Basketball at the Most Magical Place on Earth: A Case Study of the NBA’s Season Conclusion at Walt Disney World Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

Abstract

The case study follows the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) attempt to complete the 2019–2020 season at the ESPN Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World amid the COVID-19 pandemic. When the season was officially placed on hiatus in March 2020, players, fans, and administrators were unsure if the season would be finished at a later date and what a conclusion would look like. When the NBA announced their season would conclude at Walt Disney World outside of Orlando, Florida, many parties and stakeholders rejoiced while others questioned whether the league should finish the season and the place sport served in the public dealing with the pandemic. After providing details about the NBA’s decision to complete their season at Walt Disney World, the case study allows students to discuss and make decisions given foreseeable and unforeseeable circumstances and events.

Case

Learning Outcomes

After completing the case study, students should be able to discuss:

  • How the sport and entertainment world was fundamentally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • How practitioners and administrators make decisions regarding the safe competition amid a public health crisis.
  • How to critically analyze best available data and make decisions accordingly.
  • How to engage fans in a changing environment.
  • How to adapt and react to fluid situations while consuming and analyzing data regarding player, administrator, and public safety.

Introduction

The 2019–2020 National Basketball Association (NBA) season was one of several professional and collegiate sport leagues that were significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and spread of the virus in the United States and Canada. The league officially shut down competition and halted the regular season on Wednesday, March 11, after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus before a game with the Oklahoma City Thunder (Zillgitt, 2020a). Initially, the shutdown was scheduled to last at least 30 days (Zillgitt, 2020b). However, the interruption stretched beyond the deadline as COVID-19 spread around the United States and Canada.

Data 1. Total U.S. Coronavirus Cases

Data 2. Total Canada Coronavirus Cases

As the hiatus wore on, fans and pundits began speculating what would happen to the rest of the regular season and playoffs. Additionally, fans shared their thoughts on issues such as free agency, the 2020 NBA draft, and how the hiatus would impact the beginning of the 2020–2021 season. Due to the contagious nature of COVID-19, it soon became clear that completing the season in home markets would be a challenge and allowing fans to attend live games would be impossible. Discussion shifted to how the league could finish the season in a manner that was safe for players and NBA personnel. Rumors quickly began to fill message boards and sports media outlets that the league was considering completing a version of the regular season and playoffs at the ESPN Wide World of Sports (WWS) complex at Walt Disney World (WDW) outside Orlando, Florida (Hudrick, 2020). This option would allow the league to create a bubble, where players and personnel could live and compete for a period of time while minimizing exposure to the outside world.

On June 6, 2020, it was officially approved and announced that the NBA would complete the regular season with a limited number of teams (teams that were in position to qualify for the playoffs) at WDW (Quinn & Wimbish, 2020). The plan included eight games for 22 teams, followed by a normal playoff format. Teams would stay on the WDW grounds, and practice and games would be held at the WWS complex. More detail of the approved plan will be provided in the following sections, but the decision by the NBA to complete a form of the regular season and playoffs in the WDW bubble presented a series of questions for current and future practitioners. The rest of the case study will provide more detail regarding COVID-19, and the NBA’s WDW plan, before presenting a series of discussion questions to allow students to critically analyze and make decisions on successfully completing the 2019–2020 NBA season.

Case Narrative

Discussion of the NBA’s season conclusion at WDW must start with details about the impact of COVID-19 on sport in the United States. Therefore, background information about the pandemic is provided, followed by details surrounding the NBA, and the plan to conclude the season at WDW.

The COVID-19 Pandemic

In early March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated in the United States, receiving attention in the media as the number of confirmed cases surged. Because the virus was very contagious, and because little was known about it, professional leagues and college athletics went on hiatus (Zillgitt, 2020a), theme parks around the world temporarily shut down (Rizzo, 2020), theaters closed (Faughnder, 2020), restaurants served take-out only (Dixon, 2020), and entertainment companies stopped production on movies and television shows (Kit & Couch, 2020). As the world attempted to cope with the surge in confirmed cases, local, state, and federal elected officials began implementing precautionary measures in an attempt to flatten the curve of the pandemic.

