Skip to content

IN-PERSON is a podcast series that tells the stories behind the world's most daring events and the people who make them happen.

Music by Winesap.

 

GUEST SUBMISSIONS
By Industry
By Topic
By Role
feather_search

43 | Joey Graziano, NBA: How the NBA Designed the Bubble

  • April 22, 2021
  • 27:03

Joey Graziano (SVP of Business Operations and Global Events, NBA) shares the story of how the NBA completely redesigned attendee experience and created the famous NBA Bubble in response to COVID-19.

You can also listen on these platforms:

Top Takeaways

1

"Most obstacles are imaginary, the rest only temporary."

2

"It’s a completely irrational decision to get off the couch."

3

"If you're going to be a bear, be a Grizzly."

ABOUT Joey Graziano

Joey Graziano is the Senior Vice President of Global Business Operations and Global Events at the NBA.

Joey leads strategic planning, business development, data analytics, and process improvement for the NBA's marquee global events, including the NBA All-Star Game, NBA Finals presented by YouTube TV, and NBA draft. He and his team also orchestrated the NBA Bubble.

Episode Transcript

BRANDON:
Hello, and welcome back to IN-PERSON brought to you by Bizzabo. In case you and I haven't already met, I'm Brandon Rafalson, and in each episode of IN-PERSON, we explore the world's most daring events and the people who make them happen.

BRANDON:
Today is a very special episode that I'm stoked to share with you. In May 2020, the Bizzabo team brought together thousands of events and marketing professionals to discuss how to adapt to the realities of COVID-19.

BRANDON:
Then in November 2020, we did the same to answer two questions: How can we double down on the best practices for virtual events today, and how can we plan for the hybrid event programs of tomorrow?

BRANDON:
Then in March 2021, we brought the events community together, yet again, to share success stories that will help inspire our strategies moving forward. The resulting event was called Reimagine Experience, and today's episode combines our two keynote sessions from the event with Joey Graziano, Senior Vice President, Global Business Operations and Global Events at the NBA.

BRANDON:
Joey leads strategic planning, business development, data analytics, and process improvement for the NBA's marquee global events, including the NBA All-Star Game, NBA Finals presented by YouTube TV, and NBA draft. He and his team also orchestrated the NBA Bubble that you may have heard about, even if you're not someone who considers yourself really a basketball person. And trust me, even if you're not a basketball person, I highly encourage you to keep listening for the stories, tips, and inspiration that Joey shares.

BRANDON:
Now, specifically, in this episode, Joey pulls back the curtain on how he and his team took an imaginative approach to accommodating the reality of the pandemic. The difference between imaginary and temporary obstacles, driving social and economic impact through live experiences, and how the NBA is thinking about blending digital and in-person experiences moving forward.

BRANDON:
It's a ride of a conversation where we cover the logistics of running a small city, how the NBA partnered with Disney, and why you would ever want to run towards the fire. I think you're really going to enjoy this one. Let's get to it.

BRANDON:
Joey, it's an honor to chat with you.

JOEY:
Thanks, Brandon. I appreciate the time.

BRANDON:
So we're going to review a few questions that commonly come up. I mean, you're asked to speak on your experience with the Bubble and the NBA quite a bit and how your team reacted.

BRANDON:
So to hop right into it, Joey, could you describe the reality one year ago from today? When did the NBA realized that a plan was needed for responding to this reality of the pandemic?

JOEY:
NBA is a truly global business. We've got offices around the world. We've got basketball fans around the world. Our health professionals around the world were thinking about COVID, actually, far in advance of when it came to the US, and our team was starting to work on contingency plans as early as the fall of 2019.

JOEY:
We actually had our first event impacted by COVID, which was the 2020 All-Star Game, which was a great success in Chicago, but there were many of our colleagues and fans around the world that weren't able to attend because of travel restrictions associated with COVID-19.

JOEY:
And so, one of the first things that we did was we put together a truly global taskforce of medical and health professionals that could help us respond to the pandemic. And in doing that, we created a number of models of how we could potentially continue playing basketball through the pandemic.

