When the National Basketball Players Association issued a statement just before midnight Thursday announcing a tentative approval of the start date and schedule for the upcoming season, it felt as if a major step forward had been taken.
But perhaps it was the second sentence in the brief news release that really mattered. It read, "Additional details remain to be negotiated and the NBPA is confident that the parties will reach agreement on these remaining issues relevant to the upcoming season."
While the Dec. 22 start to the season and the beginning of training camp just three weeks from now seem ambitious, it might pale in comparison with what the NBA and the NBPA face in trying to construct a season outside of the bubble.
While the NBA got through the restart to last season in the Orlando bubble with only the most minor of worries, having a 72-game schedule with teams playing in their own arenas and travel crisscrossing across the nation, with myriad hotels and restaurants in every city, presents a completely different challenge.
The NBA might have always targeted this quick return to the season to recoup as much television money as possible and to finish the season in time to not only be a part of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics but to get back on a normal schedule for the 2021-22 season. It won’t be easy, though.
The league saw television ratings dwindle this summer as the NBA competed with baseball, football and hockey (and a pandemic and summer activities), although some of that certainly was countered by an increase in the number of viewers on other platforms.
But beyond the financial benefits, there is a reality that the league certainly has considered (it will have to cross its fingers and hope for the best). The threat of the virus is even greater than it was when the games convened inside the carefully constructed bubble, with more than 120,000 cases nationally Thursday.
Because an NBA roster is so much smaller than a baseball or football roster, a minor outbreak of COVID-19 could ruin a season. Unlike the NFL or MLB, the NBA will be playing games indoors. One player could quickly spread the virus in the close contact of the game, and there is little cushion to absorb a hit a team would take.
To account for the possibility of games postponed by an outbreak, there has been talk about structuring a break in the schedule. The league also has tried to limit travel by focusing some of the schedule on division play, at least early in the season, with multiple games in a city before heading off to the next destination.
Those are some of the considerations that the NBA and NBPA must work out after the primary debate — settling the amount of basketball-related income that will flow to the players. ESPN has reported that the league will maintain the $109 million salary cap that was planned before the pandemic and the squabble with China cut deeply into revenues.
The two sides repeatedly have pushed back the deadline to agree on a new collective bargaining agreement, which was to have expired Friday.
The revenue hit for the league last year could continue to a lesser degree this coming season. Fans will be unlikely to fill arenas, which could be a short-term hit, but China has agreed to broadcast NBA games again. The two sides have discussed ways of keeping the players’ share of revenue from dipping precipitously.