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Attending an NBA game during Covid-19: It’s great to see basketball, but it’s not the same

Opening Night for the Tampa Raptors looked like an NBA game anywhere. What it’s missing was the feel of one.

Amalie Arena before the New Orleans Pelicans vs. Toronto Raptors at Amalie Arena in Tampa, FL on December 23, 2020.
Pelicans vs. Raptors in Tampa at Amalie Arena
Collin Sherwin

Of all the professional sports leagues in America, the NBA is the one where the in-game presentation is as much a part of the experience as the action between teams. The music changes each possession, the dancers during media timeouts, the extremely well-produced videos that force a crowd reaction: the League has it down to a science. The tremendous game operations and marketing staffs have changed the way people consume sports across the planet.

But when these things happen in front of 80% empty buildings where 100% of those present are wearing cloth masks, can it still feel the same?

The NBA experience in the era of Covid-19 is... different. Some of it positive, some negative, but very disparate. And having the first NBA game of the 2020-21 season with fans in attendance happen in a city with zero basketball history made it somewhat surreal.

Last night I went to NBA Opening Night between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Toronto Tampa Raptors. While the game presentation did everything to make it clear Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam still belong to The 6 as part of Canada’s team, it was still taking place in a building where the temperature was in the 60s in December at tip-off.

You don’t get to claim #WeTheNorth when people are wearing shorts to a home game.

Except for a preseason test run last week, this was the first event in Tampa’s Amalie Arena since Covid-19 shut down the world. The downtown arena was scheduled to host the first and second rounds of the 2020 NCAA Tournament in March, four nights of nationally-broadcast shows around WWE’s Wrestlemania weekend in April (with the actual ‘Mania down I-275 at Raymond James Stadium), and a playoff run for the eventual 2020 Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

Did we mention the Super Bowl is here in six weeks as well, but without all the fantastic events and fun that make it the Super Bowl? The locals know what’s missing as Tampa has hosted four Big Games before, and it’s been devastating to a region where tourism and major sports events are such a big part of the economy.

No city has lost more in terms of exposure and events because of the pandemic, but getting the Raps on a rental basis has made the bitter pill a bit smoother to take. It also doesn’t hurt that Adam Silver is publicly flirting with the idea of expansion while the largest media market in the US that doesn’t have an NBA team is hosting one.

For Lightning fans, Thunder Alley on the west side of the arena is hallowed territory. Forty-one nights a year plus playoffs the oversized patio is awash in activity. You can buy beers from the Cigar City Brewing outlet while music and live entertainment plays on a stage, with people walking and biking from basically anywhere in Downtown Tampa via the streets or The Riverwalk. There’s not a sports arena in the country with a better location or pregame atmosphere when the weather is good.

Fans without tickets often post up and bring tailgate chairs to watch the game projected on the wall of the attached parking garage. But here it is less than an hour before tip-off of the first regular season NBA game in the history of The 813:

With only 3,800 fans in attendance in a building that can hold over 20,000 for basketball, it lacked all event feel. Cigar City Brewing, normally with lines several people deep an hour before puck drop, wasn’t even open for business.

I live close and usually bike to the arena, as there’s a free valet service for those that pedal to the games. But that’s not available for this Raptors stint, replaced instead with a “purse valet” service because even the smallest of small handbags aren’t allowed in the arena during Covid-19.

There are upsides however, as traffic can be an issue for cars on game nights. My friend Marc came straight from work, and as a Lightning season ticket holder he said it was the easiest drive and park he’s ever had for a game.

I walked into Amalie think that if I felt Covid-unsafe at any point, I was immediately turning around and leaving. I live close and could be home in five minutes, so if watching the game from my couch was the better option I was going to take it. But the massive precautions taken were exactly what I was hoping to see, with a very small exception or two.

Breezing through security was a snap, and after walking through a metal detector, you just scan your cell phone bar code under this machine and walk-in. No paper tickets anywhere because none were distributed.

Once inside about half the concession venues were closed, and those that were available had plexiglass to keep people divided. Though a few folks weren’t totally respecting social distance while in line, it felt like the staff was doing everything they could to keep people safe.

In tribute to their guests from the North, there was a concession stand with poutine available right next to the Cuban sandwiches that are Tampa’s signature food.

