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Are Quarantined Tournaments A Good Idea?

With sports shut down in the face of the novel coronavirus, two American basketball leagues are working on plans for an early return to the court. But what do “safe” games look like in the midst of the pandemic — and would such plans ultimately get a green light from public health officials?

The NBA and the Big3 have both expressed an interest in filling the gaping hole in live sports programming. NBA commissioner Adam Silver recently floated the possibility of a “diversion” for fans: a televised charity game with quarantined players who test negative for the virus. Shortly after that, Big3 officials said they would be interested in beginning play sooner than usual, perhaps in May, by playing a quarantined preseason tourney in Los Angeles that would essentially double as reality television.

The Big3, which pits former pro basketball players against one another in a 3-on-3 format, would test about two dozen players for COVID-19, quarantine those free of the disease in a housing complex and then play a seven-round tournament on a court at the same complex. Yahoo’s Chris Haynes reported that the day-to-day living would be documented on camera in a partnership with Endemol, which produces the reality show “Big Brother.”

But even with the plan to first test all Big3 players and quarantine them (and presumably the coaches, referees and production crew as well), at least one disease expert wasn’t convinced the process could realistically work as laid out. For starters, a quarantine shouldn’t be confined to the seven-round tournament itself — it would need to begin two weeks earlier.

“Even if you test them, they could be incubating for up to 14 days,” said Dr. Anne Rimoin, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UCLA who is involved with a COVID-19 research study in Los Angeles. “They would need to be in complete isolation, put in an isolation chamber — meaning no contact with anybody — for 14 days prior. They wouldn’t be allowed to have contact with anybody during that period, or while they’re playing. That’s the science of it. But I don’t see that happening. These people have families, friends. They might need to get groceries.”

It’s easy to understand why the Big 3 wants to play, even in the face of risk. If the league becomes the first to make it back on live television, it would have a captive audience and could yield millions of viewers — multiples of what it has drawn since it was co-founded by Ice Cube in 2017.1 It would be a rare opportunity for the league to steal the spotlight at a time when fans are craving basketball. (Since actual basketball may not be in the immediate future, video games may serve as a replacement for the time being. Starting Friday, ESPN will reportedly broadcast NBA players squaring off in an NBA 2K tournament that runs for 10 days.)

But the league would need more than just a few dozen players to agree. Dr. Arthur Reingold, who heads the epidemiology and biostatistics division at the University of California, Berkeley, said the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health might need to be convinced that there was no risk involved in such a plan in order to give it a green light. (Neither the L.A. Department of Public Health nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention responded to requests for comment.)

Any NBA plan to restart the season would face similar difficulties but on a much larger scale: Is it possible to house the league’s players in a massive, quarantined, novel coronavirus-free environment for weeks at a time? ESPN’s Brian Windhorst laid out the challenges for the league in making that happen, saying NBA executives are closely watching how the Chinese Basketball Association goes about handling the same predicament.2

While it might be feasible to place players in a “bubble” at some point, every league’s fear is that someone in a quarantine would wind up with the virus and infect others, which in all likelihood would prompt another shutdown. Because of that, whatever league takes the first step — the Big3, the NBA or someone else — will have a huge responsibility to do everything it can to ensure safety. The sports world will be counting on it.

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  1. Last summer, the league garnered a 0.44 household rating on CBS, for an average audience of about 527,000 viewers, according to figures from Nielsen.

  2. On Tuesday, Windhorst reported the Chinese government had issued an order delaying the restart of the Chinese Basketball Association and other group sports, and that it was unclear when that restriction would be lifted.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.