Why Did the NBA Get Rid of Virtual Fans for the 2020-2021 Season?

Following the shortest layoff in league history, the 2020-2021 NBA season is underway and there will certainly be no shortage of storylines as the campaign rolls along for these NBA players and teams. Can LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the LA Lakers repeat? Will Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks finally reach the NBA Finals? Will Steph Curry and Kevin Durant be the same players they were? Can Durant co-exist with Kyrie Irving? Will James Harden ever be traded from the Houston Rockets? The list goes on and on.

While certainly not as big of a story as the things mentioned above, you may have noticed a bit of a change from when we last saw the NBA in October. That would be the lack of virtual fans, which became quite a fun piece of the Orlando bubble.

While a few teams might feature virtual fans, one of which we know for sure, it certainly won’t be the norm.

Virtual fans became a big part of the NBA bubble in Orlando

When the NBA decided to restart the 2019-2020 season at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex late last summer, each team hosting a “home game” at the HP Field House, Visa Athletic Center, or the Advent Health Arena was given the ability to have about 300 virtual fans on 17-foot video boards surrounding the courts.

The LED boards ended up being a lot of fun as family members of the players and celebrities joined season-ticket holders and random fans in an attempt to give the games some sort of real feel. No, it obviously wasn’t the same as having 17,000 screaming fans in an arena but it was certainly a nice alternative.

The Golden State Warriors will have LED boards at the Chase Center to start the 2020-2021 season

Ahead of the 2020-2021 season, all 30 NBA teams were given the option to have virtual fans. It just came down to whether or not the team wanted to given logistical preferences and capabilities. We didn’t see anything in the preseason and there were no virtual fans present in the regular season-opening matchup between the Nets and Warriors in Brooklyn, although there were LED boards around the court at the Barclays Center displaying messages throughout the game.

However, when the Warriors host their season opener on New Year’s Day, they will have LED boards featuring 120 virtual fans around the court at the Chase Center, which the team announced on its official website shortly before the season opener in Brooklyn. But as of this writing, they’re the only team in the NBA that has any plans for virtual fans.

The NBA is looking into more options regarding virtual fans but is more focused on having actual fans back in arenas

NBA virtual fans
NBA virtual fans | Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

RELATED: What NBA Teams Will Allow Fans in the Stands to Start the 2020-2021 Season?

While the Warriors are currently the only team hosting virtual fans, the NBA has said that it’s looking into other options on that front. But the real focus is on getting actual fans back into arenas.

A handful of teams are currently allowing a limited number of fans into their arenas but there’s certainly no way of knowing when all 30 teams will be able to invite fans in. It’s just going to depend on how the COVID-19 infection rate goes in each market and how each local government decides to handle things. The distribution of the new vaccines will certainly play a part in all of this as well.

So while we wait and see how everything plays out, the NBA’s Head of Next Gen Telecast, Sara Zuckert, recently told USA Today what the league is thinking on virtual fans and actual fans at this point in time.

“What we’re more focused on is having the fans back and being present and creating opportunities for flexibility. So it’ll vary city to city. But those LED boards are certainly not conducive in many ways to have fans present…

“But as it relates to virtual fans, we’ve certainly heard how popular it was. We’re so thrilled at that, and we’re looking at new ways for future development that could allow fans to watch together even if they’re not necessarily visible on the telecast.”

NBA Head of Next Gen Telecast Sara Zuckert

Zuckert couldn’t reveal any specifics on what the league was looking into but did reiterate that each team has been given full control to do whatever they feel is best to replicate the atmosphere in their home arenas…outside of letting in a full capacity of actual fans anyway.