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The WNBA and NWSL Have Proven That Bubbles Work

HERRIMAN, UT - JULY 01: Lynn Williams #9 of North Carolina Courage celebrates during a game between North Carolina Courage and Washington Spirit at Zions Bank Stadium on July 01, 2020 in Herriman, Utah. (Photo by Bryan Byerly/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

With a successful NWSL Challenge Cup completed and a promising start to the WNBA season, women’s professional sports are looking to make gains during these unprecedented times. Most US professional sports leagues have started play within isolated bubbles, and the WNBA and NWSL have set the standard with few to none COVID-19 cases and record-breaking viewership.

Currently, in an effort to complete their full 22-game regular season, the WNBA is isolating their 12 teams at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. All WNBA players, coaches, staff and referees are living in hotel rooms and villas within the bubble while games are played at the Feld Entertainment Center, about 20 minutes away by bus.

Since entering into the bubble, the WNBA has reported zero new positive cases of COVID-19. Players and staff arrived on July 6th — 18 days before the season tip off — in order to quarantine. Before even departing for Florida, every player was tested for COVID-19 three times and then tested once more upon arrival. Of the 137 players, 7 tested positive and were made to self-isolate and satisfy CDC guidelines before being allowed to join the other teams in Florida.

During the initial quarantine period, a few players complained about the quality of food and lodging in the bubble; however, the league quickly addressed those issues by moving players and remedying the food situation. Now that the quarantine period is over and the season has begun, players are given more freedom on the IMG campus — players can hang out in the hotel lounge and at the pool, areas which have been prepped with social distancing measures. Players are also given a range of food options on campus or can opt to have groceries delivered and cook for themselves in their villas.

“Food has been great. Service has been great. People have had issues with their housing. but there is no protocol for this, and the league took care of it,” Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury said. “This is the first time anyone has done this. The WNBA has gone far and beyond what I thought would happen.”

While inside the bubble, players are tested regularly for COVID-19 and are required to log their temperature every day using personal thermometers. Masks are required throughout the IMG bubble and social distancing measures have been put in place. No media or fans are allowed at the games.

The WNBA shares a number of COVID-19 prevention protocols with the NBA; however, there are a few stark differences in how each league is approaching bubble play. First, the WNBA cohort is much smaller in size. Each WNBA team was allowed to bring 18 people into the bubble — 12 players and 6 staff members. Each NBA team, on the other hand, was allowed to bring double the personnel, with 37 members. And, unlike the NBA bubble, there is no “hotline” to report protocol violations at the IMG Academy. However, WNBA players who are caught breaking protocol will face “serious ramifications,” according to Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.

Before the WNBA even began their successful bubble play, the NWSL set the blueprint for how to run a professional sporting event during a pandemic. The women’s professional soccer league finished their month-long Challenge Cup on July 26th and became the first US professional sports league to complete an event during the COVID-19 crisis. Before the tournament, the Orlando Pride were forced to withdraw due to too many positive COVID tests (some of which were later proven to be false-positives). While isolating in Utah, however, the NWSL reported zero COVID-19 cases.

With similar protocols to other leagues — no fans, regular testing, isolating players and staff — the NWSL was the first league to prove that the bubble system can work and be successful. During the Challenge Cup, the league attracted record-breaking viewership, gained new sponsors and announced a new Los Angeles expansion team.

As North Carolina Courage’s Crystal Dunn said, “The NWSL captured the audience because we were the first league to return back to play, but also because the games were close and competitive.”

While women’s professional leagues have proven that bubble play can work and be successful, a number of men’s leagues are continuing their efforts to play games in home markets (eventually) with fans despite overwhelming evidence that it is unsafe to do so. The MLS, MLB, NFL and college football have all announced that they are scheduling games outside of a bubble system. This comes just weeks after the MLB reported outbreaks within both the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals organizations, and the MLS saw two teams pull out of their tournament due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

The NWSL and the WNBA have shown how to successfully host professional sporting events during a pandemic. It remains unclear whether other leagues will follow in their footsteps or ignore the risks and attempt to play outside a bubble.