The NBA Bubble worked, but without fans, it lacked luster

Junior Brady Wine watches NBA Bubble action between the LA Lakers and the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.

Sam Best

Junior Brady Wine watches NBA Bubble action between the LA Lakers and the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.

The NBA Bubble, which just recently crowned the Lakers as 2019-2020 season champions, was a great taste of basketball for fans and the best possible attempt at replicating the NBA; however, without fans in attendance and the virtual fans as a poor replacement, it was certainly not the same in terms of entertainment.

This past March, COVID brought the NBA season to an abrupt stop, leaving teams and fans with an uncertain end to what had been, up to that point, an exciting season. For the next six months, questions surrounding what would be done to wrap up the 2019-2020 season were discussed. In early August, 24 of the 30 teams with a shot at the title were brought to Orlando to play out the final eight games of the regular season as well as the playoffs in a bubble in Disney World.

Questions still shrouded this attempt at reviving the NBA season. Would the basketball played be on the same level with players unable to play for six months? Would the NBA be able to keep the bubble COVID free? To even attempt to play basketball was going to be a major challenge, but the conclusion of the season was a major success anyway. No cases of COVID were brought into the bubble, and the level of play nearly mirrored top-level NBA games––excluding the lack of defense, which was to be expected.

The main problem that I had as a fan watching the NBA action was the lack of real fans in attendance.”

— Brady Wine

Just as usual NBA Playoffs go, the storylines in the bubble were rampant and the game action really exceeded the competitive level I was expecting in an isolated arena. Great game upon great game took place, day after day all capped off by a Laker’s championship. The biggest stars showed up with major performances as they always do come playoff time, and the Playoffs even had some surprising runs from under the radar teams. This included the Suns going undefeated or the Heat making it to the Finals, creating basketball action that was the same or even better than a normal season. As an NBA fan, there was nothing more I could’ve asked for in terms of on-court gameplay.

The main problem that I had as a fan watching the NBA action was the lack of real fans in attendance. The NBA took steps to make the fan experience more realistic, such as pumping in crowd noise and filling the walls of the arena with virtual fans, using Zoom to broadcast their faces from home. While using electronic fans and crowd noise helped to make the games more realistic, it was nothing close to the actual environment of a game. The fans’ reactions were delayed and minimal, withdrawing more from my viewing experience than they added. In many instances the virtual fans made it feel like I was watching a high level basketball game at the gym, not an NBA game with title hopes hanging in the balance.

Fans’ reactions, which help to exaggerate the importance of moments and build excitement for plays, can be just as important as the plays themselves. Luka Doncic’s game-winning three against the LA Clippers, or Jamal Murray’s multiple 50-point games to come back from a 3-1 deficit against the Utah Jazz were certainly great to watch, but just like every other crazy play that took place in the bubble, there seemed to be something missing. These legendary moments would have been much better if the players had been able to have fans that could go crazy alongside them.

For anyone such as myself who loves watching basketball, we should be thankful the NBA went to such great lengths to put on a successful end to what was a very unique season. With a long break that had no sports, this NBA bubble season was an exciting reintroduction to sports and served almost as a replacement for March Madness, which was also canceled this year. However, if the NBA is to return to the bubble format, I hope they do so with revamped online fans and are able to use a different style to make the games feel more natural than they were in the bubble.