In early May 2020, governments in the United States began to reopen local and state economies. Following the reopening of state economies and easing of stay-at-home orders, some states started to record increases in confirmed COVID-19 cases (Yan & Holcombe, 2020). By late June and early July, the United States was experiencing the largest daily counts of new confirmed cases (Croft et al., 2020). The surge in cases led governments in some states to mandate that people wear masks in public and place restrictions on businesses once again (Partlow & Miroff, 2020). However, several states continued plans to reopen portions of their economies. For example, Florida, home to WDW and among the states recording some of the largest surges in COVID-19 cases, continued plans to reopen the entertainment entity (Cofey, 2020). In late June 2020, Adam Silver, Commissioner of the NBA, reiterated that the league planned to complete their season at WDW and stated that if the virus spreads among the NBA bubble, it would be difficult to finish the season (Morse, 2020).

The NBA and WDW

When the NBA and other sports leagues temporarily ceased operations amid the initial COVID-19 surge in the United States, many started to discuss ways that seasons could be completed. Early on, rumors started circulating that the WWS complex on the WDW property would make an ideal place for leagues to compete. In particular, due to the size and number of hotels and resorts on the WDW property, and the number of practice and competition facilities at the WWS complex, Disney was quickly recognized as a viable option for leagues looking to complete seasons using a quarantined setup (Grasso, 2020). Furthermore, it was also rumored that Disney wanted to use the completion of the 2019–2020 season as a test to foster a relationship with the NBA and host annual in-season events at WDW (Villanueva, 2020).

In May and June, 2020, details began to emerge regarding the NBA’s attempt to finish the 2019–2020 season at WDW (Quinn & Wimbish, 2020). Additionally, Major League Soccer (MLS) announced they would be holding a tournament-style competition to complete their 2020 season, which had just started before the pandemic surged in the United States (Zgoda, 2020). The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) was the first professional sport league to return to play and complete their season amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The league hosted the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup presented by P&G in Utah from June 27 to July 26, which was won by the Houston Dash. 1 Unlike the “MLS is Back” tournament, the NBA planned a series of regular season games, followed by a full playoff schedule to begin in late July and end by October 2020 (Ward-Henninger & Maloney, 2020). This is similar to the approach taken by the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), which planned a shortened regular season and playoff format from July 25 and ending in October 2020. 2 The WNBA also created a bubble, playing games with no fans at the IHG Academy in Bradenton, Florida (Chiari, 2020).

An interesting aspect of the NBA plan involves how the league and teams will engage fans, and how fans will react to watching sport with no crowds and potentially crowd noise piped in during competitions. The social aspect of sport is a very important aspect of the product, as association with teams and fellow fans can help social and psychological health (Wann, 2006; Wann et al., 2008). Additionally, consuming live sports, whether in person or mediated, is somewhat dependent on the fans attending games (Mullin et al., 2007). Part of the excitement of sport games is the inclusion of rivalry (Havard et al., 2013) and the relationships people have with rival teams and their supporters (Havard, 2014). Because fans will not be attending games in the WDW bubble, the NBA and organizations will have to utilize other means by which to engage fans. Furthermore, there is also a possibility that either fans will not be allowed, or capacities greatly reduced, in arenas during the 2020–2021 season (Chorpenning, 2020), making the WDW season conclusion a testing ground for organizations and the league to test engagement practices.

The WDW Plan

After weeks of rumors, the National Basketball Players Association and NBA announced approved plans to resume and complete the 2019–2020 season at the ESPN WWS complex on the WDW property (Quinn & Wimbish, 2020). Of the 30 teams in the NBA, 22 teams—the 16 teams currently in playoff standing, plus six teams that have a statistical chance of making the playoffs—will compete in the WDW season. Dubbed the “Campus,” the teams and players will stay and play on the WDW property, and players and league personnel will not be allowed to leave the bubble except for extenuating circumstances. Each team will play eight games to conclude the regular season, with the top eight in each conference qualifying for the playoffs. The playoffs will follow the normal seven game and four round format; however, added to the WDW season is a caveat that would allow the ninth seeded team in each conference to play-in to the playoffs. Specifically, if the ninth seed team finishes four games or fewer behind the eighth seed, they could qualify for the playoffs if they defeat the eighth seeded team twice (Ward-Henninger & Maloney, 2020).

The teams will stay at one of three resorts on the WDW property, and will have access to amenities at their home resort (Baker, 2020). Players will be required to be tested for COVID-19 before and once they arrive on the Campus, and on a daily basis during the season and playoffs (Ward-Henninger & Maloney, 2020). Players’ families will not be allowed on the property until after teams begin leaving upon being eliminated from the season and playoffs. Anyone that tests positive for COVID-19 will be required to quarantine for a minimum of seven days. Teams can replace players that test positive or get injured, and the replaced player will not be allowed to return to the WDW bubble.

