This week’s issue is guest-written by my colleague Adam Wall, who leads key digital and innovation initiatives at the firm. Check out his take on the NBA, a surprising example of leadership and transformation in the face of COVID-19.  — Chris
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Lessons From the Bubble: The NBA & COVID-19 

As a self-proclaimed basketball nerd, I’m elated over the NBA’s restart in “The Happiest Place On Earth.” But the story of what the league and its players continue to accomplish amid an ongoing pandemic is much bigger than basketball. You don’t have to be a fan to have seen the NBA’s decision in March to postpone its season as a harbinger for the nationwide lockdown that soon followed. Similarly, I’m choosing to view the early success of the league’s restart as a beacon of optimism, innovation, and positive change to come. 

In the last two weeks, we’ve gone from no team sports to an unprecedented late summer convergence of the NBA, NHL, MLB, and soon NFL. And make no mistake, the path to get here was paved by the leadership of NBA commissioner Adam Silver. He saw how viciously COVID-19 could rip through the league and acted, not out of concern for its finances, but for its players and fans. Since March, Silver has regularly leaned into the counsel of public health officials, epidemiologists, economists, even hospitality gurus, and effectively engaged his most valued stakeholders — whether it be broadcast partners, sponsors, or the players themselves.

Enter the “Bubble,” a rare example of a successful public health plan. Some players initially rejected it as sounding too much like incarceration, but it has (at least so far) resulted in a virus-free environment made possible by intense testing, quarantining, mask-wearing, and distancing protocols. Even decks of playing cards in common areas are for one-time use only. The display of leadership has served as a guiding light in a time when many feel a lack of clarity from traditional voices. 

Also on display during the restart is the league’s well-deserved reputation for innovation. The pandemic has been called the Great Accelerator — a force rapidly speeding-up change already in motion. From a format and scheduling perspective, the introduction of a play-in series between the 8th and 9th seed, and the proposed December start to next season are two examples of changes the league was rumored to already be considering. Another example of opportunistic innovation is the use of never-before-seen camera angles delivering perspectives otherwise inaccessible with fans in the arena, and microphones capturing enhanced sounds and commentary from game officials.

The pièce de résistance in terms of virtualizing the fan experience is “Michelob ULTRA Courtside,” which uses Microsoft’s “Together Mode” to enable 300 fans, including players’ family members, to digitally interact in a
shared visual space that can be seen in the venue and through the broadcast. The experiment has been well-received, especially compared to MLB, which has been criticized for lacking interactive enhancements.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the league’s alignment with its players to make fighting systemic racism a focus of the restart. With some players questioning whether returning to play would best serve the higher-order fight for social justice, the NBA has essentially lent its massive platform to this movement with an extensive Black Lives Matter advertising
campaign and on-court signage. The league also approved 20 different social justice messages that can be displayed on players’ jerseys instead of their own names. 

Sometimes the most severe and unforeseen circumstances spawn the most innovative change. I’m inspired by what I’ve seen so far from the NBA throughout these concurrent crises, and I’m optimistic about how we as global citizens will architect more of these new normals together. 

Adam Wall

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Copyright © 2020 Weber Shandwick

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