firing the general manager, who has been responsible for three-straight 50+ win seasons, as a means of alleviating the situation. Morey, for his part, apologized on Twitter, distancing his opinions from the Rockets and NBA, and even James Harden offered his own apology on behalf of his GM.

The NBA also weighed in with a similar lack of success and additional controversy. Sunday night, the league released statements, one in English, the other in Chinese, that conveyed subtly differing messages: the former as an apology of Morey’s stance and the latter as a strong rebuke. Of course, this discrepancy did not go unnoticed and drew a loud reaction within the U.S. as many saw the Chinese edition of the NBA’s statement as an indictment towards freedom of speech. Many U.S. lawmakers accused the NBA of putting profit before the first amendment right, and some even went as far as to suggest the league ought to cancel its games in China.

The pressure culminated in commissioner Adam Silver taking the podium in Tokyo on Tuesday to address the commotion. His comments primarily defended Morey’s right to voice his opinion although he used words such as “apologetic” and “regret” to describe the outcome and reaction to the tweet. However, Silver did acknowledge that the league would have to “live with those consequences” and, again, advocated for Morey’s freedom of speech.

Because Silver took a middle ground in trying to placate both outraged Chinese businessmen and U.S. champions of free speech, it does not appear that the conflict is going away anytime soon. CCTV responded to the commissioner’s statements expressing its dissatisfaction towards his defense of unrestricted expression saying, “we believe that any speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability is not within the scope of freedom of speech.” While the merits of China’s response are up for debate across borders, it is clear the country is taking a hardline stance towards any form of support for the protestors.

The mixing of business, politics, and cultural norms is a messy situation that has been especially aggravated given the disparities between Chinese and U.S. systems. Moreover, it doesn’t help that the decision makers and loudest voices on China’s end are among the country’s elites, the majority of whom are aligned with the state’s position on the protests. Clearly the development in Hong Kong is a sensitive issue that should be approached thoughtfully, but Morey’s stance by no means deserves a fallout of this magnitude. The Rockets’ and NBA’s predicament in this issue is understandable to a certain extent — China contains over 300 million basketball players with more than double that amount who watch the NBA. However, popularity in a marketplace cannot be allowed to undermine one of the most fundamental U.S. principles, and for that Silver deserves credit. This is surely not the end of this fiasco, but the NBA would be best served to move on from the whole thing and let China make the next move, because if it wishes to restrict the NBA from Chinese fans further, it may trigger more attention and an even larger movement for the protestors in Hong Kong.