A shot in the dark: players and fans experience the magic of the NBA ‘bubble’

There are three seconds left on the clock and the game is all tied up. Your teammate passes you the ball, you take the shot, hear the ball swish through the net, and the arena erupts in . . . silence. While there is some pumped-in fan noise to simulate a real crowd, it is nothing like what it used to be and the rush that typically follows sinking the game-winning basket is not as exhilarating anymore. When the NBA announced its plans to resume play in a ‘bubble,’ there was a lot of skepticism about how successful it would be and if it would even be worth it. But if anyone could pull it off, it would be Disney and the NBA. Now that the season, and life in the ‘bubble,’ is officially over, we can reflect on what a historic experience this was, for both the athletes and the fans.

Lights, Camera, Action!

When Joel Glass, chief communications officer for the Orlando Magic, stepped onto the court for the first time, his breath was taken away. Having been with the NBA since 1995, he has seen his fair share of basketball courts, but what he saw was not that – “Essentially you were in a TV studio, with a basketball court on it. That’s what it felt like.” Cameras were everywhere, the lights were blinding, and 17-foot television screens had been put up where the fans should have been. Instead of having 9-12 cameras capturing the action, there were now 50, getting every step and every breath of every player; instead of passively watching the game, fans now had the opportunity to actively interact with questions and content on social media; instead of fans packing the arena, they now sat at home on a video call while pre-recorded cheers and shouts played over the speakers.

It was an incredible set-up, but it did not change the fact that the athletes would still be playing in an empty venue without the energy of their fans to fuel them during the physically and mentally demanding season. “Everything was looked at from the lens of innovation, and our athletes felt that” says Glass. A lot of thought was also put into recreating a game-day atmosphere for athletes, with, for instance, a novel approach to home court advantage. “When it was technically your home game, it was in a way your home game presentation: the PA announcer would announce your starting lineups, you controlled the graphics on the boards, and you had more virtual fans (on the arena video boards).” But the athletes still found it challenging to get into a competitive headspace in this new, “TV studio” environment. Perhaps bringing reverse streaming from music to sports could be the solution that genuinely bridges the gap between athletes and fans for an overall enhanced experience.

Everyone involved in making this NBA season successful chose to see this challenge as an opportunity to innovate. They were not afraid to try something new and fail because there was always something to be learned from it. And what came out of that? New ways to engage fans with follow-along questions, more cameras that brought them right down onto the bench with the athletes, and more accessibility to fans’ favorite teams thanks to video call platforms. Now, the challenge is finding ways to make sure fans feel safe when they return to the arena together and technology will play a large part in that – possibly in the form of temperature checks upon arrival, more cashless solutions, prescreening attendees for COVID-19 and others.

What’s Next?

While there likely will not be another ‘bubble’ season for the NBA, what was learned over the last few months will undoubtedly be carried into the next generation of the fan experience. The Orlando Magic is betting on more virtual events for fans: “They don’t need to drive anywhere, they don’t need to get dressed up and they can still engage with a player. And that’s maybe easier for the player too.” The same applies to media events and how video calls have made everyone on the team – from coaches to athletes to support staff – more accessible than ever before. So, even while we have been apart, we have found new ways to be together and connect.


This article was produced by Purdue University for Games Flash, an internal emailer of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). As part of this collaboration, Purdue develops periodic content highlighting insights about the latest technologies sport globally. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the IOC.

To learn more about what life in the NBA bubble was like, check out our exclusive interview with Joel Glass here:

Interview with Joel Glass

Joel Glass, chief communications officer for the Orlando Magic

Joel Glass, who joined the Orlando Magic in October 1995, was promoted to chief communications officer in June 2015. Glass is responsible for directing communication and media/public relations efforts related to the Magic. He is responsible for media operations, strategic communications, media releases, publications, and statistical material, while also coordinating media interviews with players, coaching staff members and front office personnel. Glass also oversees the team’s digital news content team and the team’s television and radio broadcasting department.

Glass joined the Magic as the assistant director of basketball publicity/media relations in October 1995. He was promoted to director of team media relations in 1998, then promoted to vice president of communications in July 2006. Glass was later promoted to senior vice president of public relations in July 2012.

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