JOEY:
Now, we certainly weren't prognosticators to think that a year later, we'd still be sitting here on Zooms and talking through this, but we certainly recognized that the world was going through something unprecedented. And as part of that, one of the models that we certainly created, and we're actually leaning towards a year ago, was a model where we would have only essential personnel in the arena, and we would have no fans.

JOEY:
It's actually a model we didn't get to use at the time, certainly. As many know, we ended up going with a bubble to resume our games, but it was a model we're actually using a year later in many of our cities right now to be able to safely host basketball games and to continue our season.

JOEY:
But out of that work and so much pre-planning, one of the things that came about was that our leadership, and from Adam Silver on down, was that we were going to make a very sort of mark in the sand moment which was that if an NBA player tested positive for COVID-19, we were going to stop the season. We didn't know what was going to happen next, but we were going to stop it and use it as a moment to reflect and to figure out what our best next steps were.

JOEY:
That moment, obviously, happened on March 11 of 2020 when we had a player on the Utah Jazz test positive. And I think we got a lot of credit in that moment for our ability to make a seamless decision and in many ways, to lead a model for around the world to shut down. I'm really proud of our decision. But to me, it's just an example of incredible leadership, and the best leaders I've ever met are able to take complex subjects and simplify them for their audience.

JOEY:
And in that moment, our leadership took a really complex subject, "How do you navigate COVID? When do you shut down or continue," and we were able to simplify it by saying, "When this happens, if this happens, if a player tests positive, there is no decision that needs to be made. We're going to pause our season and figure out what's next."

JOEY:
And so I think that was a reflective moment and one that, again, is a reminder of the work that needs to happen to take really hard and difficult topics and simplify them for the group that you're leading.

BRANDON:
It's super impressive on its own and especially, given the circumstances. I mean, again, it's hard to imagine a year ago, but there was so much uncertainty about what was going on, best practices, how to respond to it. And the fact that the organization was so quickly able to sort of put a pause on things and March 11th, when that COVID case did pop up, is a true testament to the operation that you all put on.

BRANDON:
One of the things that you mentioned, Joey, is this idea of different models that you were looking at and experimenting with. I know this is something that's super top of mind to our audiences right now as we think about how we might approach models moving forward throughout this year.

BRANDON:
What did the drawing board look like for the NBA? What were some of the questions that you've asked, and were there any solutions or ideas that didn't really make it through?

JOEY:
There was a small team of about eight of us that started working, as soon as we got back from Chicago for the 2020 All-Star Game, that included our health team, our strategy team, certainly a number of medical professionals and outside experts that were able to give us guidance and our basketball operations team, where we started working, frankly, 15 hours a day, seven days a week from the first week of March. And in that, we produced over 10,000 different slides with various return models, timelines, strategies to be able to think about creating a safe environment.

JOEY:
And there was a sign that I kept above my computer from March. That was something that has been sort of meaningful to me which was that, "Most obstacles are imaginary. The rest only temporary." And so with each of these models, we continued to find problems with them. And the group that I led, my constant mantra was, "It's either an imaginary problem. It's in our heads. We've got to just find a solution to it," or, "It's a temporary problem. With time and additional information, we'll be able to find a way to overcome it."

JOEY:
And so our early models were focused... and I think it's easy right now to forget how scary the months of March, April, and May were when our health professionals and our health organizations were overrun. We didn't actually know all of the causes of COVID. We certainly didn't know what the best treatments were. And we were locked inside, away from so many of our current connection points, our jobs, and I think our early models, we started to think about a voluntary model. Could we put together something where some of our players could opt in, just so that we could get basketball back on television, give people a respite, a moment of hope and opportunity to know that things will get better.

JOEY:
And so we thought about it in many of the ways that you now see, actually, like reality television coming back, where they're able to have people opt in, create some isolation and with time, are able to bring back some content and some things for people to sort of distract themselves from some of the harsh realities of the day.

JOEY:
But as we moved along, we recognized that the pandemic wasn't going anywhere. This was going to be a prolonged impact on our business. And so we had to find something a little more permanent as a solution, and that allowed us to pivot to the ideas around a campus. Everyone knows it as the Bubble, where would have to be able to prioritize health and safety, keep people healthy for multiple months at a time. And as we did that, we started to evaluate all sorts of cities. The amount of cities that got sent or put bids in or figured out we were starting to think about this as news broke was incredible.

