- Since NBA Commissioner Adam Silver shocked the world and the American economy by suspending the league in March, he has governed through the crisis by seeking consensus, managing expectations, and relying on partners.
- He's also helped the NBA recapture a bit of its Michael Jordan swagger.
- If it all works out, the NBA may just have rediscovered its ability to inspire.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories .
Let's time-travel back long ago to the March of 2020: After Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the novel coronavirus, the NBA suspended its season.
What a stunning turn of events, right? With the calling off of the ultra-lucrative business of a major sports league, it became clear that coronavirus was going to change everyday life as we had known it.
Commissioner Adam Silver's decision was unprecedented and shocking at the time. But now, something like a hundred years later, it looks obvious and responsible.
And the league delivered another shocking, and possibly brilliant, twist in the narrative over the long holiday weekend.
The NBA itself and then basketball reporting god Adrian Wojnarowski came out with the news that the league was thinking about and would likely conclude its abbreviated season in the confines of Disney World, Florida, a place that athletes famously say they're going to after winning a title.
The arrangement might sound odd to the ear a theme park to host insulated sports league but the move makes synergistic sense, the kind that can provide a model for business owners and leaders across the country.
It's not clear what this strange bubble or campus will look like, with pundits floating wild theories about a "World Cup" of basketball . It's a strange new world but NBA and Disney are leaning into the weirdness because they don't really have a choice.
Let us learn from it.
The league declined to comment further to Business Insider and Disney did not respond to a request for comment. ESPN referred to comments from its "Front Row" blog .
Lesson 1: Consensus-based leadership can overcome major obstacles.
Basketball was a rare source of public authority communicating the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak to Americans. The league's sudden suspension in March was one of the main signposts, along with Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson's shocking diagnosis , that marked a new stage in the public health crisis.
And now the sport is showing how to move forward in an uncertain environment: collectively.
The NBA's statement notes that its dialogue with Disney is taking place in conjunction with the players' union (the National Basketball Players Association, or NBPA), which isn't something the league could have counted on doing in even the recent past. The NBPA did not respond to a request for comment.
Silver's dealings with the NBPA have a drastically different tone than under his predecessor, David Stern, who oversaw three work stoppages with the players. In the final stoppage, Stern led a scorched-earth campaign where he made ominous references to a " nuclear winter " for the league if the players didn't acquiesce to Stern and his (and team owners') demands.
Early on in his tenure, Silver distinguished himself from Stern by doing the previously unthinkable: expelling an owner from the league. Just two months after he stepped into the role, Silver banned former Los Angeles Clippers' owner Donald Sterling from the league for life, following the emergence of evidence of racist remarks by Sterling (which confirmed years of reporting about his behavior).
In the current crisis, Silver has remained a player-first leader, governing by consensus and getting buy-in from all the important parties.
He hasn't rushed to bring the league back as soon as possible or issued orders from a top-down perspective, reportedly warning players that the league didn't have to make a decision until June and that even then it couldn't guarantee player safety. It's up to the players, he seemed to say, empowering them to steer the future of the league.
And the players have stepped up and taken the wheel, first with NBPA President Chris Paul telling ESPN's Rachel Nichols in mid-May that the players "want to play bad." Paul then reportedly organized a senior group (with some notable omissions, like James Harden and his famous beard) to push for a restart, per Yahoo Sports .
Silver has successfully led from behind and has everyone singing the same tune, even as the world's second-greatest basketball league, the EuroLeague , canceled the 2019-20 season on Memorial Day.
Lesson 2: Manage expectations in an uncertain environment.
Silver's measured stewardship after suspending the season seeking dialogue with all the parties affected and holding off on cancelling the season was the best option available.
From relatively early in the shutdown, Silver was clear about the state of play, making clear to all stakeholders the severity of the crisis from both a public health and an economic perspective. In mid-April, for instance, before the full scale of the crisis was yet visible to most observers, the league and the players got ahead of the game by agreeing to a 25% salary cut, Variety reported .
