By Jason Siegel
As COVID-19 ravaged amateur and professional sports throughout the world in the summer of 2020, Central Florida once again found a magical secret sauce to become an international destination:
ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex at Walt Disney World has become home to the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Major League Soccer (MLS). With eyes from all over the world upon us, Central Florida is now the epicenter of sports, refusing to be part of the collateral damage of COVID-19.
The cumulative effect will leave a legacy that will be remembered in sports history. Once the NBA Finals are over in October, the media value and associated exposure of the two leagues playing games and matches featuring international sports superstars over the course of three-and-a-half months will exceed the media value of the Summer Olympics.
Standing ovation, Disney. Standing ovation, Orlando. You’ve earned it.
Our hometown Orlando Magic embarked on their most meaningful part of the season in mid-August as they began the playoffs facing the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. And our Orlando City Soccer club just wrapped up a magical, pixie dust-infused run to the finals during the 35-day “MLS is Back” tournament at ESPN Wide World of Sports. Both spent a significant period inside what will be forever known as “The Bubble.”
Simply put, this is all remarkable. It was impossible to imagine just a few months back, when COVID-19 placed an obstacle at every turn.
When the credits roll at the end of summer, the number of people to recognize will be endless: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and MLS Commissioner Don Garber. League officials and team owners. The players and their leadership at their associations. The Walt Disney Company and leadership at ESPN Wide World of Sports. Elected officials with Orange and Osceola counties and the City of Orlando, with Mayors Jerry Demings and Buddy Dyer leading the way. The Florida Department of Health in partnership with Orlando Health and AdventHealth. All of you please take a bow.
And then there’s the supporting cast of staff on campus: ground crews and hotel staff and operations personnel and
photographers and clock operators and sportswriters and barbers and chefs and bus drivers and airport officials.
‘It Could Work’
Remember, all of this was imagined and executed in four months starting with Utah’s Rudy Goebert testing positive for the coronavirus on March 11, the day America’s sports scene hit the pause button. Paused but not stopped. MLS restarted on July 8. The NBA restarted on July 30.
Credit the leadership of Alex Martins, CEO of the Magic, and Alex Leitao, CEO of City Soccer, for making it happen.
“After the league decided to suspend operations, every idea was on the table for safe and healthy ways to bring us back, which led me to ESPN Wide World of Sports that belongs to our partners at Walt Disney World Resort,” Leitao said. “With 17 fields and an entire hotel complex, the infrastructure was there to accommodate all our needs. After a lot of discussion, we felt it could work. Everybody really looked to putting this together, and at the end of the day, it was a big success.
“There was a lot of pride to do that here in Orlando as the eyes of the soccer world were on our city, and that was something I thought would be important for everybody here in the community. The only thing I wanted was to come back in a safe way, and the fact that we did that here in Orlando, with the idea that we brought and we talked about, it was great.”
When asked about the decision to move forward with the soccer tournament at ESPN Wide World of Sports, MLS Commissioner Garber had this response: “We had such uncertainty as to when we would be able to return to our stadiums … as you know, we only had two games to kick off our 25th season. We have a close relationship with Disney, we knew that they were not having guests come to the parks, so several months ago we engaged with Disney and with leadership at ESPN to talk about, ‘Is this something we can put together?’ Lots of hard work, lots of difficult discussions, with so many different constituents.”
The NBA would follow suit as it set up The Bubble at Disney’s expansive property. It’s a quarantined environment spread out over four hotels and three arenas, with some 1,500 people moving and interacting while keeping social distancing protocols in place.
“It was a bit overwhelming to see,” Silver told Sports Illustrated. “To see our players together playing basketball, that what we had worked through over many months on paper, on our computer screens, had come to life, I’d say it was moving to me.”
The NBA 2.0 reorg hasn’t come cheap — the total cost will be around $170 million — but it has worked, and the league is moving along briskly heading into the playoffs. Players, initially leery of a lockdown, have settled into routines. “Months ago, there was a lot of trepidation and there were a lot of people concerned about how it would work and the safety of it,” Martins said. “There were a lot of discussions that had to take place with the players association to ensure the players felt comfortable. But I will tell you this: The league has done a spectacular job.”
Martins has been privileged to be one of the few people to get a firsthand look at the three Disney venues hosting games. The most jarring aspect of it was playing with no audience.
“Literally, beyond the teams that are playing and the referees and the scoring crew, the ball boys, et cetera, it’s varied from game to game, but it’s been as few as 10 or 20 people in the building watching the game,” he said. “So, when you’re used to having tens of thousands of people cheering and watching the game, it’s really, really surreal.”
A Magical Experience
And while we’re handing out accolades, it’s important to understand why Orlando works. We have a community of elected officials and business and tourism leaders who understand how to collaborate and work together. In this case, it’s about providing a safe environment for a return to professional and amateur play.
The world knows about our world-class international airport, theme parks, attractions and hotel capacity of 125,000 rooms. Our visitors also know there’s a common thread that runs through the fabric of our host community that screams, “You will have a magical experience when you visit Orlando, Florida.”
It’s that brand equity and how the world views Orlando that makes us a top international destination for families, thrill seekers and life enthusiasts — and in this case, our extended sports family.
What they didn’t know was whether a tournament could work here four months into a pandemic. Outside of The Bubble at Disney, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) held its volleyball tournament at the Orange County Convention Center, the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) held its Arnold Palmer Invitational Junior at Bay Hill, and World Wrestling Entertainment set up camp at the Amway Center for the next three to four months.
Now they know. It has worked.
“I’m really glad we pushed forward with this and ran it,” AAU President Roger Goudy said. “Because even though it went off without a hitch and the kids and parents seemed extremely happy, I think we learned some things where we could refine it a little further.”
AAU hosted 10,000 participants, friends and family at the OCCC in mid-July.
“Everyone came in with a mask on and realized how important that is in the process right now,” OCCC Executive Director Mark Tester said. “Unless you were playing, you were required to wear a mask. And the most enlightening thing was that no one came in and said, ‘I won’t do it.’ They realized how important it is in the world today.”
Orlando dared to do the impossible during an international health crisis. As always, it opened its arms to the world and said, “Come on down, we are ready for business. Now let’s have some fun … safely.”
It was far more complicated than that, of course. It took the work of thousands of people to make it happen. Through it all, The Bubble hasn’t popped.
Standing ovation, Disney. Standing ovation, Orlando. You’ve earned it.
JASON SIEGEL is president and CEO of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission. Longtime Orlando sportswriter George Diaz contributed to this article.