When the NBA resumes its 2019-20 season this summer, it won’t just be the players, team employees, and league officials who’ll be sequestered at Walt Disney World for several months. According to a Professional Basketball Writers Association memo, a select group of reporters could be locked inside the Disney bubble for at least three-and-a-half months—with no option to re-enter if they exit quarantine.
On June 4, the NBA Board of Governors approved a plan to restart the season, which came to a screeching halt after Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 on March 11. There are still more than a few details to be worked out with the union, and some players are concerned about being kept in relative isolation through autumn, but as things currently stand, 22 teams would relocate to Disney’s 220-acre ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. There, a handful of games would be played to determine seeding for the playoffs, with the NBA Finals concluding in mid-October.
Beyond all the logistical difficulties and unknown possible future roadblocks for this locked-down-in-Orlando reboot of the NBA, one question hasn’t yet been addressed: Who would report from these quarantined games in-person, and how?
According to an email sent by Josh Robbins, the president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, the answer is that the NBA will allow a select group of journalists onto the premises—but they will be stuck there the whole time and such a privilege won’t come cheaply.
The email, which was sent to all PBWA members on June 3 and labeled “an off-the-record communication not to be reported on in any form,” stressed that negotiations were ongoing and subject to change. For the moment, however, it revealed that the NBA plans to divide the press into two distinct “tiers.” The first, smaller tier would reside “in the bubble,” Robbins wrote. Once they are brought into this contained environment, first-tier reporters would be tested daily, and permitted to interact with players and coaches. “This group will have the most access,” he added, “but will work under far greater restrictions than we are used to under normal conditions.” They would not be allowed to re-enter if they break quarantine at any point over the months-long resumption of play.
Members of the press would be fed, though their housing expenses would not be covered by the NBA nor their Disney hosts, making the price tag "cost-prohibitive for most outlets,” the memo stated. Those reporters who work for media companies unable to shoulder this expense or those unwilling to be separated from their families for that length of time would be shunted into the larger, second tier. These reporters would be allowed to attend the games in person, but would not be allowed onto the Disney/ESPN campus. “In person, face-to-face interactions” with any players, coaches, or team staff would be prohibited altogether.
Reached by phone, Robbins confirmed the veracity and contents of the email. Negotiations between the PBWA and the league are ongoing, he reiterated. The NBA did not respond to a request for comment but a source familiar with the deliberations said the league’s media plan has not yet been finalized.
Ultimately, the NBA’s plan for its beat writers might result in a lack of reporters at the games. Smaller media companies would undoubtedly have trouble justifying the allocation of scant resources to send “second-tier” reporters to Orlando when the only obvious benefit is sitting in the stands. (In a follow-up email to The Daily Beast, Robbins added that even if the NBA offered to foot the housing costs, it would be a direct violation of “journalistic ethics,” he wrote, and no outlet would accept it.)
“None of this is ideal,” Robbins admitted in the June 3 memo. “But this is a uniquely challenging situation. The league’s primary primary mandate is to minimize the risk of any players or team personnel contracting the virus.”
Robbins also reassured PBWA members that the organization is “lobbying hard to create alternative access opportunities,” such that “second-tier” reporters might glean some value from attending. “We consider it critical that all journalists covering the Orlando games on-site be able to do so as effectively as they would during a ‘normal’ postseason.”
Still, as has been the case across the media landscape, the sports reporting world, too, has had to contend with plummeting advertising dollars, furloughs, slashed salaries, and layoffs. “Of course we're concerned about the ability of journalists to do their jobs,” he told The Daily Beast. “The PBWA is concerned across the board in all areas of coverage, that it is more and more difficult for news outlets to inform the public.”
He continued: “The health and safety of everyone involved should be paramount. Our goal within our membership association is to create mechanisms that give the readers the coverage they deserve while also keeping everyone safe.”
But a lead editor at a major sports website who spoke with The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity has already decided that whatever the plan, it’ll likely be too expensive to send a reporter. “In years past, we would have had multiple people covering the playoffs and finals,” the editor said. “This year, we'll likely have none. There's not enough value in being there to merit that kind of cost, from a business perspective."
The editor also wondered about smaller outlets and predicted that after crunching the numbers, most would conclude it wasn’t worth it, even if the home team went on a deep playoff run.
"Maybe if the [Los Angeles] Lakers make the Finals, a Los Angeles-based media outlet will say, ‘Yeah, we need to be there.’ But what other local paper can say that?”