The teams that were invited to Orlando to finish the season, along with the hotels they stayed in, are provided in Table 1. Also, a map of the WDW bubble is provided in Figure 1. Teams will be able to practice on team-branded courts at their respective resorts (Figure 2). Regarding games, three courts and arenas on the WDW complex will be used. Fans will not be allowed at games and reports suggest that commentators will call games from remote locations outside of the WDW bubble.

Table 1. NBA Teams and Respective Resorts

Team

Conference

Pre-WDW playoff seeding

WDW resort

Milwaukee Bucks

Eastern

1a

Grand Destino

Toronto Raptors

Eastern

2a

Grand Destino

Boston Celtics

Eastern

3a

Grand Destino

Miami Heat

Eastern

4a

Grand Destino

Indiana Pacers

Eastern

5a

Grand Floridian

Philadelphia 76ers

Eastern

6a

Grand Floridian

Brooklyn Nets

Eastern

7

Grand Floridian

Orlando Magic

Eastern

8

Grand Floridian

Washington Wizards

Eastern

9

Yacht Club

Los Angeles Lakers

Western

1a

Grand Destino

Los Angeles Clippers

Western

2a

Grand Destino

Denver Nuggets

Western

3a

Grand Destino

Utah Jazz

Western

4a

Grand Destino

Oklahoma City Thunder

Western

5a

Grand Floridian

Houston Rockets

Western

6a

Grand Floridian

Dallas Mavericks

Western

7

Grand Floridian

Memphis Grizzlies

Western

8

Grand Floridian

Portland Trail Blazers

Western

9

Yacht Club

New Orleans Pelicans

Western

10

Yacht Club

Sacramento Kings

Western

11

Yacht Club

San Antonio Spurs

Western

12

Yacht Club

Phoenix Suns

Western

13

Yacht Club

a Clinched playoff berth

Sources: https://stats.nba.com/standings/ and Scribner (2020)

Image is divided into two segments by a horizontal line. Text in the first segment reads “NBA Campus at Disney Walt Disney World Resort Map with Key Locations.” A map showing the aerial view of Walt Disney World is in the second segment of the image. Legends used in the map are on the top left corner of the map as follows:

  • Broadcast Courts (Image: A star icon)
  • Practice & Shooting Court Locations (Image: A basketball icon)
  • Team Hotels (Image: A location icon)
  • Arenas (Image: A location icon)

Several important locations are marked on the map. The names of the locations are within rectangular boxes as listed below:

  • Magic Kingdom Park
  • Grand Floridian (Image: A location icon)
  • Contemporary Hotel (Image: A basketball icon)
  • Yacht Club (Image: A location icon)
  • Gran Destino Tower at Coronado Springs
  • Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park (Image: A location icon and a basketball icon)
  • Epcot
  • Disney’s Blizzard Beach Water Park
  • Disney’s Hollywood Studios
  • ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex (Image: A star icon and a basketball icon)

A rectangular box labeled “ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex” is marked on the bottom of the map enclosing the area beneath the label “Disney’s Hollywood Studios.” A horizontal line from the box connects to a bigger rectangular box labeled “ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex Map,” which has a map inside it. Three locations are marked in the box and are listed as follows:

  • Visa Athletic Center (Image: A location icon)
  • The Arena (Image: A location icon)
  • HP Field House (Image: A location icon)
Figure 1. NBA Campus at Disney
An image shows various key locations marked on the map of Walt Disney World resort.

Sources: Scribner (2020) and Twitter/@ZachLowe_NBA

Figure 2. Example of Team-Branded Practice Courts at WDW Resorts
A photo shows several indoor basketball courts in a room within the Walt Disney World Resorts. Each basketball court has a display screen fixed on the wall on one end.

Sources: Arend (2020) and Twitter/@NBA

Regardless of how the 2019–2020 NBA season plays out, this will serve as a case for organizations, leagues, and practitioners to study and learn from. After reading the background information about the COVID-19 virus, NBA’s WDW plan, and fandom, it is time to engage in discussion and communication regarding the NBA’s plan to complete their season. Time to get to work!

Discussion Questions

After receiving a briefing on (a) the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the NBA and sport, and (b) details about the NBA’s WDW plan to complete the 2019–2020 season, you are now tasked with discussing and making decisions regarding the following foreseeable and unforeseeable events. In particular, you will decide what actions—and be asked to justify those actions—that should be taken regarding the NBA’s WDW plan.

