The only major, public action taken in 2020 by Executive Chairman of the Walt Disney Company, Bob Iger – other than resigning as CEO prior to the pandemic shutdowns – has been in negotiating the deal with the NBA to finish the 2019-2020 season at Walt Disney World. By leveraging his long-term, friendly relationships with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts, and various NBA players, Iger was able to secure the remainder of the games be played at Disney’s crown jewel resort. At a reported cost of $150,000,000 the NBA paid to Disney, and simultaneously restoring live games to ESPN and ABC (subsidiaries of Disney), the deal was seen by many as a resounding success.
Now, however, hindsight shows a bit more of a muddled outcome.
Some of the issues began as early as July 9th when images began appearing on players’ social media accounts showing purported food items from Disney that were less than appetizing. Whether these items were prepared by Disney or third parties didn’t matter to the public perception of fans following these athlete celebrities. More PR issues abounded with players ridiculing their accomodations. Lakers point guard, Rajon Rondo, went so far as to compare his Coronado Springs hotel room to Motel 6… not exactly what Disney was hoping for.
By the end of July, Iger’s brilliant plan was beginning to draw frustration throughout both Disney and the NBA. Many players found the extensive list of prohibited actions overwhelming. Other players found life in a family-friendly environment difficult. Clippers guard, Lou Williams, escaped the confines of the happiest place on earth to attend a strip club. It turns out strip clubs were prohibited, and Williams had broken pandemic protocols.
Surely the return of live sports to ESPN and ABC would be worth the hassle, though? Not so much.
Following a tumultuous political environment and controversial-to-some positions taken by the NBA (such as refusing to condemn China’s human rights violations, and putting political slogans on NBA player jerseys), NBA games on live television did not see the expected jolt to ratings. Rather, NBA games saw a steady decline in viewership throughout the remainder of the regular season. This decline is to such a degree that, per Ethan Strauss of The Athletic, the NBA has lost nearly half of its television audience in the last decade.
Many thought the payoff would be the playoffs. But many were wrong. Rather than finally getting that needed bump, Sam Amico of Sports Illustrated reports that the NBA is down 20% its audience from last post season to now. This is horrendous for the NBA and Disney in that the NBA playoffs are being trounced by golf.
Now with just-breaking news that the NBA is being forced to postpone at least one day’s worth of playoff games due to players’ desire to boycott in protest of recent police-related conflicts, not only is Disney NOT getting the easy, positive publicity they originally sought… but they’re also faced with the potential of losing live television programming and ad revenue. It’s hard to see how Disney CEO Bob Chapek can be happy with his former boss’ performance considering this messy situation.
It’s one thing to have happy players posting happy tweets from the happiest place on Earth while they make news in playoff games at the Wide World of Sports complex. It’s a completely different scenario to have deeply dissatisfied celebrities stuck in your bubble, refusing to play, and wishing they were anywhere else besides the House of Mouse. As Milwaukee Bucks’ George Hill said August 24th:
“We shouldn’t have even came to this damn place, to be honest.”
Here’s to hoping things improve for all parties involved.
Update 10:40 PM EST 8/26/20:
Hours after posting this article, multiple behind-the-scenes sources are now reporting that Disney has been informed the 2019-2020 season will be cancelled, the special accommodations at Disney hotels will not be needed very soon, and no further games will be played for live television. These reports cannot yet be corroborated because the ultimate decision will be made on Thursday morning, but NBA players seem to have come to the conclusion that they will be boycotting any further games if the NBA Board of Governors were to reject their demand to cancel the season. Should this play out sans significant change of minds, Disney will have a major financial and PR issue on their hands… no playoff games on ABC is a huge revenue hit, and it remains to be seen how the NBA might try to negotiate penalty payments to TV contract holders for the cancellations.
Update 12:07 PM EST, 8/27/20
Sources at Disney World now report a shaky agreement has been made to continue the season. No information is given as to how this might affect the bubble at the resorts, but word is the situation could change at any time due to the volatility of the current news cycle. Ending the season would cost the NBA over a billion dollars, which is likely part of their desperate attempts to keep the players on the court.