The National Basketball Association suspended its season in dramatic fashion on March 11, after officials pulled two teams from the court moments before tip-off because one player had tested positive for the coronavirus.
It returned on July 30, changed in many ways. Exhaustive health-and-safety protocols mean teams are living and playing inside a bubble designed to keep the virus out.
Games are labeled “home” and “away,” but none take place on any team’s true home court, and no fans are physically present to cheer them on. Large video screens of fans in virtual seats have taken their place. Other touches to evoke the prepandemic experience include public-address announcers who call the game with more enthusiasm for the nominal home teams.
The league’s campaign to promote the restart, with the theme “It’s a Whole New Game,” acknowledges the new circumstances. “It’s the game you love,” producer and actor Issa Rae says in an ad, “like we’ve never seen it before.”
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NBA Chief Marketing Officer Kate Jhaveri talked to The Wall Street Journal about the league’s time off the court, the social-justice movement that erupted during its pause and the return to play. The interview has been condensed and edited.
WSJ: You’ve been working from home in Connecticut since the league paused play in March. Do you want to go to the bubble?
Ms. Jhaveri: I would love to, but our foremost interest is making sure that we have a successful restart and that the players and teams are safe and healthy.
WSJ: When the NBA abruptly suspended its season that night in March, it brought home for many people how disruptive and dangerous the pandemic could be. How did the NBA keep going when it was off the court?
Ms. Jhaveri: When we paused the season, it felt like the world paused with us. We immediately kicked off an “NBA Together” campaign, and generated over $99 million to support part-time arena staff and workers in health care and vital services, and 10 million PPE [personal protective equipment] masks for health-care workers. We made a number of PSAs to help our fans understand how to stay safe.
We also worked with ESPN to bring forward “The Last Dance,” and made it a priority to keep our fans engaged with a ton of new content that we generated every day, using everything from classic games to staging a virtual HORSE competition.
As games were getting closer, it was the right time to kick off the “Whole New Game” campaign with Issa Rae, to generate excitement but also speak to the moment.
WSJ: The NBA will be competing for TV viewers not just with the National Hockey League as usual but also with Major League Baseball and the National Football League. After months with little or no live sports on TV, how do you stand out in a sudden glut?
Ms. Jhaveri: The last few months have been very difficult for sports fans who are accustomed to watching their favorite teams compete throughout the spring. We’re always focused on making sure we have the absolute best product on the court that will satisfy fans’ appetite for live game content. We believe the return to live sports is positive for all the leagues.
WSJ: For the first time, the WNBA and the NBA will play regular-season games at the same time. Are you trying to take advantage?
Ms. Jhaveri: We are finding ways to cross-promote. NBA players showed their support for the start of the WNBA season by wearing orange hoodies with the WNBA logo. Players from both leagues came together for a conversation with Michelle Obama on voting and how players can use their platform to affect change.
WSJ: Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, spoke against the league’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The players’ union said they wanted her out. How does the dispute affect what the league is trying to do?
Ms. Jhaveri: The NBA has a long history for addressing racial and social issues and so for us placing “Black Lives Matter” on the court or having players represent social-justice messages on their jerseys is in keeping with this tradition. These messages have come to represent a broader movement around racial equity. We support the players, coaches and staff who continue to speak out on these issues.
And for me, as a white executive in a league predominantly populated by black and brown colleagues, I’ll never fully understand the challenges faced by them. But I completely stand behind the actions the league has set forth to drive change, and this completely goes for the players as well.
WSJ: Major League Baseball is trying to tighten its safety protocols after a coronavirus outbreak on one team and cases growing on another, and hoping to avoid having to call off the season. Are there contingency communications plans in place if the NBA’s restart has to stop?
Ms. Jhaveri: We believe we have a safe and responsible plan working with the players association, our teams, government officials and our partners at
We recognize that we can’t eliminate risk, but we’re going to stay close. We always want to speak authentically in the communication to fans. “A Whole New Game” was about this moment and meeting them where they are today. We’ll continue to be authentic with them, even in a worst-case scenario.
Portrait of NBA Chief Marketing Officer Kate Jhaveri. Photographed at her home in Greenwich, Conn., Thursday, July 30, 2020. (Joe Carrotta for The Wall Street Journal.) CSNBA
Joe Carrotta for The Wall Street Journal
WSJ: A shortened season or other atypical conditions usually mean the results get an asterisk in the record books and in conversation—a reminder that this year wasn’t comparable with other years. If the league gets a new champion at the end of this restart, will there be an asterisk?
Ms. Jhaveri: I don’t think this is an asterisk season. This is a year like we’ve never seen before. Our teams and players are intent on finishing what they started. From that perspective, getting back onto the court and being able to crown a champion is a sign of resilience.
Write to Nat Ives at email@example.com
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