Like most things last spring, the 2019-2020 NBA season was postponed when the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread at alarming rates. The regular season resumed in July of 2020 with all games, including the playoffs, relocated to a secure “bubble” on the Disney World campus. Led by Lebron James, the Los Angeles Lakers were the eventual NBA champions. It was James’s fourth NBA championship and he claimed it was one of the most difficult to secure. According to James, not having fans in the arena was especially disorienting because “the fans are what makes the game.”
This concept of the sports audience as a supporter of a team, is tied to a history of regionalism that connects athletes or clubs with locations where fandom is inherited. National broadcasting complicated this definition of fandom, and the global proliferation of sports leagues and media rights deals has only diluted the regionality of sports further. The growth of digital fan practices like fantasy sports, sports gambling, and collecting has further pushed the definition of sports fandom to represent something more like speculative fandom found in scripted programming. In this formulation, watching basketball is less about supporting a team and more about predicting what is going to happen. Sports leagues are keen to foster this latter type of fandom because it ensures an audience for their games no matter which teams are playing. The NBA’s broadcasts from within “the bubble” provided an especially apt metaphor for the league’s fandom preferences.
To bring fans to the games in the “bubble,” the NBA partnered with Microsoft to teleconference a team’s supporters courtside. A wall of disembodied heads clad in the home team’s colors provided the background to games. Amusingly, the virtual fans that “attended” the games were often watching lagging feeds so their reactions were often seconds behind the game action. In an August 4th game between the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers, Devin Booker hit a spectacular game winning shot. In the slow-motion replays of the shot, the virtual Clipper’s fans can be seen in various states of upset, as it appears they know that the shot will be going in before it even leaves Booker’s hand. In fact, they are reacting to the lag in the video stream as they are seeing a play that happened seconds before when Suns forward Mikal Bridges steals the ball and sets up Booker’s game winner. The virtual fans sent to support their team are behind the action, unable to wave their hands to distract the opponent or motivate their teams in ways that would normally be appropriate in the arena. The disconnection between the experience of the two kinds of fans of the game demonstrates the privileging of speculative fandom in a way that only the pandemic could reveal.