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Safe Returns to Sports: How HVAC & Technology impacts the NBA’s return

Updated: Feb 18, 2022

Sports fans rejoiced on June 4, 2020, as Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN announced that the National Basketball Association would move ahead with its plan to resume their season at Disney World’s Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Florida.

While the full details of the return still need to be hashed out, an important part of any return to play plan was guaranteeing a controlled environment to prevent players from either getting sick or spreading the disease to other members of the league. Notably, nothing in this plan gives a clear indication of when the league will welcome fans back into the stadium.

One of the lasting images of the 2019-2020 season, after all, will be the mass exodus from fans attending the Utah Jazz-Oklahoma City Thunder match-up on March 11, the day Utah stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell both tested positive for the coronavirus.

Four-and-a-half months later, both Utah and Oklahoma City will be among the 22 teams returning to finish their season in central Florida.

Rightfully, players and coaches are all concerned about how safe the potential of a return to the field will be, especially for those with young children or dependent family members who may have a pre-existing condition. Stars including Avery Bradley of the Los Angeles Lakers, Trevor Ariza of the Portland Trail Blazers, and Davis Bertans of the Washington Wizards opted out of the league’s Disney return.

However, based on an extensive, one-hundred-plus-page document set forth by the league office, there’s a lot of consideration for the health and safety of all NBA employees.

“Our priority continues to be the health and safety of all involved, and we are working with public health experts and government officials on a comprehensive set of guidelines to ensure that appropriate medical protocols and protections are in place," NBA Chief Communications Officer Mike Bass said in a league-wide statement.

In order to solidify the league’s ability to mitigate health concerns for the long term, there’s going to be new considerations across the league, one that’s consistently growing in popularity and attracting more fans to the arena each year.

The NBA’s Big Bet on the Wide World of Sports Complex has formidable Air Handling and Technology Advantages

Amidst one of the trickiest logistical challenges in the history of sports, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver evaluated copious amounts of options before settling on the league’s 22-team format at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex.

After weighing the pros and cons of all, the league took the leap to return in Orlando, a place where they strongly believed they could best deter the spread of coronavirus while also giving players access to necessary amenities to thrive at the highest level.

One of the big benefits to the Wide World of Sports complex will be its state-of-the-art air handling system, which was installed in 2018, represent two of the largest systems of their kind on Disney’s expansive campus.

Team owners, coaches, and players really need an environment where they don’t have to stress about the constant threat of contracting the virus; the intent of the bubble is to eliminate that risk. With advancements in air quality monitoring, especially as more cities install tracking equipment in their downtown areas, the NBA should be able to use Disney’s HVAC systems to their advantage.

Strong filtration and air quality monitoring should go a long way towards solidifying the confidence amongst those planning to make the trip to Orlando this July.

Technologies that Offer Promising Solutions

There are technologies available to all members of the Orlando bubble that not only offer the ability to add a safety element to a tricky situation but should offer insights with benefits for the public.

One of the most interesting pieces of technology revealed in recent weeks is the Oura ring, which will be available to all involved parties at the NBA’s Wide World of Sports complex set-up, including owners, coaches, players, reporters, family members, and even Disney staff members. The unique piece of health technology accurately detects Coronavirus up to three days early at a rate of 90% accuracy but also reveals whether a player is especially susceptible to infection due to a variety of elements including lack of sleep and air quality.

While personal technologies provide comforts on an individual basis, it’s important to consider the overall health conditions of the facility, in addition to the league’s ability to track them in real-time.

It’ll be interesting to see what teams attempt to use as air quality measurements, as they’ll likely want to do everything in their power to make sure their best players hold on to their health long enough to finish the 2019-2020 season.

Based on guidance from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) in their "Guidance for Building Operations During the COVID-19 Pandemic" document, the operators at the Disney facility should, "improve central air filtration to the MERV-13 or the highest compatible with the filter rack, and seal edges of the filter to limit bypass."

Installing high-graded air filtration and quality control systems wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, especially in workout and practice areas. With so many contact points in a training facility, from weights to floor mats to the basketballs themselves, it would seem to benefit the bubble to invest in additional air quality control units.

Displacement Ventilation Weighs Heavy on the Future of Home-Court Basketball

With teams shoved into Orlando in the short term, the real work comes over the next few months, as owners prepare for the 2020-2021 NBA season, one where they’d love to host fans and games in safe environments.

One team set a precedent for air conditioning in arenas is the Sacramento Kings, who opened the doors to their innovative Golden One Center in 2016. Including amenities that allow the fans to provide feedback that allows fans to control its climate, the world’s first LEED Platinum-certified arena also includes one of the first displacement ventilation systems in the league.

Displacement ventilation is an exciting solution for arenas that will certainly impact future decisions for owners.

While the Sacramento Kings implemented this change with the comfort of fans in mind, future basketball arena owners might plan on adding displacement ventilation to their facility, especially if it means keeping fans in the stadium.

The NBA will be a great test case, as long as the season proceeds

Targeting a July 30, 2020 return to the court to kick-off the Orlando season conclusion, the NBA will be one of the major sports leagues under the biggest microscopes.

With coronavirus cases spiking in Florida at the end of June, with the MLS planning to open up its season between Miami and Orlando locations on July 8, 2020, fans will watch closely to see if a return to play yields a spike in cases around the league or if their bubble works in a successful manner.

We’re still living in a world without guarantees, so there’s no way to say for sure the NBA’s season will come to fruition, and even if it does, a large outbreak could force the league to cancel their playoffs.

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