Containment strategies can serve as a blueprint for businesses looking to reopen
By Caleb Unni, Marketing Strategist, Berkley Accident and Health
The 2020 sports season was unlike anything we’d seen before. On March 12, we awoke to the NBA suspending its season after a Utah Jazz player tested positive. Later that day, March Madness was cancelled. After that, other sports fell like dominoes. Events that traditionally marked the start of summer – the Indy 500, French Open, and horse racing’s Triple Crown – were postponed until August and September. Others disappeared entirely – Wimbledon, the Tokyo Olympics, and, in my hometown, the Boston Marathon. Sports as we knew it had vanished in a matter of weeks.
Pro Sports – A Pandemic Success Story
After the initial shock, club owners and operations managers eventually got down to the hard work of planning for the rest of 2020. The NBA, NHL, and MLS had put their seasons on hold. Baseball and football hadn’t started their seasons yet. Every team knew they needed to bring in additional medical resources. They already had doctors, athletic trainers, and other medical professionals on staff, but now they needed infectious disease expertise and advice from the CDC to help them make sense of the additional risks brought on by COVID.
Incredibly, every major sports league resumed play; some later than others. At times, it was surreal. The empty stadiums. Seats were filled with cardboard cut-outs. The sound of prerecorded cheering fans. Despite the strangeness, watching televised sports provided Americans with a much-needed diversion in the midst of a global crisis.
Despite the strict safety protocols in place, there were still dire predictions about the cancellation of seasons once they resumed. But seven months later, on October 12, something happened that few predicted. The Los Angeles Lakers were celebrating an NBA title. Four baseball teams were competing for a spot in the World Series. Incredibly, the doom and gloom projections had not come true. How was this possible?
Following the Science
Early on, U.S. sports leagues made key strategic moves that helped them to complete their seasons, such as implementing strict healthcare protocols and using “bubbles.” These decisions were made based on advice from their healthcare advisors, as well as CDC guidelines. How did they do it?
1. Continuous COVID-19 Testing
As seasons restarted, club managers knew that rapid testing during practices and game days would be key to keeping players safe. The NBA, for example, required all players, coaches, and staff members to quarantine in their rooms for up to 48 hours until they received two negative COVID-19 tests.[i] During the restart of the season, some players were tested daily to ensure the complete safety of all personnel. Those testing positive were:
- moved into isolation housing away from all healthy players for at least 14 days
- retested to make sure the first test was not a false positive; if results were inconclusive, a third test would be administered
- given a cardiac screening after recovering from COVID, per CDC guidelines
In July, the NBA selected a national testing provider, BioReference Laboratories, with the capacity to handle daily testing of players. BioReference had been managing large-scale testing since mid-March and recently invested in additional staff and new facilities.[ii] The NFL quickly followed suit and hired BioReference to conduct testing for all 32 NFL teams. Although all leagues would develop their own strategies for keeping teams safe, testing protocols were very similar across all pro sports.
2. Implementing the Bubble
Along with aggressive testing, club managers knew that if they could isolate players and limit their exposure, then they would have a better shot at starting and finishing the full season. Therefore, many leagues decided to create bubble environments where players and staff would live after testing negative for COVID and stay until the season ended. Bubbles would both limit players’ exposure to the virus and help contain any outbreaks.
The National Women’s Soccer League (NSWL) instituted a bubble in Utah, while the MLS set up their bubble in Florida. The NBA selected the Walt Disney Resort in Florida, and the Woman’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) bubble was nearby at the IMG Academy in Florida. NHL players were effectively in bubbles, too, in designated hotels and arenas in Toronto and Edmonton.[iii]
The MLB and NFL did not implement bubbles and as a result, both leagues suffered setbacks. In July, the St. Louis Cardinals had nine players and seven staff members test positive,[iv] which contributed to the MLB’s decision to implement a bubble during the playoffs. The NFL season is still underway, and several teams, including the Patriots, Broncos, Ravens, and Titans, had numerous players test positive. As a result, these teams competed without key players, losing games and some losing their shot at the playoffs.
As the NFL heads into the playoffs, many have questioned the NFL’s commissioner on his stance on not instituting a bubble. It will be interesting to see how this season wraps up and if any team has key personnel who contracts COVID during this time.
Healthcare Slam Dunk
For teams that created a bubble, it was a success – basketball and hockey finished their seasons and crowned a champion with minimal disruption. Baseball and football, on the other hand, did not implement strict bubbles. As a result, both sports followed a similar trajectory as the European soccer leagues, which restarted their seasons before most U.S. sports and did not use bubbles, and hit speed bumps along the way. The Marlins, Phillies, Cardinals, and Mets, for example, all experienced outbreaks and had to postpone games. Despite the setbacks, baseball successfully finished its season, and football is on track to do the same.
