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How Disney World Kept NBA AND MLS Thriving

F
ollowing COVID-19, the Florida city of Orlando shut themselves off from the rest of the world for a few months in the summer, in spite of becoming a record-setting tourist destination years prior with 75 million visitors.     

Orlando consequently became central to the sustenance of sports including professional soccer and basketball, as the Major League Soccer (MLS) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) returned to play on Disney’s 220-acre, ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

MLS resumed a month-long tournament with 12 of Disney’s playing fields from July 8; Disney provided a total of 17 playing fields along with 1,900 rooms to accommodate the 24 MLS teams.

Similarly, the NBA re-commenced playing on July 30, with three hotels fully booked out in order to accommodate players, coaching staff, media and broadcasters, team staff, and league personnel from 22 franchises.

Around this time, Florida had become a danger zone for the Coronavirus, as numbers of new cases in the area rose.

113 pages of health and safety documents were compiled and no cases were recorded inside of Disney’s sealed ‘bubble’.

Orlando Sports Commission president and chief executive, Jason Seigel, told SportsPro: “I think it’ll almost read like a good bedtime novel: you’ll have the before, during, and after.”

“[Firstly] the work that our community did to build the concept, to create a concept.

“Then, to have the guts, fortitude, and vision to execute on both of those opportunities, to pull the trigger, to have the relationship with both sets of players’ associations, to march forward and compete in these unique environments.

“Then, obviously, to get to the finish line and be able to reflect back and say what was the economic impact, what was the media value associated, what kind of a legacy did this leave?

“I think it’s a culmination of all of those conversations when they write this chapter in Orlando’s tourism and certainly within the sports tourism history,” he said.

NBA’s Orlando Magic chief executive, Alex Martins said on the NBA’s initial suspension of the season: “My recollections of the days leading up to it were certainly some trepidation based on the proliferation of the virus at that time and concern about large crowds being together as we led up to [it].”

“But I think for the most part in those days leading up to [it] none of us really contemplated the fact that sports would come to an end or be suspended because of the virus, so the reality certainly hit on the evening that the league suspended play.

“I think you’re aware of the fact that we, at the Magic, have a very strong partnership with our friends at Walt Disney World.

“Their brand appears on our jersey, from an investment standpoint they’re one of our top corporate sponsors, and at one point the president of Walt Disney World came to me and asked what possibilities could exist of the league restarting,” he said.

The cancellation of the entire NBA season would have seen losses of over $1.2 billion, the MLS was suspended soon thereafter, it was advised that revenue losses of $1.2 billion could also be possible for the MLS.

MLS commissioner, Don Garber, said: “There were literally 100 different models that we looked at as to what possibilities could exist.”

Orlando City SC chief executive, Alex Leitao said: “I remember texting [president and managing director of MLS Business Ventures] Gary Stevenson.”

“[I said,] ‘Gary, I have this crazy idea.

“I spoke with the guys at Disney.

“They feel like there’s something we can do.

“What do you think?”

“Half an hour later we were in a Zoom call with Commissioner Garber.

“I repeated the idea, he liked it.

“In some strange way it was similar to the process we go through to bring an All-Star Weekend to our cities.

“We go through a formal bid process in that case, but we promote, we try to encourage the league office to make the decision to bring the All-Star Weekend to our cities, and once that decision’s made there’s an army of experts at the league office in putting on these large and huge events,” Leitao said.

NBA channels raked in over 5.3 billion video views, with over three million new followers to the league’s social media accounts since the beginning of July, in addition, the bubble became a topic of conversation in countless stories and podcasts.

The LA Lakers and Miami Heat had already been residing inside the bubble for 85 days straight by the time they played game one of the NBA Finals on 30th September, and Orlando City had spent 49 consecutive days on the Disney campus.

Leitao added: “It gave us an opportunity to save a little bit of the year, to fulfil some commitments that we had, to put ourselves back in business.”

“We had commitments with TV, we had commitments with sponsors.

“As much as we couldn’t have fans at that moment, the fact we were able to have our sponsors there and have the games on TV, and for our fans to be able to continue following soccer – that was a huge success for us.

“We learned a lot over the process about the virus itself in order for us to be where we are at this point of the season, playing in our home stadiums and in our home markets, so the tournament gave us a lot of knowledge for the league and for the clubs and for the players, so now we know how to deal with that,” he said.

Since the bubble, some of Orlando’s theme parks have opened at limited capacities with cleaning measured in place.