JOEY:
I had places I'd never heard of, remote places off the grid which, in some ways, were really interesting. Places in far-flung South Dakota were like, "We'd be perfect. No one's ever come here. This is why you should run a Bubble. We have no COVID here." We've looked at places in Hawaii. We actually were focused on China because we thought if COVID had hit earlier in China than it had in the US and our thought was that if it was the first place to be hit, it would actually be the first place to come back. And so we were thinking heavily about, "Could we do this in China?"

JOEY:
But we landed on our partners in Orlando and Disney, in part, because we were in the same boat. We both had our businesses dramatically impacted, and we were both looking for operational models and realized that we had to have a level of creativity that we've never approached our business with. And I can say that the smartest decision we made was working with Disney and Orlando. We were the right partners at the right time. It's not possible for me to overstate their impact on our success.

JOEY:
We just finished up another Bubble there with our G League that just returned in Orlando and although we're not using them for the NBA season this year, the volume of solutions that we came up with from everything to cleaning, disinfecting, food, air circulation. Most of the solutions we came up with, we did together through our mad scientists between us and our friends at Disney. It was a great partnership.

BRANDON:
I think there's something really beautiful there and what you just mentioned of how you found a great synergy with Disney. I know that's something that a lot of folks in the events industry are thinking about right now, "Who are partners or just folks that we can really find a solution to this situation that we ordinarily wouldn't look to." So that's so cool to hear.

BRANDON:
What were the guiding principles amidst all of these operations that you prioritized for the Bubble?

JOEY:
It certainly started with health and safety. I think we were acutely aware that we were responsible for over 8,000 people's lives who are going to be working in this. And our health professionals were, very early on, the importance of daily testing for events, mask-wearing, physical distancing. I give a lot of credit to our Chief Medical Officer, Dave Weiss, who was an early adopter of HVACs and air circulation and the reasons why that was going to be so important.

JOEY:
But I would say we were equally focused on the mental health of all of our participants, recognizing that what we were asking them to do was going to be anxiety-ridden. It was something that no one's ever been asked to sacrifice. And so our leadership in there... I think one of the things I learned was that we had to be radically candid with our audience because in moments of stress and anxiety, time just accelerates. It moved so quickly, days were flying by at that moment, and in this moment of crisis, I thought our candor and consistency... I led over 150 separate orientations with different groups from players to media to coaches to our staff, and that was a key piece of our ability to be able to deliver a healthy and safe environment.

JOEY:
The second was that if we were going to do this, it had to be about more than basketball. We were committed and our players were certainly committed to using this platform to address systemic racism and social injustice in our country. And that was at every touchpoint from how the court was dressed to all of our media interviews and our content opportunities.

JOEY:
And certainly, and many know that we paused our NBA playoffs in the first round and rallied together in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake. The Milwaukee Bucks and our NBA players led to some incredible initiatives around voting and getting out the vote and polling that we're really proud of, given that we were always going to remain focused on a larger issue than basketball, and that was systemic racism in this country.

JOEY:
I think the last one for us that was really important was a commitment together about how we would tackle this really hard challenge. COVID really impacted our connection, our way of life. It brought new fears and uncertainties into our existence that we could have never imagined a year ago. David Stern, the former Commissioner of the NBA, is a mentor to many of us. And he said, "You'll ultimately be defined in life by the sum total of your responses to circumstances and situations that you couldn't anticipate and could not even imagine." And I felt like we were in one of those moments.

JOEY:
The Bubble gave us our opportunity to punch back, to reclaim just a small piece of who we were and what we cared about. It was one of those defining moments. I call it and I was there when moment. I was there when the NBA was able to find a way to restart under the most impossible odds.

JOEY:
And these moments, they define our lives. They define our professional lives, in particular, but they don't come around often enough, and when they do, they require additional effort. They require more sacrifices. They require us to push harder, to think differently.

