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June 25, 2021

NBA hopes to have fans back in the stands next season but nothing is certain

SALT LAKE CITY — NBA commissioner Adam Silver offered a bit of hope for basketball fans on Wednesday: they might be able to attend games again next season. But they also might not.

That’s sports during a pandemic for you.

On Wednesday, the NBA Finals tipped off in Orlando, signaling the final stretch of what has been a remarkable few months for the league. The bubble has worked. Silver confirmed that there had been zero positive tests of the coronavirus “among the players” even with over 6,000 Disney workers not being isolated to the NBA campus.

It’s been a success — an improbable one even. But what happens after the Lakers and Heat wrap up the season? That’s the question everyone — league officials, players, fans — is still pondering. Along with plenty of others.

What happens with the salary cap? When does free agency begin? When will training camps start? When will the season begin? Will fans be back?

Silver addressed many of those questions in a press conference ahead of the start of The Finals, but he admitted he didn’t have many concrete answers.

“I think we all know nothing has really changed in this virus, as far as I know. I think the majority of states right now cases are ticking back up again,” Silver said. “There are predictions about the combination of flu and coronavirus season and what that will mean, people are moving back indoors, in some cases people have COVID fatigue and aren’t following the same protocols. And so, in many ways, we’re looking at a lot of the same factors we looked at determining what to do this season.”

The NBA is looking at what the NFL and Major League Baseball is doing — teams playing in stadiums and players staying at their homes — and determining if that is possible for its league. There have also been discussions of another bubble, but that is something everyone is a little hesitant to do again.

“I mean, I’m hoping, ideally we would not return to a bubble environment, but it’s something we’re gonna have to continue looking at,” Silver said.

They have to look at it because the virus is still here. And will be for the foreseeable future. It’s caused havoc on the league’s finances, fan interest (ratings have plummeted during the restart) and the NBA calendar. The NBA Finals tipped off on a date that in a normal season could have been the start of training camp.

That means there’s a lot to work out from ironing out a schedule to figuring out how to move forward with a revised collective bargaining agreement. If the league goes off of revenue to determine the salary cap, as is normal, the cap and the luxury tax will plummet. That would leave teams without an avenue to improve, put some clubs in financial stress, and leave players who are entering free agency completely out of luck.

Silver made it clear that wouldn’t be the case.

“Not only would it create havoc in terms of planning purposes for our teams, but I think roughly a third of the league will be free agents and so there’ll be enormous inequity there because there’d be no cap room for those players to sign contracts,” he said.

The league will continue to work with the Players Association to determine the best course of action moving forward — a course that, you guessed it, is yet to be determined. But Silver said he doesn’t anticipate the conversations leading to a work stoppage.

Part of the revenue loss — if not most of it — has come from the arenas throughout the league sitting empty as the season has concluded. But with some NFL and MLS teams allowing some fans back, and with MLB announcing Wednesday a limited number of fans will be allowed to attend the NLCS and World Series, Silver didn’t rule out fans returning to NBA arenas when the new season begins — whenever that will be.

“Based on everything I’ve read there’s almost no chance that there’ll be a vaccine at least that is widely distributed before we start the next season so I do not see the development of a vaccine as a prerequisite (to allow fans back into games),” Silver said. “My sense is that with rapid testing, it may not be that we’ll have 19,000 people in the building, we’ll see. But that with appropriate protocols in terms of distancing, and with advanced testing that you will be able to bring fans back into arenas.”

So Utah Jazz fans could be seeing Donovan Mitchell live and in person again. Or they might not.

That, like most everything about next year, is still TBD.

Ryan Miller

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