Pandemic Visual Culture Within the NBA Bubble

© Copyright 2021 Ajay Sharma, Ryerson University.


With COVID-19 still running large in today’s climate, visual culture has shifted to cater to this virus throughout many platforms, including sports. This digital exhibit’s purpose is to examine the phenomenon of the NBA bubble that took place during its regular season of 2019-2020. For context, the NBA bubble took place during the early stages of the pandemic, where all teams and staff flew to Disneyland resort in Orlando to finish the season. The research question for this exhibit is to answer why the NBA bubble was so successful in completing its season and playoffs in the face of a pandemic compared to other major sports leagues? This research question is relevant to today’s culture. The virus is still prominent; the NBA is removed from the bubble but still uses several of the protocols instilled from the previous season. My research aims not to focus primarily on the physical benefits outside of transmitting the virus; instead, my findings with additional secondary sources will argue how the bubble created a global example of dealing with COVID-19. The most appropriate approaches I found regarding this topic was to use the spectator’s gaze to analyze the relationship between the NBA bubble and those who look/watch ( fans like myself) at the product, which is competitive sports matches to focus on the scope of the pandemic and how it was involved in the bubble’s construction. This exhibit is meant to display the severity of the visual culture change caused by COVID-19, a change where a business as extravagant and exclusive as the NBA could not avoid.

 The Business Side of Sports:

[Fig 1.: Tim Reynolds. “A basketball court at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex.”. 25 Jul 2020. Associated Press.]
Sport entrepreneurship is paramount when analyzing the bubble; after all, sports is a business. The central research question for Ratten’s journal article and leagues around the world is “This question, should we go back to normal, is one that many sports organizations will be asking, as this pandemic has forced new and creative ways to improve health, safety, efficiency, and even effectiveness in the areas of PRs, social media production, sports content importance, and event management practices” (293). The answer as of right now is no; things in the sports world have remained affected by the national pandemic, each league having their own set of protocols for dealing with the virus.  

Ratten suggests that the pandemic had “Many organizations exploring different avenues and answering the call to produce any type of sport content” (291). With the added element of fulfilling business and contractual obligations from tv networks, leagues were scrambling to find a solution to get their respected seasons back on track. This is where the NBA bubble comes in; no other league was as successful as the NBA with the pandemic’s emergence. It is important to note that NBA players had a say if they wanted to participate in the bubble, and many took the commissioner’s Adam Silver offer and stayed at home due to fear of the virus. While this work does not solely focus on the NBA, instead of sports at large, Ratten illustrates the early stages of the pandemic with basketball. “A National Basketball Association (NBA) game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz was abruptly cancelled and the NBA season eventually suspended after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert, tested positive for the virus” ( Ratten 290). It is vital to focus on the first player ( Gobert) who contracted COVID-19 to illustrate the pandemic’s lack of importance for athletes. At a press conference after being diagnosed with COVID-19, Gobert infamously touched all the microphones and coughed as a joke, underestimating the severity of the virus. 

Different Leagues, Different Mandates:

 There has been much coverage on the mishandling of management in sports leagues due to the Coronavirus. Brody J.Ruihley and Bo Li’s peer-reviewed journal article has provided great insight into this catastrophe. It also places great emphasis on athletes and social media during this pandemic, “In addition to traditional media, social media became a mainstream platform, where athletes, coaches and sport organizations created links with fans to increase their brand awareness and communicative reach during the pandemic” ( Ruihley, Li 292). Almost all NBA players have social media accounts that allow them to market and communicate with supporters and fans successfully; this can be tied into my spectator’s gaze lens to show the relationship outside of the actual sporting event, somewhat off the field, which is equally as prevalent in today’s sports world.


[Fig 2. Ashley Landis. “The NBA will include “Black Lives Matter” messaging as part of its restart in Florida.”, 30 Jul 2020. AP Photo.]
The NBA bubble took place during the same time as the George Floyd shooting, and many of the players were not comfortable playing games during the outcries from their communities during this period. The NBA bubble tried to spread awareness. All courts had “Black Lives Matter” printed right in the middle of the floor to bring attention to these human rights issues while also facing a national pandemic. Keeping the contextualization approach in mind, politics and sports have been intertwined in more recent years. Moreover, with the pandemic becoming a politicized event to many individuals, the NBA created a platform where players and staff could freely express themselves with no restrictions while also maintaining safety measures for the virus.

It is also of great importance to take into consideration the media. These individuals who belong to this particular workforce are tasked with covering teams’ antics, injuries, lineup changes, coaching schemes, and so much more. They, too, need adequate care as they have worker rights. However, a surprisingly appalling number of professional leagues mishandled this union.

Mike Bianchi’s opinion sports article argues that the NBA is far more educated and prepared for the pandemic than the MLB. The handling of media members ( like Bianchi) is another piece of the puzzle that has to be addressed since they were in the bubble doing their jobs. With proper care of the media, the article states that “this is why the NBA restart has been and presumably will be a resounding success whereas Major League Baseball couldn’t even get through the first week of its season without multiple games being cancelled” ( Bianchi). With this writer/media member having first-hand experience of this mistreatment, the NBA is seen as a shining light that can do no wrong. The league’s value system is far fairer and judicious in contrast to the grasping indifference that the MLB continues to display.

