Would the NBA Be Safer Playing in Australia Than Florida? - Patrick Hruby
Would the NBA Be Safer Playing in Australia Than Florida?
As the coronavirus surges in the United States, the league's planned Orlando restart might make more sense Down Under
By Patrick Hruby | Hreal Sports | June 2020
If you want to grasp just how badly the United States has botched its response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, then consider this: it arguably makes more sense for the National Basketball Association to play the rest of its truncated season in Australia than in Florida.

Yes, Australia.

No, really.

I know what you’re likely thinking. Move an entire American professional sports league to … another continent? That sounds completely bonkers. 

I thought so, too. Then I talked to Josh Wheeling. Wheeling is a numbers guy, a San Francisco-based data visualization specialist for the Climate Policy Initiative.

He’s also an avid basketball fan who used to be a sportswriter. A few days ago, he sent me this:

Intrigued, I called Wheeling. Has anyone, I asked him, told you this is crazy?

“A lot of people have told me that,” he says. “But I’m coming from a perspective of thinking that the NBA’s current plan to restart has a lot less of chance of succeeding than other people do. 

“At the same time, everyone is saying that the league can’t afford to cancel the season. So what are the other options?”

It’s a good question. And as it turns out, far less crazy than it seems.

The NBA’s current restart plan will have 22 of the league’s teams relocate to a Disney campus near Orlando beginning in early July. 

Those teams will play eight regular season games followed by a full playoff schedule that could stretch into October—salvaging a season that has been shut down since early March, when the league suspended play after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19.

Vowing to prioritize the “health and safety of all involved,” the NBA plans to play games without fans in attendance and to house players and other personnel at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Spread across 230 acres in Florida’s Orange County, the complex has multiple practice and game facilities and thousands of hotel rooms and will serve as a sort of geographic bubble that theoretically could isolate its inhabitants from the outside world and the risk of coronavirus infection.

When the league first floated its Florida plan, Wheeling thought that it would be challenging—but also potentially doable, based on available public health data. 

On May 23, Orange County was reporting 1.4 new cases of COIVD-19 per 100,000 people per day, about twice as many as Germany. And Germany’s top soccer league, the Bundesliga, had just restarted play without fans and with strict health protocols a few days earlier.

“I’m a soccer fan, and I thought they might fail,” Wheeling says. “But they haven’t had too many problems since restarting. Germany has been doing well over the last month with the coronavirus—their curve of new cases has gotten a lot better.”

Not so in the United States, where at least 120,000 people already have died from COVID-19. Over the last month, more than half the country has seen an uptick in infections, with some states experiencing what National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci calls a “disturbing surge.”

Among those states? Florida. Daily new coronavirus case counts are three to five times higher than they were when the NBA first announced its plans to play at Disney. Meanwhile, public health researchers are warning that the state has “all the makings of the next large epicenter.”

As the federal and state governments alike have mostly failed to contain the virus through a combination of ineptitude and magical thinking, sports have struggled. The Philadelphia Phillies and Tampa Bay Lighting both recently shut down their training facilities in Florida after having players test positive for COVID-19, while the Orlando Pride withdrew from the National Women’s Soccer League’s Challenge Cup after six players and four staffers tested positive.

All of that led Wheeling, a former Philadelphia 76ers season ticket holder, to imagine worst-case Florida restart scenarios for his team—and for the NBA in general.

What happens if 76ers center Joel Embiid tests positive during the second round of the playoffs and is quarantined and the team has a game the next night? Wouldn’t the rest of the team need to be quarantined, too? Do they forfeit? And what if Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James tests positive during the Finals?

Maybe, Wheeling thought, the NBA would be better off relocating to a place where the coronavirus was more in check. A place with rational and attentive political leadership; adequate testing and contact tracing; and a populace that doesn’t consider social distancing, mask-wearing, and other public health measures to be egregious affronts to personal liberty and/or the fundamental right to have your adoring superfans cheer your superhuman ability to talk and drink from a glass of water at the same time.

In other words, not the United States.

“My first thought was actually New Zealand,” he says. “They had a day the other week with zero new cases.”

Wheeling’s argument for the NBA going abroad is simple. COVID-19 is winning. America can’t stop stepping on rakes. The best bet to finish a season that doesn’t implode in a flurry of positive tests—or, God forbid, leave players or league personnel hooked up to Intensive Care Unit ventilators—is to set up shop where the virus mostly isn’t.

Wheeling isn’t trying to be a contrarian. Or cute. He badly wants the NBA back. He played junior varsity basketball at the University of Pennsylvania, and even attended one of the school’s games on March 6, less than a week before Gobert’s positive test. 

“It was a great game, tons of fun,” Wheeling says. “But looking back now, it was so dumb to attend a basketball game and be around all of those people with the virus already circulating.”