JOEY:
I was taught that at a very young age. My father... I grew up in the house of a New York City fireman who was in 9/11, and we live by a simple code in our house. This is a man I admire, and his rule in our house was that when your neighbor's house is on fire, you run towards that fire. And that became a mantra from all of us was that our NBA house was on fire, so we started running,

BRANDON:
We've talked a lot about these different plans and ideas that you and your team are working on. When it comes to actually putting it into execution, what did that framework look like, that structure, those logistics that really had to come into play for the Bubble?

JOEY:
It was an unprecedented build. This was the largest and most complex event in the history of the NBA. We looked at it like we had to build an entire city, and we had one month to do it.

JOEY:
So when we think about things that came up in that city, and I think some small examples that will probably highlight the level of complexity was that we used five separate hotels, 140,000 room nights. And in those hotel rooms, Disney, as wonderful as it is, is made for families, not for 7'2" centers. So we had to come out and go get 800 extra-long king beds that had to be custom made. That's not normally something that exists at your local mattress company.

JOEY:
We needed to use one and a half million transportation rides that all had to be clean transportation with daily tested drivers following physical distancing guidelines.

JOEY:
We had to build nine separate NBA-ready practice facilities. It took 14 trucks from around the country just to deliver the courts required for all these practice courts.

JOEY:
We had a team of three who spent their entire three months just designing the practice schedules because every day, 22 teams had to practice across these courts, and there were three-hour practice windows. And then between each practice time, you had an hour to disinfect. So an entire team would swarm in and start disinfecting all the practice facilities so that the next team could use it, and sort of orchestrating that was one of the most complex math problems I've seen as an event professional.

JOEY:
We had a team of 10 who only thought about the warehouse. So we had between 900 and 1,000 packages come in a day from Amazon and FedEx and UPS. And all of these had to be processed, disinfected, sanitized, and then delivered. I think they're the unsung heroes because none of us were able to leave this campus, so our only way to get stuff in was to order it, and the stuff that came in and ordered in, it was amazing. Everything from cribs, strollers at times, things to keep yourself entertained, the wildest stuff that came in through that warehouse.

JOEY:
We had to think about laundry. We had to build a basketball-ready laundry facility of 70 washers and dryers where the old Atlanta Braves used to use their hitting facility at the complex, and so I had to think about laundry completely different.

JOEY:
And at the same time, we wanted to make sure that we were driving local economic impact, that we were helping small businesses. And so, when we thought about our food and beverage program, not only did we use Disney, but we also used 10 minority-owned restaurants, and we were able to keep them in business by serving all of the off-campus and having them deliver in through clean transportation into our campus. And we're able to drive economic impact and keep businesses afloat which was really important to us.

JOEY:
I think, as we thought about it, all of those items, there were really two things that were vitally important. The first was that out of all the things we got right, we got just as many wrong. And so we had to make adjustments every single day, and we were judged by the speed to which we were able to make an adjustment.

JOEY:
A quick example is that we thought about all these different basketball courts, but we didn't think that players were going to have to come in at different times because of family needs. Some people had children that were being born. And when they came in, they had to stay isolated away from everybody else. So we needed other courts for them to get ready while they were in quarantine. And so we use Dick's Sporting Goods and created backyard basketball courts. And we got a lot of credit for our ability to be able to get those up in a day so guys could continue to train, but we had completely forgot about how do you help a guy get ready who's got to be in quarantine at a different time than his team?

JOEY:
The other thing and the constant reminders of saying, "I love"... it's actually sitting behind me right now which is, "If you're going to be a bear, be a grizzly." And I'm constantly reminding our team, "If we were going to do this, let's do it. If we were going to build a laundry facility, let's build the best laundry facility you've ever seen. If we had to build an NBA practice court, we were going to build the best NBA practice facility that any of our teams get to use." And that was a constant reminder that we were never going to do anything less than the best that anybody had seen at that moment, and that was a constant source of our inspiration.

BRANDON:
So it truly does sound like you were building a city. I mean, just the idea around custom building 800 different mattresses and beds is... it's just one particularly salient detail on this whole entire list of operations. It seems like a lot of moving pieces.