 This article continues to lambast the MLB for its flawed structure model in dealing with the pandemic and boosts the NBA’s strategy as the most successful and appropriate way to resume sports with the virus. “You would never, ever hear NBA players talk about their league and commissioner in such a derisive manner. No major commissioner in the modern history of sports has ever been as universally beloved and respected by league players and their union as Silver is now” ( Bianchi). Contextually, the media members have a significant influence in sports, with stations like ESPN and Fox News having their own sports commentary; the world is watching what happens to leagues like the MLB and NBA. Bringing the media into consideration with the pandemic’s knowledge combined with the bubble brings together valuable insights on just how this plan was executed to a tee with almost no mistakes.

How the NBA Bubble Changed the Landscape for Pandemic Sports:

The NBA bubble was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and it is valuable for insight into how athletes and viewers coped with a global pandemic. Price and Yan suggest that “Future studies may want to use the 2020 NBA bubble and compare vs previous years using other performance measures” (15). Coronavirus, while still present today, did not account for the flexibility of the NBA; while its regular season is happening right now with stricter precautions, the bubble was necessary to deal with the unknown at the time. Other leagues like the NFL and MLB wanted to create a bubble-like atmosphere but were unable to due to the lack of research, planning and overestimation of the pandemic.

The bubble instilled protocols that are still used in the league today, such as staying in hotel rooms, social distancing on benches, always wearing a face mask when you are not on the court, etc. All these regulations have been copied rightfully by leagues worldwide to ensure a safe space to perform physical activity at an optimal level. When you turn on an NBA game within visual culture today, it is much different from before; with no fans, the players are not encouraged and can be punished for interacting with other players on opposing teams’ games. The bubble was the most popular event in the sports world of summer 2020. For a good reason, players’ performance was at a high, the reported COVID cases were deficient considering the circumstances, and everyone was in a safe space. Questions arise from consulted sources like “were away teams able to rise to the occasion and perform better not having to deal with the headache of going on the road” ( Price, Yan 14). With COVID-19 in mind, travel is frowned upon from last year up until now unless it is deemed essential. The NBA is most definitely not essential within the scope of a virus; however, it is a multi-billion business still. The employees (players and coaches) benefited from a lack of travel with less jet lag, fatigue, and virus spread.

 Spectator’s Gaze Viewing the Bubble:

Using the spectator’s gaze to dissect the relationship between the NBA and its viewers is paramount; since the whole world watches the league, its approval ratings and viewership skyrocketed during this season. As a refresher, the spectator’s gaze is constructed through a relationship between the subject who gazes (fans, media) at the selected object ( the NBA bubble. Whether that be from outside factors such as lack of sports, NBA being in the summer compared to the usual fall/winter schedule, spectators of this event were turning in at an alarming result. Ratten delves into the fan’s experience of sports coming to a halt, “fans from all over the globe experienced some sort of disruption to the sport they consume” ( 291). This issue was a global one; the NBA is internationally more popular than leagues such as the MLB and NFL, so the league had much more to lose with its spectators. They ultimately handled it appropriately by creating the bubble, as the spectator’s gaze was somewhat shifted from the pandemic to the NBA as a way to get their mind off the stressful nature that the world is in. 

Furthermore, being a fan and watching the NBA constantly, the league has been on a rapid spike in popularity in the past seven years. Leagues like the MLB, MLS and NHL have all suffered from basketball becoming more popular. Friends and acquaintances of mine all enjoyed other leagues before discovering the NBA in 2014-2015. Maybe it’s all the drama off the court, or maybe it’s the ability to see players’ faces instead of being hidden by a helmet; the NBA is a powerhouse. The pandemic changed the spectator’s perspective because we were forced to look at a product with no actual competition—instead, news coverage on what leagues were doing to figure out how to resume exhibition. The NBA is a tough customer and thought of the bubble to finish their season. Spectating on this continuation of matches, the competition was at fierce as ever; however, as spectators, we had to adjust to the arenas not having any fans and hear players when they speak on the court. 


The NBA and competition sports are visual stimuli to satisfy the spectator’s gaze and inner desire for mankind’s peak physical/athletic ability. It takes a virus to slow down the consumption of the leagues like the NBA, but even with news of a mutation forming, the league is still running smoothly as I write this. However, since this started around March of 2020, the NBA was not innocent of underestimating just how severe the virus was; their business suffered. Silver had no choice but the shut down the league for several months. The spectator’s gaze changed for what seemed to be a precarious situation.

Nevertheless, the league had its redemption by creating a moral set of COVID-19 protocols for players and staff associated with the NBA to choose to follow. Other leagues soon began to notice what was happening. Not only that, the finalized product of the competition gained excellent performance, as players and staff were rested from staying in one location and reaped significant enhancement in their play. It is no longer a question of how the NBA strived during a pandemic; instead, how long can the NBA keep this pristine image in the face of a pandemic. I deduce that the league will finish this 2020-2021 season with almost no misfortunes. 

Works Cited:

Price, Michael, and Jun Yan. “The Effects of the NBA COVID Bubble on the NBA Playoffs: A Case Study for Home-Court Advantage.” 2021.

Ratten, Vanessa. “Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) and Sport Entrepreneurship.” International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behaviour & Research, vol. 26, no. 6, 2020, pp. 1379–1388.

Ruihley, Brody J., and Bo Li. “Sport and the Coronavirus Crisis Special Issue: An Introduction.” International Journal of Sport Communication, vol. 13, no. 3, 2020, pp. 289–293.

“NBA Bubble Is a Blueprint; MLB Plan Is a Shot in the Dark | Commentary.” Orlando Sentinel (Online), by Mike Bianchi, Tribune Publishing Company, LLC, Orlando, 2020, Accessed 17 Mar. 2021.


Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.