This article was first published in the May 2020 China edition of
Accounting and Business magazine.

Rudy Gobert was in a frisky mood at the end of a press conference on 9 March. The French basketball player, a centre for NBA (National Basketball Association) team Utah Jazz, was about to leave. He paused, stretched his long arms, and touched all the microphones and voice recorders on the table. Then, with a smile on his face, he jogged out of the room.

He was making light of a new rule that took away media access to NBA locker rooms and clubhouses because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Two days later, Gobert tested positive for the disease. Almost immediately, the league suspended its season.     

On 16 March, Gobert gave an update on his health, thanked people for their support and concern, and reminded everybody to observe basic steps for avoiding infection. He was contrite, saying he wished he had ‘taken this thing more seriously’.

Fortunately, the NBA does take Covid-19 seriously. Its response is a noteworthy illustration of how a business balances profits and social responsibility. And it is not just any business. According to Forbes, the league’s 30 teams generated revenue of US$8.8bn over the 2018-19 season and their combined worth is close to US$64bn.

The NBA is one of the most profitable professional sports leagues, but what sets it apart is the rapid growth it has engineered, thanks to innovation, marketing savvy, deal-making prowess and a rising international profile. In other words, the NBA has brilliantly fused basketball and business. The league, team owners and broadcasters are not the only ones who are big earners: the average salary makes its players the world’s highest paid athletes.

As is true with the rest of the institutional measures to fight the spread of Covid-19, the swift decision to go on hiatus came with a financial cost. It was, however, a time to put lives ahead of profits. In fact, hours before Gobert’s test results were known, the NBA had already decided internally that its upcoming games would be played without fans. At that point, among cities with NBA teams, San Francisco was the only one that had issued a ban on gatherings of 1,000 or more.

Even before that move could be finalised, the NBA learned of the first confirmed case in its midst. The first thing NBA commissioner Adam Silver did was cancel a Utah Jazz game minutes before it was due to start. ‘We quickly agreed that this should not, of course, be a business decision. We should be listening to the public health experts,’ he said in a television interview.

That mindset was also the basis for the next step: bringing the season to a halt for at least for 30 days. According to Silver, during the NBA management’s conversations with the team owners, the issue of money did not come up at all. ‘The entire discussion was about the safety and health of the players, the community around the NBA and our fans,’ he recalled.

It is always heartening that when it truly matters, businesspeople can clearly see beyond dollars and cents.

Errol Oh is executive content officer of The Star.