And behind the scenes, Silver was apparently successful in pushing back on owners who had a lot of money on the line. NBA owners are by and large a very wealthy bunch who can weather a canceled season, but some have sought relief during the pandemic.
Two of the leagues' marquee franchises, the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers, have been seeking relief.
Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has separately furloughed 40,000 employees, pushed in a CNBC interview for a quick restart of play, and personally lobbied President Trump to alter the federal stimulus program so that his business would qualify, per The Hill .
And the Lakers, owned by the same family since the 1980s and not one of the billionaires to enter the league in recent years, shocked many by obtaining a PPP loan via the stimulus. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin called it "outrageous."
But despite all this evidence that some owners badly want to restart, Silver hasn't even fully committed to it yet. His actions have made clear that a responsible restart is the only kind that will occur.
Lesson 3: Partner to navigate through turmoil.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Finally, there's the matter of the NBA's longtime partner, ESPN, and its parent company, Disney.
ESPN ratings suffered in the spring as sports vanished from the playing field, at least until Michael Jordan emerged as its ratings white knight , once again saving the team when it needed him most.
But the damage was much greater at the parent level, as nearly every business activity of Disney's especially theme parks and blockbuster movies was devastated by the coronavirus-led shutdown of the economy.
In the first quarter, not even counting the deadly month of April which wreaked so much damage to the nation's physical and economic health, Disney's profit plunged by an incredible 91%. Analysts estimated a nearly $2 billion revenue hit from a full month of parks being shut down a mark that has now been well surpassed. Chairman Bob Iger and Bob Chapek, who was named CEO just a month before the coronavirus hit, both took paycuts in March, Iger going down to $0.
Simply put, the NBA and Disney need each other. And both businesses are demonstrating the value of partnerships, forging a badly needed and mutually beneficial situation out of the direst of circumstances.
At this juncture, the NBA developing a "campus"-like atmosphere in Disney World (the NBA's own description) would be a huge symbolic achievement at a time when actual college campuses face uncertainty about whether reopening in the fall would even be a good idea.
Disney's talks with the NBA are part of a coordinated restart effort, too, as plans to reopen Disney World were reported on May 27, following the reopening of its Disney Springs mall and Shanghai Disneyland. Also on May 27, Six Flags announced a plan for reopening its theme parks.
Building consensus, leading from behind, managing expectations, and valuing partners if the NBA and Disney can pull this off, they might just have provided the country with a blueprint on reopening.
As for whether the reopening is a good idea, that's another matter. None other than NBA legend-turned-commentator Charles Barkley told ESPN's Zach Lowe only last week that he didn't think the league should restart. But the actions of all the parties involved have ensured that a collective commitment to reopening responsibly is widely shared, just like Adam Silver wanted it.
Lesson 4: Rediscover some of that Michael Jordan swagger.
It's fitting that basketball would lead the way back to normalcy in the US. While baseball may have given way at some point to football as the national pastime, basketball has led the way as a cultural export at least since Michael Jordan's heyday.
In the dark month of April, ESPN's documentary series "The Last Dance" stoked the GOAT debate while feeding a quarantined nation starved for sports content. It also delivered a shot in the arm of throwback American greatness, providing Michael Jordan's particular type of tough love and lessons in leadership while offering an unabashedly nostalgic look back at the 1990s , when America was as strong and dominant as its high-flying, championship-winning brand ambassador.
Leading America out of the darkness of the pandemic gives basketball an opportunity to rediscover its ability to inspire that was so much on display in "The Last Dance" and that had gone missing for so much of the last year.
It feels like hundreds of years ago, but it was just last fall when Adam Silver landed in his biggest crisis to that point, after Rockets' General Manager Daryl Morey retweeted support for freedom of speech in Hong Kong. Silver somehow managed to make nobody happy with his management of that crisis, defending Morey's right to freedom of speech while walling off the NBA from any kind of social activism on that particular loaded subject.
But if Silver, Iger, the Chris Paul-led NBPA, and a LeBron James eager to restart the GOAT debate can somehow pull this off, basketball just might be able to inspire the world again.
And for the team that wins championship? They'll already be at Disney World.
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