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How coronavirus will change the NBA courtside experience

Even when basketball returns, players and fans may need to be separated

As the world wrestles with a new normal built around social distancing, working from home and a dormant sports world, one aspect of the NBA experience is especially at risk. Sitting courtside at an NBA game is unlike any other first row in sports. What will become of it post-COVID-19?

One potential solution to the concerns around courtside seating, whether it be temporary or permanent, would be to install plexiglass around the courtside area to separate players and fans. “We have to be more informed about the virus, flus, all viruses, so we can better understand how to protect players and fans … I wouldn’t rule plexiglass out,” said Caron Butler, a two-time All-Star who retired from the NBA after the 2015-16 season. “If you told me a year ago the NBA and the world would stop, I would say you are out of your mind.”

One parallel for thinking about physically protecting fans from the sport comes from Major League Baseball. In December 2019, MLB announced that all of its teams would extend protective netting in response to several incidents in which fans had been hurt by errant balls and bats. When teams started expanding netting in 2017, there was significant backlash from fans and media over the in-game experience, including from Boston Red Sox fan and author Stephen King, who said he felt “terrible” about the extension of the netting at Fenway Park and that it made dugout seats feel like a “cage.”

The debate over extending the netting eventually fell off the front page and it has now become the norm within baseball. And while the merits of plexiglass are still difficult to assess, those who regularly sit courtside recognize it would heavily impact the in-game experience.

One of the most exciting things about the courtside experience is that it’s possible to be in on the conversations between celebrities and players.

“Putting a row of plexiglass will take away that intimacy you have with the game courtside,” said Toronto Raptors superfan Nav Bhatia (right). Bhatia is seen here hugging DeMar DeRozan (left) before a game on Dec. 21, 2017.

Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

“If you look at a league like the NFL, people are sitting close to the action in the end zone but the players are wearing helmets and it’s difficult to hear the conversations,” said Butler. “Think about that versus the NBA, where LeBron James will walk up to Jay-Z or Michael B. Jordan at courtside and you can pick up on some of the conversations.”

“Putting a row of plexiglass will take away that intimacy you have with the game courtside,” agreed Toronto Raptors superfan and one of the NBA’s most known courtside attendees, Nav Bhatia. “I think the most we will see once this passes is less to almost no physical interaction with players and fans. Less of the handshakes and high-fives.”

While NBA courtside seating has been one of the most desired spots in all of sports, it’s not exactly the most spacious place and at times can be unsafe. Fans sit shoulder to shoulder and there are regular instances of sweaty players flying into and over them.

“I think suspending courtside [seating] until a vaccine and cure is found would be prudent,” said Megan Ann Wilson, a stylist and designer who has worked with teams such as the Raptors and Atlanta Hawks along with brands such as Nike. “I don’t think courtside seats need to be abolished but rethought, like many non-essential things during this quarantine.”

In a world of social distancing, the NBA’s return will likely need to be a staggered approach. “It is my belief the NBA will return in a three-step process,” said Randy Osei, an entrepreneur and owner of Rozaay Management, which has worked with players such as Danny Green, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Dillon Brooks. “I can see the NBA resuming its condensed season initially with no fans in attendance, then move to no fans courtside or on the floor, and then finally allow fans on the floor but eliminate courtside and row B until the right strenuous screening measures are put into place to protect everyone.”

NBA commissioner Adam Silver recently noted that 99% of NBA fans don’t view the game in person, instead consuming the product on TV or online. And while the NBA couldn’t have predicted a pandemic putting its season on ice, it had already been looking at ways to bring the game closer to fans who may never have a chance to see the game in person, let alone courtside. From virtual reality capabilities for live games to producing game broadcasts using smartphones, the NBA already had been laying the groundwork for a future that will look very different.

In the interim, the league is keeping its basketball-hungry fan base engaged through initiatives, including #NBATogetherLive, where players join live broadcasts on NBA social channels every day to interact with fans. These engagements on Instagram have generated more than 5 million views to date.

But nothing can truly replace the excitement of watching an NBA game courtside, let alone being courtside for a historic playoff run. “Nothing will top the championship run,” said Bhatia. “From the Game 7 shot by Kawhi to distracting Giannis at the free throw line. I had a frontrow seat for all of it. Nothing will erase those memories.”

It’s not just the fan experience at stake, however. Los Angeles Laker LeBron James said he wouldn’t play in arenas without fans before walking back the statement as the pandemic worsened. Courtside seating may be more of a thrill for fans, but make no mistake about it — the players have their favorite moments as well.

“One of my biggest moments was seeing Halle Berry courtside,” recalled Butler. “Being a young guy, you have your crushes. That happened to be mine.”

Those playful moments between players and celebrities get captured and replayed over and over again. Who can forget rapper Drake’s animated support during the Raptors’ championship run? He was so demonstrative at times that he got an official warning from the league. Or director Spike Lee’s courtside feuds with Reggie Miller that are so ingrained within the fabric of the game that they were the subject of one of ESPN’s 30 for 30 shows. “Reggie Miller vs. Spike Lee is so iconic and a definition of the courtside experience and drama of the NBA,” said Wilson.

Given the fluidity of the situation, NBA teams and the league are understandably reluctant to comment on what the on-court product will look like post-coronavirus. The Undefeated reached out to Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Raptors, for comment, but they declined, saying that the effects of the virus on the product and fan experience upon return aren’t known at this time. League officials also said that they cannot comment on the record at this time about plans for the league’s return, given the circumstances.

The only thing guaranteed is that when the NBA does return, it’s not going to look like it did on March 11, the day the games stopped. The distance between players and fans, if fans are allowed at all, will have grown and those much loved courtside interactions will almost definitely be absent from the initial wave of games.

But the impact is likely to go well beyond courtside seating. “When you look at the stands, that’s not social distancing,” said Butler.

Adam Aziz is a writer and consultant living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @brokencool.