But while the ham, salami, and pork pressed on perfect La Segunda bread (the local bakery that’s as much a part of Tampa culture as in-office flip-flops) cannot be topped... they really need work on the poutine. A for sentiment, F- for execution.

Keep in mind there was a Tim Horton’s stand in this arena until the NHL signed a league-wide marketing deal with Dunkin’ a few years ago, which was the only location for about 900 miles in any direction. Tampa is awash in Canadians from February through Spring Thaw. We love Canada here, and we really, really need to do better. I’m a dual citizen of both the US and Canada, but I might have to forfeit my northern passport after eating this. I’m sorrey, but it was terrible.

Once you get to your seat, it looks just like any other NBA game if you got to your seat 90 minutes early. But it also looks that way two minutes before tip-off because there’s just so few people.

The Raptors did use Tampa’s own Sonya Bryson-Kirksey to sing the national anthems, the official good luck charm of the Bolts. But otherwise you’d think the game was just played on reallllly slow night in Scotiabank Center. And the Air Force veteran sang the Star-Spangled Banner first and O Canada second, in case you forgot this is still Ontario’s team.

There was absolutely zero Tampa Raptors merch on sale, despite this terrific logo for the team’s time in Tampa Bay, and even this mock-up jersey that would sell out in seconds if offered. But they had Vince Carter jerseys, who hasn’t played in Toronto since 2005. Because... reasons??

The prologue for the experience was this: A fantastically-produced hype video and player introductions, and I loved the PA announcer introducing Fred VanVleet as “Mr. Bet On Yourself” after inking his $85 million contract extension. But in front of an 80% empty building with plenty of crowd noise piped in, because otherwise it would sound even weirder, it felt a bit strange.

Once the game started it had all the bells and whistles of a normal NBA experience. You still gasp when JJ Redick misses an open three-pointer, you still hold your breath when Zion Williamson does something freakishly athletic around the rim, and you still question why OG Anunoby thinks he can make that contested three-pointer.

And the arena staff were very, very serious about everyone wearing a mask everywhere. Take it off at your seat, and a pleasant usher will come by your seat and wave this sign reminding you to keep it on at all times. This was very much enforced everywhere, including the concourse.

There’s an area of long table tops on that concourse where people normally congregate to eat and drink with a view of the ice or court. But for this event, they were merely encouraged to “stay in their groups” via a sign posted on the tables. It seemed like maybe not a great idea in 2020?? Maybe just eat at your seat?? But as we avoided that space, at no point did I feel unsafe in the arena because of the huge precautions taken.

As for the experience of in-person NBA, the talent level and athleticism of every player on the floor remains incredible. There is no way the ‘86 Celtics or ‘73 Lakers or ‘67 Sixers or any other Larry O’Brien winners could sniff the talent of these two teams not expected to be in the mix for an NBA Championship this season.

If you’re a sports fan, seeing live pro basketball remains the gold standard of in-person sports in America. There’s nothing close to it, and being able to hear basically everything on the floor from even further away makes it even better for the hoop heads.

The piped-in crowd noise was halted when a Raptors player was on the free throw line, and in the echoing arena you could hear VanVleet yell “F%&@!!” at himself after a missed free throw, crystal clear both in the third deck and the ninth row, which is now the front row as tarps block off any closer seats on all sides of the court. Kyle Lowry’s issues with the officiating become magnified when you can hear him whining about the whistle every trip. And Stan Van Gundy doing Stan Van Gundy things in person is always terrific. Welcome back to the league SVG, you have been missed.

There were still the usual timeout entertainment, in-game host, and DJ, and even an oversized inflatable dinosaur dancing in the second deck, but it just felt odd. Trying to get a crowd hyped up was a challenge, but that didn’t change the entertainment factor as despite Lowry’s six turnovers, it was still a really well-played basketball game. As basically all NBA games are in this era.

So if you’re there strictly for the basketball, being an NBA fan during Covid-19 is phenomenal. But if you’re there for the full experience with the bells and whistles that make the presentation of the sport so terrific, maybe wait until next season. Because something is missing from what makes NBA Action... Fantastic.

The sport itself remains the best, but everything else makes the NBA special might not return until everyone has a vaccine.