Lessons Learned for Businesses Looking to Reopen
Since pro sports reopened months ahead of many other industries, its successes and failures have generated a trove of data for U.S. businesses. These insights can form a blueprint for firms looking to return their employees to the workplace:
Lesson #1: Adapt successful strategies
Pro sports teams have the luxury of cocooning in bubbles with ample testing, team physicians, best practices, and resort settings. Meanwhile, small and midsize companies must operate in the real world, surviving COVID surges and plowing ahead to keep customers happy and businesses afloat. Lacking the big budgets of pro sports, even smaller firms can adapt the successful strategies for their unique needs:
- Cohorts – Most employers cannot exert the same level of control over their employees as sports teams do. We generally cannot mandate that our employees live in a bubble, isolated away from their families, but similar techniques can be used. The CDC has recommended we create our own bubbles, whether for childcare, students in school, childcare, or like-minded families looking to socialize. When returning employees to the office, some firms are using bubbles or cohort groups to bring Group A back to the office one week and Group B the next. That way, if there is an outbreak, the entire office will not be out of commission.
- Data tracking – To handle the inevitable outbreaks, the NBA relied on video technology to identify other players who were in close contact with the infected person. The NFL used wearable smart tags that monitored each person’s physical distance from others and how long they were near others. If businesses do not have these high-tech tools at their disposal, there are other low-tech ways of monitoring who an infected employee has been in contact with, such as building records, key fob data, and time sheets.
- Employee incentives – Ensure your workplace benefits align with the goals you are trying to achieve. Look at sick leave and paid time off policies to make sure they support your COVID strategies and do not cause intended consequences by encouraging sick people to return to work.
Lesson #2: Innovate to survive
Innovation is now a matter of life and death for many small businesses. A recent Fast Company article suggests five creative ways for businesses to succeed during COVID:[v]
- Expand your market
- Find new ways to deliver your product or service
- Partner with other businesses
- Engage customers through email, your website, and client-driven insights
- Invest in your business’s future by identifying routine tasks that can be automated, streamlining processes, and spending time on content marketing
This type of thinking outside the box can have benefits that extend beyond the pandemic. Many business owners plan to keep new processes and services they instituted during lockdown. Only 9% say they will discontinue their innovations after the pandemic subsides while 75% of small business owners believe their business will be better prepared to handle a crisis like COVID-19 if it occurs in the future.[vi]
Lesson #3: Mistakes will be made, but customers will be (generally) forgiving
When pandemic lockdowns hit, all sports leagues put their seasons on hold, without any contingency plans in place. Even though there wasn’t a timetable to resume play, fans understood what was happening and were forgiving because they were well aware of the safety concerns. And as the seasons restarted, sports leagues played on, despite a few missteps.
Likewise, businesses will make mistakes, and most of the time, customers will be very forgiving. We are all used to the “new normal” of product shortages, longer-than-expected delivery times, and service hiccups. By communicating proactively and setting clear expectations, businesses can come out ahead.
For sports teams, as well as businesses, 2021 remains to be seen. There is great optimism about the newly approved vaccines and development of rapid, at-home testing. Sports teams are planning for their next seasons, hopefully without bubbles and playing in their home stadiums. The NBA and NHL have both started their 2021 seasons outside the bubble, so teams can regain their home court/ice advantage.
Some tech companies, such as Twitter and Slack, have announced that employees can work from home indefinitely, but many others plan to return to the office. What will 2021 bring for businesses and sports? Only time will tell.
This is not a legal opinion. Always seek your own counsel before making changes to your benefit plan.
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 SportingNews, NBA Bubble, Explained: A complete guide to the rules, teams, schedule & more for Orlando games, https://www.sportingnews.com/us/nba/news/nba-bubble-rules-teams-schedule-orlando/zhap66a9hcwq1khmcex3ggabo#:~:text=Where%20is%20the%20NBA%20bubble,made%20the%20bubble%20concept%20viable.
 BioReference Laboratories, Company Testing NBA Players in Bubble Seeks ‘Greater Good,’ https://www.bioreference.com/company-testing-nba-players-in-bubble-seeks-greater-good/
 New York Times, ‘Bubbles’ are Working. But How Long Can Sports Stay Inside?, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/sports/basketball/sports-bubble-nba-mlb.html
 CBS Sports, St. Louis Cardinals Manager says COVID-19 Outbreak has Resulted in ‘a few visits’ to Emergency Room, https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/st-louis-cardinals-manager-says-covid-19-outbreak-has-resulted-in-a-few-visits-to-emergency-room/
 Fast Company, 5 Creative Ways Small Businesses are Succeeding During the COVID-19 Quarantine, https://www.fastcompany.com/90489203/5-creative-ways-small-businesses-are-succeeding-during-the-covid-19-quarantine  Society for Human Resource Management, Small Businesses Get Creative to Survive During the Pandemic,https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/all-things-work/pages/small-businesses-get-creative-to-survive-during-the-pandemic.aspx