This year has not been normal in any sense of the word. All aspects of life have been affected by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which has caused massive disruptions in the sports world. Leagues had to pause or delay their seasons for months while working out the logistics that would allow them to play during the global health crisis. One of the most apparent changes that sports have gone through this year has been the lack of fans at games.
Some teams and events have allowed fans to attend in a limited capacity. The NBA didn’t allow fans once the league resumed its season in the Disney bubble. But NBA teams are hoping they’ll be able to welcome fans to their arenas again next season. How likely is that to be the case?
The NBA hopes for a somewhat normal season in 2020-21
The NBA Finals normally end in June, allowing teams and players plenty of time to get ready for the next season’s tip-off in October. This year, the Finals ended in October, which means the 2020-21 regular season isn’t expected to start until at least January.
If the NBA wants the season to end in June as usual, the league will have to play a shortened regular season. Because that would affect revenues, the NBA and its teams don’t want that. All parties want to play a full 82-game season, as well as allowing fans at games.
The impact of no fans on the NBA in this season
The main reason, of course, is money. About 40% of the league’s income comes from arena-based revenue, and many teams likely lose money for every game they play without fans — even when accounting for local and national TV revenue.
To mitigate some of those losses, the league is considering the idea of starting next season with a bubble or multiple bubbles, but that is not the preferred scenario.
The league isn’t expected to wait for the widespread availability of a COVID-19 vaccine before welcoming back fans. Instead, the league is hoping that rapid testing kits will be widely available, reliable, and cost-effective, so that they can be used to ensure fan safety at teams’ arenas.
To help try to speed up that process, the NBA and several team owners have invested in companies developing such tests.
Following the NFL’s example on allowing fans
The NFL was the first of the four major American pro sports leagues to allow fans at games during the pandemic, and the league is taking a cautious approach that the NBA would be wise to follow.
Not all NFL teams are allowing fans, either because of local laws forbidding attendance or ownership deciding it is not worth the risk. And the teams that are allowing fans are all doing so in a limited capacity, slowly increasing attendance limits as the weeks go on and they get a better handle of the situation.
Looking at the NFL attendance numbers through Week 6, only 15 of the league’s 32 teams have had fans at games so far this season, and no team is averaging an attendance of more than 25,000, with the Cowboys’ 24,262 — which is 24.3% of AT&T Stadium’s capacity — the highest average to date (per ESPN).
If the NBA allows fans whenever the new season starts, teams should have similar policies, with only allowing fans in arenas where it is safe and limit capacity to a fraction of the arena’s size.
With NBA arenas having much smaller capacities than NFL stadiums, it’ll mean fewer people but any fans at the games will be better than continuing to play in empty arenas.