As major sports leagues attempt to salvage their seasons, the NBA’s plan to return to play is gaining momentum with Walt Disney World being the front-runner to host all teams and games at the ESPN Wide World of Sports. In this post, we’ll detail what the WDW bubble site would entail and offer some commentary about it.
The idea for an NBA bubble site first appeared nearly two months ago, as an untested but hypothetical possibility for salvaging the season. It started to gain traction as the Korea Baseball Organization, German Bundesliga, and other sports leagues around the world unveiled and successfully implemented similar plans to safely return to play without fans.
Several locations have been thrown around to host the NBA’s bubble site, including Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and the Bahamas. Las Vegas hosts the annual MGM Resorts G League Winter Showcase–an event held inside the Mandalay Bay Convention Center under similar conditions, albeit only for four days. Walt Disney World shares a lot of the attributes that make Las Vegas a desirable bubble site, and is actually superior in a variety of ways…
The genesis of the idea for the NBA using Disney’s Florida Project came from Yahoo Sports writer and former Cast Member Keith Smith, who last month wrote “Why Walt Disney World would be the ideal spot for the NBA to salvage its season.” If this concept does come to fruition at Walt Disney World, it’ll be partly attributable to Smith willing it into existence. (Plus, unlike a lot of other journalists, Smith doesn’t fumble the basic details of Walt Disney World–likely due to his twenty years as a Cast Member.)
As Smith notes there, Walt Disney World has a number of attributes that make it uniquely desirable. First, there’s the sheer number of hotel rooms, none of which are being used right now. He suggests Art of Animation, Pop Century, and Disney’s Riviera Resorts as viable options. While we don’t agree with the specific choices (more on that later), the core idea is sound.
More importantly, ESPN Wide World of Sports has the facilities necessary to host all 30 teams simultaneously, offering sufficient workout, practice, and broadcast space. The complex is home to HP Field House, Visa Athletic Center, and the Arena–all of which are broadcast-ready and capable of housing basketball courts.
I don’t have much knowledge about the ESPN Wide World of Sports. I’ve attended Atlanta Braves spring training games, Walt Disney World Marathon Expo, and run through the venue for a variety of runDisney events. From all of that, my overall impression is that ESPN Wide World of Sports is a massive complex–far more spacious than any single team’s stadium or arena.
ESPN Wide World of Sports also benefits from Walt Disney World’s “blessing of size.” Unlike other arenas located in downtown areas, this complex is sprawling, isn’t surrounded by buildings or dense populations, and has a surplus of open outdoor space.
Given that social distancing likely isn’t going away anytime soon, this all offers ESPN Wide World of Sports (and Walt Disney World, generally) an advantage over Las Vegas or other cities that have offered up their venues as a bubble site.
Walt Disney World also has numerous large resorts that are likely to have surplus capacity in the coming months. Coronado Springs Resort is the obvious choice here–its rooms are slightly more upscale than Smith’s lower-tier choices, it’s close to ESPN Wide World of Sports, and with no conventions booked in the foreseeable future, it could be converted to the de facto “sports hotel” with normal guests rebooked elsewhere.
In our view, Skyliner and Disney Vacation Club resorts are much less likely to be used. However, if more rooms were needed, the Port Orleans Resorts could be viable options. The third-party Bonnet Creek hotels (Wyndham, Hilton, Waldorf Astoria, and the new JW Marriott) seem like other ideal picks. There are also tons of vacation homes (mansions) now available for rent to the south in Osceola County if the NBA were to use a “soft bubble.”
While it may not seem like social distancing or other prophylactic measures are not necessary given the nature of the quarantined site, it’s likely still best to have a spacious venue with open-air grounds and a buffer between the bubble and the real world. Moreover, the particulars of the NBA’s bubble site are still unclear, so it’s no sure thing that this will truly be a quarantined site or impervious bubble, as has been used by other international leagues.
Given that this is a Walt Disney World fan site and the term “WDW bubble” has been in our collective parlance for years, it’s probably not necessary to dedicate a thorough discussion to the idea of the Disney bubble itself. The NBA’s bubble site is more or less the same idea–a location without fans and minimal exposure to and from the real world.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver does not anticipate a “medical bubble” for the NBA’s players at whatever site the league decides on, and the terms “soft bubble,” “neutral site,” and “open bubble” have started to be used instead of “quarantined site.” In such a scenario, players could come and go as they please, and the same goes for their families and the massive support staff infrastructure that would service the complex.
The NBA would issue travel rules, personal protective equipment guidelines, and would likely utilize repeated group testing to ensure the safety of players and staff. Obviously, this is not a foolproof solution, and one that emphasizes mitigation and minimization over what could be achieved with a medical bubble.
This differs from the more restrictive rules of international leagues, which have had strict quarantines (FC Augsburg’s manager missed the season’s start after accidentally breaking quarantine rules to buy toothpaste). Upon resuming games, the Korean Baseball Organization pledged to shut down entirely for three weeks if any member of a team tests positive. There, South Korea’s government also has responded aggressively, with thorough testing, tracing, and isolation policies that have proven successful.
Like the United States’ approach in general, the NBA’s plan is shaping up to be significantly more lax and looser than international leagues. In both cases, it remains to be seen whether it’s possible to enact half the measures of counterparts trying to meet the same ends, and still achieve the same outcomes. (Common sense would respond with a resounding no.)
Nevertheless, momentum continues to build towards the NBA returning to action in June or July. The Athletic is now reporting that Walt Disney World has emerged as a clear front-runner as the single bubble site to host all teams and games, and Keith Smith (the one who has basically willed this idea into existence) revealed that Walt Disney World has begun the early stages of re-working some of its hotel spaces for housing the NBA.
Players are starting to talk up the idea of a bubble site in greater numbers, too. LeBron James, Steph Curry, Chris Paul, and other superstars have all expressed their desire to continue the season so long as it’s deemed safe by health experts. Leaks (or speculation?) have also started to emerge from players, with the latest rumor being that practice will resume on June 21, 2020 and games will start July 15, 2020.
My view on the NBA bubble site more or less parallels how I feel about theme parks reopening. Like everyone else, I’m eager for things to get back to normal and there are ample signs for optimism. However, this is also tempered tremendously by the reality of our current circumstances. A desire for normalcy alone does not make it so; it’s a gradual and methodical process that will take time and care to enact. I worry that sloppiness and an unwillingness to compromise or put in the necessary work will doom some of these plans to failure, putting us right back where we started. (For more enjoyable and insightful commentary, I’d recommend checking out the Last Week Tonight segment on sports returning.)
With that bit of pessimism out of the way, I’m optimistic that the NBA bubble site could have big, positive implications for Disney. The obvious one is the direct revenue it would generate for Walt Disney World, as renting out ESPN Wide World of Sports as well as Coronado Springs Resort is a huge win as other events have been cancelled. That likely pales in comparison to the indirect benefit of getting live sports back on television, which gives ESPN (the network) compelling content and a reason to watch now that the Last Dance is over.
What do you think of the NBA using Walt Disney World as a bubble site? Think ESPN Wide World of Sports would be an ideal venue for such a concept? Other thoughts? We welcome a variety of viewpoints here, and will not delete anything on opinion alone. However, we will not tolerate insults, arguing, or politically-charged comments. Don’t ruin a 95% fine comment with an unnecessary cheap shot—that 5% will get it deleted. Additionally, please do not incessantly harp on the same point across multiple comments. Respectfully share your opinion and move along.