  • Based on your research, discuss and justify whether you believe the NBA’s WDW plan is the best option for completing the 2019–2020 NBA season. How do the data of COVID-19 cases surging in the state of Florida, where WDW is located, factor into your decision?
  • Based on your research, how is the NBA’s WDW plan better or worse than allowing teams to complete the season in their home markets (without fans in attendance)? Based on your research, compare the NBA’s approach to completing the season with Major League Baseball’s plan for the 2020 season, which includes teams competing a 60-game regular season while playing games in their home markets.
  • Because fans will not be allowed to attend games at the ESPN WWS complex, research and report on some ways the NBA and individual organizations engaged fans during the completion of the 2019–2020 season. Discuss and detail some additional ideas and ways the NBA and individual teams could engage fans in a similar situation (e.g., no live attendance at games).
  • Based on your research and discussion, provide what steps you would take in the following situations:
    • A group of four players and three staff personnel on a team test positive for COVID-19 during the completion of the season.
    • During the completion of the regular season, multiple teams in position to qualify for the playoffs have at least three players and/or staff personnel test positive for COVID-19.
    • During the playoffs, a team has four players and three staff personnel test positive for COVID-19.
    • During the playoffs, multiple teams have multiple players and staff personnel test positive for COVID-19.
    • During the NBA Finals series, a team has multiple players and staff personnel test positive for COVID-19.
    • During the NBA Finals series, both teams have multiple players and staff personnel test positive for COVID-19.
    • If the season does not conclude via competition, is a champion named and if so, how is one chosen?
  • Based on your research and discussion, should teams with multiple positive cases of COVID-19 be disqualified from the conclusion of the season (e.g., regular season or playoffs)? Justify your response. How many positive cases of COVID-19 should disqualify a team from the conclusion of the season (e.g., regular season or playoffs)? Justify your response.
  • Based on your research, should Disney and the NBA form a relationship that allows annual in-season events to be held on WDW property?
    • Discuss some positive and negative consequences of the NBA holding in-season events at WDW on an annual basis.
    • What NBA event(s) should be held at the WWS complex at WDW?
  • Based on your research and discussion, what could other leagues, teams/organizations, and practitioners learn from the completion of the 2019–2020 NBA season at WDW?

