How Nets’ Joe Tsai thinks NBA can navigate ‘tricky’ future amid COVID-19

Nets owner Joe Tsai isn’t deluding himself. He knows coronavirus will make next season a tough one for his team and the rest of the NBA, and that the league is a long way from playing to full arenas, or even crowded ones.

But the e-commerce billionaire is predicting a strong eventual rebound thanks to rapid testing and a thirst for live sports, which he calls a “rare commodity.”

“We’re kind of looking at — obviously we’re in the playoffs right now, very excited about the Lakers and the Heat, congratulations to them – and the next season is going to be a little bit tricky, because we don’t anticipate having a lot of fans or having full buildings into the arena anytime soon,” Tsai said during CNBC’s Delivering Alpha conference.

“But guess what? You know, the following season, 2022-23, we look for a very nice rebound. And the thing is, live sports is a rare commodity. You could tell just during the COVID period when there was no sports on TV, people just were craving for it. And once you put the games on, people have come back to watch sports enthusiastically. So I’m very, very positive, very excited about the future of live sports.”

The coronavirus pandemic that’s killed over 200,000 people in the U.S. suspended the NBA season back in March. Play restarted in the so-called bubble in Orlando, with all the games played at Disney with no fans present. That’s played havoc with the league’s finances, and could for another season or two.

Joe Tsai Nets NBA
Nets owner Joe TsaiGetty Images

Tsai’s Nets finished seventh in the Eastern Conference to reach the playoffs behind interim coach Jacque Vaughn. He’s stayed on staff as the lead assistant since the hiring of new head coach Steve Nash, and next season they’re expected to contend upon the return of injured stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

It’s still unclear whether they’ll do so in Brooklyn or in another bubble, playing before how many fans or in front of any at all. But Tsai – the Alibaba co-founder who has seen his personal fortune rise by $5.6 billion since the start of last year – suggested that rapid COVID testing on-site could be a game-changer and help the NBA regain some semblance of normalcy.

“Well, first I have to say the Nets did pretty well in the bubble. We didn’t advance beyond the first round, but we won a few games especially against the Bucks and the Lakers. But we had an early exit,” Tsai said. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to go into the bubble. But the thing about live sports is that a very big part of the economics of the teams comes from having fans in the building.

“So in the COVID era, with social distancing and people not being able to congregate in a place, that’s really going to prevent the economics. But these are challenges that can be overcome with time because we know…that there’s going to be a vaccine. You can have rapid testing programs before people come into the building. So at some point, that’s going to come back to normal.”

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