Warriors unveil plan to allow fans to attend games at reduced capacity, with rigorous testing

Would you go?

Yesterday marked the 10-year anniversary of the day that Joe Lacob and Peter Guber bought the Golden State Warriors for $450 million. It has been a transformative decade for the Warriors and their fans. But like so much of America, the festivities at the newly minted home, San Francisco’s Chase Center, has been curtailed by the Coronavirus.

As we await final details on the 2020-2021 season (slated to start with next week’s draft) the Warriors are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible by proposing to open at 50% capacity for some or all of this season. Is it possible? Is it safe? Who knows! But this ownership group is working towards it.

“You cannot sustain this league with no fans.”

As reported by ESPN, owner Joe Lacob has been working on some iteration of this plan since the lockdown began back in March. The economics are clear, and Lacob pulls no punches in admitting that even the deep pockets behind this franchise will begin to feel the pinch as hundreds of millions of potential dollars fail to appear at the team’s 1.4 billion dollar arena.

It’s no secret that the economics of this new NBA are not sustainable - the league has reportedly lost $800 million in gate receipts and another $400 million from sponsorships and merchandise; approximately 10% of their estimated annual revenue. It’s why the players and teams rushed through what could have been a protracted negotiation in order to resume play in time to salvage the treasured Christmas Day games.

Lacob is shockingly well-suited to be the primary driver for an endeavor like this, again back to today’s ESPN article:

"I not only want to get this done and show the world how we can do it now, I'm willing to spend the money to do it," said Lacob, who holds a master's degree in public health from UCLA and built his fortune as a venture capitalist in biotechnology. "This is a serious, serious problem. It cannot go on for multiple years... because if this were to go on for several years, the NBA is no more.

The league office has offered some guidance. Though it prescribes mandatory distances from the court, and testing requirements for attendees in the lower bowl, the plan leaves large holes that would seem to offer ample room for the Coronavirus, measuring between 60 nanometers to 140 nanometers in diameter, to enter.

But with somewhere around two-thirds of the league's local jurisdictions not currently allowing for public gatherings of more than 500 people, even Golden State’s safer, more rigorous proposal is facing an uphill battle.

What would this look like?

The primary tool here - beyond social distancing and mask requirements - is going to be the use of rapid PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests that can detect traces of the virus within 15 minutes. Fans will be tested onsite at Chase Center or at drive-up locations around the Bay Area - which must be within 48 hours of game time.

Lacob and team President Rick Welts are quoted in the article touting the public health benefits, and they aren’t wrong. This would be the sort of case study that could be used to demonstrate the viability of something like this. But are Warriors fans eager enough to risk it all just for the chance to see some live basketball?

With a capacity of around 18,000, even at 50% attendance, this is going to be a lot of people - plus all the teams, support staff, and peripheral event and logistics personnel. But Lacob, who has never shied away from a tough problem, is eager to tackle the challenges - and not just so that Chase arena can start paying back on that huge investment.

"Someone needs to step up and show not only the sports world, but actually show the world how we can still resume some parts of normal life while we're fighting this virus and waiting for the vaccine."  

With somewhere around nine thousand people in masks lined up with their test records in hand, this would still be a far cry from our previous “normal” but as far as a first step, this is an interesting case study.

The implications (if this is approved, and works) go well beyond basketball. Assuming these rapid tests are widely available and not unduly expensive (though the Warriors have admittedly spent somewhere in the range of $30 million on this plan), it’s not hard to see this general format being deployed at other live events, and even more importantly: schools.

What could go wrong?

As hopeful as everyone is that this plan will work, and is scalable to other arenas and possibly other events, the downside here is tremendous.

Currently, San Francisco is far from approving any sort of large public gathering - much less at the scale proposed by Golden State. With the Washington Post reporting today that new daily coronavirus cases in U.S. rose to 145,000 in yet another consecutive all-time high for the World, America is flat out getting our collective asses kicked.

At this scale, a few infected people could superspread the entire Bay Area into a large outbreak, much like the Sturgis motorcycle rally helped spread the virus all throughout middle America. Even with tight assurances (and these new rapid tests are reported to be significantly more accurate) there’s still a non-zero chance here. And therein lies the most brutal aspect of this virus: it’s more akin to unknowingly being a drunk driver than just a simple flu, with each case potentially cascading through a community. Is that risk worth it, just so nine thousand people can see live basketball?

That’s a really tough question, and something that will be individually decided even after any government approval. One way or another though, Lacob is doing his normal aggressive response, and looking to attack a problem that has frozen our normal public health response mechanisms.