[Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the number of days which Andrews was quarantined once she entered the bubble. It was four days, not seven.]
The first glimpse ESPN reporter Malika Andrews saw of the NBA’s ‘bubble’ was the sight of Walt Disney World rides listlessly moving back and forth – with no passengers.
As the sole potential customer at a Disney theme park, Andrews thought she was either experiencing a child’s wildest dreams, or trapped in a horror movie set at an empty theme park.
“Some of the rides were still going. But there was nobody on them,” Andrews told Front Office Sports from inside the NBA bubble in Orlando. “That has a sense of eeriness to it.”
That disorienting picture was a preview of what awaited the NBA reporter as she dove inside the most expensive and ambitious attempt to bring back live sports during the global coronavirus pandemic safely.
Andrews is one of only 10 or so “Group 1” reporters who will be admitted to the NBA bubble, which started welcoming 22 teams last week to restart the suspended season by July 31.
Andrews admits she thought twice about the assignment. Reporters must agree to stay inside the bubble for three months. They must undergo daily COVID-19 testing. They can only move between their hotel and the practice and competition venues.
But Andrews seized on the chance to tell the story of the NBA comeback to millions of global basketball fans.
“I’m not going to lie. I was nervous. I’m a bit of a hypochondriac. I have bouts with anxiety,” said Andrews. “But first and foremost, I cover sports. I love journalism first. And sports journalism is what I do. This is an incredible journalistic opportunity. There are only 10 reporters and a handful of other folks who are going to be able to experience this and document it first-hand. It’s documenting history.”
Andrews has been inside the bubble for over a week, contributing daily reports to Mike Greenberg’s “Get Up,” Robin Roberts’ “Good Morning America” on ABC, and multiple “SportsCenter” editions.
Wearing a mask and gloves, she’s described player reaction to the setup, the daily coronavirus testing, and her room service meals. At times Andrews looks like she’s starring in a sci-fi movie, as she explains the various high-tech gadgets the league asks guests to wear, including a social distance monitor/buzzer that reminds wearers to stay socially distanced six feet apart. She also inputs her body temperature and pulse rates every day into an NBA medical app.
“I keep getting asked if I’m bored? The answer is absolutely not. There’s so much reporting to be done; my days are just packed,” she said. Andrews said she has also taken up meditation to remain on an even keel.
Mike Shiffman, ESPN’s vice president of production, said Andrews is the right reporter to convey life in the bubble to curious outsiders.
“Malika is an extremely talented and versatile reporter who has the ability to make impactful contributions to a variety of platforms,” he said. “Whether its live ‘Sports Center’ updates, radio and podcast appearances, or digital content, Malika can go from one platform to the next effectively and seamlessly, and that’s really what this assignment requires.”
Three months quarantined inside a luxury resort sounds appealing to some. But the bubble is not fun and games for NBA players or the media.
On July 9, Florida set a daily record high of 120 coronavirus-related deaths. The state has totaled nearly 234,000 confirmed cases, according to the Florida Department of Health.
As if potentially deadly contagion leaks aren’t enough, there’s the cost. The NBA will have to shell out $150 million on the bubble, according to ESPN. With no money coming in from live ticket sales and concessions, the league could lose over a billion dollars from the pandemic.
Nobody gets a free ride in the bubble, not even the NBA’s TV partners ESPN or Turner Sports’ TNT.
Media organizations must pledge their reporters will stay inside the bubble from their arrival day through October 13. Those with approved access pay $550 per day. They get a hotel room on the secure campus, three meals a day, and transportation to practice and game venues. No media organization can have more than one reporter at the same time. In September, they’re allowed to swap out reporters. But that process would cost an additional $4,500.
The NBA’s mania over health and safety begins well in advance for approved bubble reporters like Andrews.
First, she had to self-quarantine at her home in New York City for seven days. After flying down to Orlando, she was picked up by a driver at the airport. He quickly showed her a photo of his negative COVID-19 test result on his cell phone before he even took her luggage.
After another three nights self-quarantining at a holdover hotel in Orlando, Andrews and her producer were bussed over to Walt Disney World. There they officially entered the bubble.
During a hands-free check-in, she was given a room key in a plastic bag and told to self-quarantine for another four days. Her meals were left outside her door at 8 a.m., 12 noon, and 6 p.m. Eventually, she decided to skip lunch in favor of just breakfast and dinner.
“The folks here brought us so much food that I felt wasteful having three meals brought,” she said.
Once a day, Andrews walked two minutes to a hotel ballroom to undergo her daily coronavirus swab test. To keep in shape, she worked out in her room using a Peloton app on her phone.
She’s run into fellow NBA reporter Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports and TNT in the hallways. The two commiserate over how to navigate the byzantine pathways of what the league calls “NBA Comeback 2020.”
Some NBA stars like Damian Lillard have compared the bubble to a prison. But Andrews dismisses the idea.
“Here’s the thing. Right now, in the American prison system, we’re seeing cases of coronavirus surge. We’re seeing prisoners be left unprotected. Everything that’s being done down here, asking us to stay confined, all of that’s done in the name of our safety, not despite it,” she said.
“The food is pretty delicious. The league has been accommodating about getting gym equipment to my room,” she said. “I don’t know what prison comes even close to having that sort of accommodations. Not just for players, but for the staff and media as well. So it’s a silly comparison to call it a prison.”
Once NBA games start for real, Andrews and other reporters will have to make some adjustments. There’s no locker room access at any time inside the bubble. Most of the interviews will be done virtually or from a safe distance.
NBA insiders can’t do their “walk and talk” interviews with players in hallways or team bus staging areas as they can’t get within 12 feet of players and coaches. That means reporters and producers will either have to employ two microphones -for themselves and their subject – or long-range boom mics to pick up sound.
Despite the hassles, Andrews remembers her ultimate audience: NBA fans at home.
“It’s our responsibility to bring the fans here because there will be no fan that will get to have this experience. We want to show them what we’re going through, what we’re seeing, what we’re hearing – and be their eyes and ears on the ground,” she said.
Meanwhile, she’s getting barraged with media peers’ questions about to enter the bubble themselves: What should they pack? How’s the food? What’s the daily testing process? Can they ship gear in and out?
“There’s definitely been a lot of curiosity. But this is such a strange experience, there’s nothing else to draw on that’s similar,” she said. “So it’s understandable there are so many questions.”
Once she gets out of the bubble Andrew wants two things: a haircut and sushi.
Ironically, the Oakland native had never visited a Disney theme park before entering the bubble. When this is all over, she plans to hit up the empty rides she saw on her way in. Yes, like many Super Bowl MVPs, Malika Andrews says she’s going to Disneyland.
“My mother and my sister and I have vowed that we’ll be making a Disney trip when all this is said and done.”