Wheeling worries that the NBA is making a similar mistake. He believes that there’s a significant hole in the league’s Florida plan, one that will be exacerbated by rising coronavirus case numbers in the state and across the country.

The problem? The league’s anti-viral “bubble” is hardly airtight. The nearly 400 players and hundreds of other NBA personnel who will occupy the Disney campus will be subject to testing and limited social distancing before they depart for Florida, isolated for 36 to 48 hours upon arrival, and given regular tests during the restarted season.

However, the Disney workers will service the players’ rooms and some of the reporters who will cover games will be allowed to work in the bubble and return to their homes or hotels outside it. Every one of those people—as well as everyone they come into contact with in the outside world—could serve as a vector of viral transmission.

Moreover, expecting every player and league staffer to remain on the Disney campus at nearly all times for two months or more may be unrealistic. A recent COVID-19 outbreak among football players at Louisiana State University was linked to players going to nearby nightclubs, while the positive tests for members of the NWSL’s Pride came following a visit to an Orlando bar that may have exposed them to the virus.

“Even for a single family, it’s hard to keep separated from everyone else,” Wheeling says. “And even when you’re trying to be super safe, it’s hard not to relax your guard. I see that here in San Francisco—there aren’t as many masks as they used to be, and there are more groups of people around, doing more things. People get impatient.

“With the NBA, you’re talking about a bubble—that isn’t actually a bubble—of more than 1,000 people. All it takes is 10 people going outside. So many things have to go right, and if only one of those precautions doesn’t work, the whole system falls apart.”

Rather than count on good luck as the pandemic intensifies in Florida and other parts of the United States, Wheeling says, the league would be better off relocating to a country where the risk of infection and disruption is much lower because society has done a better job of keeping COVID-19 in check. Somewhere like Taiwan, which in June reported just 433 cases and seven deaths, or South Korea, which has limited deaths to less than 300 while not shutting down its economy with Hail Mary social distancing measures.

Not coincidentally, professional sports are up and running in both countries. The same is true in Germany, which until this week had seen a decline in daily new coronavirus case counts. 

Wheeling thinks that the NBA could effectively operate in a similar fashion in Australia, where new coronavirus case counts have dropped to less than 20 per day, professional sports have resumed after a two-month hiatus, and officials even have begun to let fans attend games. The country has a nine-team professional league, the National Basketball League, which means it has an infrastructure of arenas and facilities. It also is wealthy, developed, English-speaking, tourist-friendly, and enthusiastic about hoops—all of which make it an attractive foster home candidate.

“I would assume that Australia would be super-hyped to host this,” Wheeling says.

Zach Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University, agrees that playing down under could be a medical plus. But it also might be impractical. After all, it’s one thing to ask NBA players and staffers to leave their families, upend their lives, and move to Florida for an extremely long business trip; it’s quite another to ask them to fly halfway across the globe to do the same. “I mean, sure, if you can go somewhere with less disease, [that’s good],” he says. “I’m skeptical.” Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that the European Union may block American travelers from entering because the United States has failed to control the virus. “Would Australia even let [the NBA] in?” Binney asks.

There are other drawbacks. The league and its broadcast partners likely have spent considerable time and money planning and preparing for Florida; pivoting to Australia undoubtedly would increase costs and push back a restart date by by weeks or months. Time zones also are a hurdle: to play during the standard 8 PM EDT window, the NBA would have to start games in Sydney and Melbourne at 10 AM local time. 

Then there’s the potential political fallout of an American professional sports league—predominantly composed of African-American athletes—responding to the chronic and compounding failures of current national leadership by literally taking its balls and finding a safer home.

“I think it would piss off a lot of people to have the NBA basically saying, ‘America is not good enough, so we are going overseas,’” Wheeling says. “Imagine what Republicans would say. They would freak out.

Despite those obstacles, Wheeling is convinced that Australia would be a better choice than Florida. The virus may yet prove him right. Five professional golfers this week pulled out of an upcoming tournament because of COVID-19 concerns. On Thursday, the pandemic forced the Pro Football Hall of Fame to cancel the National Football League’s preseason-opening game and postpone its annual enshrinement ceremony. 

Two NBA players already have decided to sit out the season restart, with Lakers guard Avery Bradley stating that he does not want to put his oldest son, who has a history of respiratory issues, at “even the slightest risk.” Meanwhile, the league announced on Friday that 16 of 302 players tested this week were positive for coronavirus—11 days before players and staffers are scheduled to begin arriving in Orlando, which currently has the second-highest total number of COVID-19 cases in the state.

“I don’t think Florida was a bad decision, originally,” Wheeling says. “But it has gotten so much worse since then. Just look at the numbers. Why put people in harm’s way when we have other options?

“I feel like everyone in the NBA is just assuming that this is going to work—that it has to work, so it’s going to work. But sometimes, things are out of your control. Sometimes, you have to pivot.”