Notes

1. NWSL Challenge Cup presented by P&G completed schedule information available at https://www.nwslsoccer.com/schedule.

2. WNBA season information available at https://www.wnba.com/keydates/.

References

Arend, A. (2020, July 6). Photos show what NBA practice courts look like at Disney Bubble. The Spun. https://thespun.com/nba/photos-show-what-nba-practice-courts-look-like-at-disney-bubble
Baker, K. (2020, June 17). NBA details life inside its Disney World “bubble.” Axios. https://www.axios.com/nba-disney-world-season-restart-details-coronavirus-4553de98-4aa9-4b28-91c3-e8e09cb0e478.html
Chiari, M. (2020, June 15). WNBA announces 22-game 2020 season will start in July after coronavirus delay. Bleacher Report. https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2896048-wnba-announces-22-game-2020-season-will-start-in-july-after-coronavirus-delay
Chorpenning, G. (2020, June 12). Report: 2020–2021 NBA season not expected to take place in front of fans. Sports Illustrated. https://www.si.com/nba/clippers/news/la-clippers-2020-2021-season-without-fans
Cofey, K. (2020, June 24). WDW reopening still set despite Florida spike. Inside The Magic. https://insidethemagic.net/2020/06/wdw-reopening-still-set-kc1/
Croft, J. , Maxouris, C. , & Wood, D. (2020, June 24). Record increases of new COVID-19 cases in 3 US states with the most population. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/24/health/us-coronavirus-wednesday/index.html
Dixon, V. (2020, March 24). By the numbers: COVID-19’s devastating effect on the restaurant industry. Eater. https://www.eater.com/2020/3/24/21184301/restaurant-industry-data-impact-covid-19-coronavirus
Faughnder, R. (2020, March 16). AMC and Regal close all U.S. theaters amid coronavirus crisis. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/business/story/2020-03-16/as-l-a-theaters-close-due-to-coronavirus-amc-reduces-capacity-to-50
Grasso, J. (2020, May 20). NBA rumors: Disney World a ‘clear frontrunner’ for resumed season. Sports Illustrated. https://www.si.com/nba/76ers/news/nba-rumors-disney-world-clear-frontrunner-resumed-season
Havard, C. T. (2014). Glory out of reflected failure: The examination of how rivalry affects sport fans. Sport Management Review, 17, 243253. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smr.2013.09.002
Havard, C. T. , Gray, D. P. , Gould, J. , Sharp, L. A. , & Schaffer, J. J. (2013). Development and validation of the Sport Rivalry Fan Perception Scale (SRFPS). Journal of Sport Behavior, 36, 4565.
Hudrick, P. (2020, May 20). NBA reportedly zeroing in on Disney World to finish season amid coronavirus pandemic. NBC Sports Philadelphia. https://www.nbcsports.com/philadelphia/76ers/nba-resume-season-walt-disney-world-coronavirus-covid-19
Kit, B. , & Couch, A. (2020, March 13). Disney suspends film production amid coronavirus concerns. The Hollywood Reporter. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/disney-suspends-film-production-coronavirus-concerns-1284541
Morse, B. (2020, July 1). NBA commissioner Adam Silver can’t guarantee season will continue is there’s a rise in coronavirus cases. https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/01/sport/adam-silver-nba-restart-coronavirus-spt-intl/index.html
Mullin, B. , Hardy, S. , & Sutton, W. (2007). Sport marketing (
3rd ed.
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Partlow, J. , & Miroff, N. (2020, July 6). States mandate masks, begin to shut down again as coronavirus cases sour and hospitalizations rise. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/coronavirus-rises-states-shutdown/2020/07/06/d8805d18-bf9e-11ea-9fdd-b7ac6b051dc8_story.html
Quinn, S. , & Wimbish, J. (2020, June 6). NBPA approves plan to resume NBA season at Disney World, sets plan for coronavirus testing. CBS Sports. https://www.cbssports.com/nba/news/nbpa-approves-plan-to-resume-nba-season-at-disney-world-sets-plan-for-coronavirus-testing/
Rizzo, C. (2020, February 28). Tokyo Disneyland closes due to coronavirus just one day after Japan shut down all schools. Travel & Leisure. https://www.travelandleisure.com/travel-news/disneyland-tokyo-coronavirus-park-closings
Scribner, H. (2020, June 19). This map shows the NBA campus at Walt Disney World resort. Deseret News. https://www.deseret.com/entertainment/2020/6/19/21294306/nba-return-walt-disney-world-resort-campus-map
Villanueva, V. (2020, June 16). Disney expects to host NBA’s annual in-season events in the future. https://clutchpoints.com/nba-news-disney-expects-to-host-annual-in-season-events-in-the-future/
Wann, D. L. (2006). Understanding the positive social psychological benefits of sport identification: The team identification-social psychological health model. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 10, 272296. https://doi.org/10.1037/1089-2699.10.4.272
Wann, D. L. , Brame, E. , Clarkson, M. , Brooks, D. , & Waddill, P. J. (2008). College student attendance at sporting events and the relationship between sport team identification and social psychological health. Journal of Intercollegiate Sports, 1, 242254.
Ward-Henninger, C. , & Maloney, J. (2020, June 23). NBA Disney World rules revealed: Details of how the bubble will work as league plans to resume play in Orlando. CBS Sports. https://www.cbssports.com/nba/news/nba-disney-world-rules-revealed-details-of-how-the-bubble-will-work-as-league-plans-to-resume-play/
Yan, H. , & Holcombe, M. (2020, June 17). 10 states are seeing their highest average of daily new COVID-19 cases since the pandemic started. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/17/health/us-coronavirus-wednesday/index.html
Zgoda, J. (2020, June 11). MLS to resume season July 8 with tournament at Disney World: The league released details of a World Cup-style tournament with at least three games for every team. Star Tribune. https://www.startribune.com/loons-are-back-mls-resuming-season-july-8-at-disney-world/571157002/?refresh=true
Zillgitt, J. (2020a, March 11). NBA shuts down after Rudy Gobert tests positive for coronavirus. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nba/2020/03/11/coronavirus-nba-shuts-down-after-rudy-gobert-tests-positive/5028026002/
Zillgitt, J. (2020b, March 12). NBA commissioner Adam Silver says shutdown will be at least 30 days for coronavirus. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nba/2020/03/12/nba-shut-down-least-month-says-commissioner-adam-silver/5038940002/

This case was prepared for inclusion in SAGE Business Cases primarily as a basis for classroom discussion or self-study, and is not meant to illustrate either effective or ineffective management styles. Nothing herein shall be deemed to be an endorsement of any kind. This case is for scholarly, educational, or personal use only within your university, and cannot be forwarded outside the university or used for other commercial purposes.

2022 SAGE Publications, Ltd. All Rights Reserved

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