Editor’s note: Keith Smith was a Walt Disney Company employee for nearly 20 years, working primarily at Walt Disney World.
Many ideas have been pitched to save the remainder of the 2019-20 NBA season. Some have suggested picking up where the season was suspended and then pushing back the start of the 2020-21 season. Some have said to go right to the playoffs. All suggestions involve playing games in empty arenas devoid of fans for quite some time.
One that seems to be garnering support from our country’s leadership: sequestering the entire league and playing games at a single site. The idea is to quarantine all the players, coaches, trainers, officials, broadcasters and everyone else necessary for competition in one place. Think of something akin to the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, but with real stakes and actual rosters.
Many sites — Las Vegas; Atlantic City, New Jersey; and Nassau, Bahamas — have been suggested for this type of event. Some locations have even lobbied for it. The challenge comes with finding somewhere that can provide the necessary housing, basketball facilities and the ability to create the absolutely mandatory bubble.
While many locations might come close, only place can offer all of those things with relative ease: Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
Before you laugh, let’s look at why Walt Disney World makes the most sense.
Disney has an abundance of hotel rooms on their 39 square-mile property near Orlando, Florida. Two hotels would work particularly well for this type of venture: Disney’s Art of Animation Resort and Disney’s Pop Century Resort. While neither are necessarily the high-end hotels that NBA players are used to staying in, they come with a key perk: Both are located just down the road from the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
EWWS would be the hub for all basketball activity. It would make sense to keep the NBA personnel as contained as possible. The Art of Animation Resort has nearly 2,000 hotel rooms; Pop Century Resort has nearly 2,900 rooms. That’s almost 4,900 rooms in two resorts that are connected to each other. Both resorts also feature food and beverage locations that could easily be tweaked to offer meals for all NBA personnel. And both resorts feature swimming pools for relaxation during downtime.
If more high-end accommodations are desired, the brand-new Riviera Resort is nearby as well. It is much smaller, with just 300 rooms, but has all the food, beverage and recreation accommodations that would be necessary.
Housing the NBA in one place has to involve more than just a court or two to host games. Ideally, in order to maximize the schedule, the NBA would love to be able to play as many as two to four games at a time.
You would also need space for practices. Teams aren’t going to jump right back into the season and just start playing games. They are going to need some form of a mini-training camp leading up to the resumed season. They will also need practice space throughout the remainder of the season.
The ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex can offer all of that.
The HP Field House is already set up to host high-level basketball, hosting the AdvoCare Invitational college basketball tournament every November. Not only is the court ready to host NBA games, the broadcast setup is already in place.
In addition to the HP Field House, EWWS is home to the Visa Center. The Visa Center can be set up to house as many as six full-sized basketball courts, or configured stadium-style with one primary court. Like the HP Field House, the Visa Center is also broadcast-ready.
EWWS also has The Arena, which was primarily built to house national championships for cheer and dance, but can easily be configured for basketball. There is space to house six-plus basketball courts, and like the HP Field House and Visa Center, The Arena is also broadcast-ready.
EWWS also has more than ample space to set up temporary workout and weight rooms and treatment facilities. There is enough space to set up a schedule for all 30 teams to have their time in the facilities.
In total, EWWS can offer more than 12 courts, broadcast-ready facilities and everything else the NBA would need.
Creating a ‘bubble’
Unlike many of the other locations mentioned as single-site candidates, Walt Disney World is private property. That includes not only the hotels and EWWS, but the immediate surrounding area as well. In effect, Disney can create a bubble by closing off streets and denying access to any area with relative ease. Some of the other potential locations may be able to restrict access to hotels/housing and the basketball facilities, but closing down the surrounding public areas would be difficult.
In addition to the ease of creating a bubble, several hospitals are nearby should anyone need treatment beyond that provided by NBA personnel.
Broadcasting with ease
Not only is EWWS ready to broadcast, it has plenty of space to create interview rooms as well. And Disney’s hotels are equipped to be set up to provide access for filming with relative ease.
If you’re going to quarantine the league in one place, you can bet the NBA and its broadcast partners will want to take advantage of checking in on what is happening during downtime for some reality TV or documentary-style content. That can be done very easily due to Disney’s already existing infrastructure.
The NBA/Disney relationship
The NBA and Disney have had a healthy relationship for years. ESPN, which is owned by Disney, is one of the league’s primary broadcast partners, annually airing games on ABC and various ESPN networks. The NBA and Disney also partnered to open The NBA Experience at Disney Springs, which is an all-encompassing NBA attraction.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Disney executive chairman Bob Iger have often spoken of their mutual admiration for each other and the entities each oversees. At the opening of The NBA Experience, Iger spoke at length of his love for the NBA. In turn, Silver spoke of his love of all things Disney. Their relationship could be a key component to making this work.
In addition, the Orlando Magic and Disney have had a great working relationship for years. The Magic could presumably act as local liaisons for this type of endeavor. There would be a lot of pre-work necessary, and the Magic could alleviate some of the pressure on the league having to send too many people in advance.
Pro sports deemed essential services in Florida
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently declared that live professional sports are essential services. DeSantis signed an executive order that allows for pro sports to return to operations during the state’s shelter-in-place order. The caveats are that events must remain closed to the general public and only required personnel can be present.
While this was seen as a controversial measure to many, it does open up a chance for a league like the NBA or MLB to organize in Florida to resume play.
While Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Nassau and other cities are solid candidates to host a league like the NBA, none offers what Walt Disney World can, and it can do it all with relative ease.
It’s a big task for any one place to pull off, but Walt Disney World has the infrastructure to handle massive events each day because it largely runs as a self-contained city already. To cordon off a section of its property when the resort is already closed isn’t the monumental task it would be for a public property in the middle of a big city.
If the NBA is serious about a single-site location to salvage the 2019-20 season, Walt Disney World seems to be the only logical choice — whenever that will be.
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