BRANDON:
What would you say, out of all this that was happening, what was a really critical piece that would prove to make or break the success of the operation?

JOEY:
To me, it was all about the players. Our NBA superstars and the relationships that we furthered, it was a true testament to years of relationship building with our players where they trusted the League, where we have a partnership, where we think of our League as a true partnership in all of the ways, cultural impact, financial, and our NBA players, and not only their compliance, but their leadership of the policies and procedures and all the sacrifices was truly inspiring.

JOEY:
And then their impact here. You think about something simple on the cultural side. I mean, we didn't exactly have the normal recreation that our NBA players are used to, but they embraced something like fishing. In what world does NBA players make fishing go viral and be the most talked about thing on Twitter was that watching NBA players fish in their free time? They were leaders in every sense.

JOEY:
And I certainly think it was never more apparent than their social impact, whether it was LeBron's More Than a Vote initiative, all of our Get Out and Vote resulted in an unprecedented voter registration in the NBA. Certainly within the NBA prior to these efforts, only 22% of NBA players had voted in 2016, and we got up to 96% of NBA players that voted. And certainly, we saw unprecedented voter registration in our national elections. We take a lot of pride in that. Vote was on all of our shooting shirts. It was a constant source of all of our communication externally, and 23 NBA arenas were used for voting activities during this last national election.

JOEY:
And so we think about the cultural and the social impact of our efforts. It really comes down to our players, and they are incredible ambassadors for our League at every turn.

BRANDON:
That's so amazing. Again, it's kind of what we spoke to, but in the first section of just how much of what you and your team was doing was more than just basketball.

BRANDON:
Looking at everything that happened and all of the new playbooks and processes and projects, frankly, that you all launched, what are some of the biggest learnings that you have from it, and how will these learnings kind of define and drive value props for attendees at NBA events moving forward? And I guess to add on one other thing, how do you think this could be applied at scale?

JOEY:
I think COVID and the pandemic has really taught us two things as event professionals. The first is that it's a completely irrational decision to get off our couches. There's no reason for us to ever leave our houses, and we are in the irrational decision business, and that's an amazing business to be in because when you get somebody to make an irrational decision, they are a fan for life. And you're able to light them up in all of these different ways and monetize them and drive value and acquire ones just like them. And I think we've got to fully embrace it. We are in the irrational decision business.

JOEY:
And two, I think that technology has changed the total addressable market of our events. Prior, we were focused solely on the location where we were operating a physical event and now, our addressable market is the entire world. And that's really exciting about where we are, and I think there's new breath of fresh air that's been brought into the event business, but we've got to capitalize on it. And to me, the way in which we've got to capitalize is first, personalization and customization. But I think we are just starting to scratch the surface of what true personalization means for event professionals.

JOEY:
And we have to constantly look at the lack of tailored experiences will lead our fans or our customers to choose an alternate environment. We have to embrace that everything that we do has to be custom curated for particular audiences at our events.

JOEY:
Two, we've got to capture and leverage data at an unprecedented scale, and we've got to fully embrace the fact that we need to know more about our fans. What lights them up? Why? How do we do more of it? Where can we deliver unique opportunities?

JOEY:
And then three, I think we've got to monetize our viral event moments. One of the things I love about events is that they're content-generating machines, but those machines need to be monetized. And so when you think about things like Quick Strike event merchandise, all of these incredible moments happen at our events, but typically, especially at big organizations, it's others that are able to move more quickly to monetize those moments. Certainly, you think about what NFTs in the Blockchain conversation that's going on right now with all of the opportunities that they open up for us to be able to monetize viral event moments, but we've got to embrace that. If that's the future of our event industries, we think about how do you build new revenue streams around our event landscapes?

BRANDON:
I think just one thing that strikes me about this whole entire conversation and one of the reasons that we were really excited to bring you onto this event is it seems like there is such a surprising parallel between this world of the NBA and NBA events and what our audience is going through, often on the B2B side, when it comes to merging in the virtual and in-person experiences and also, again, just reimagining the way that we think about events.

BRANDON:
I really love what you said about, "It is irrational to get off the couch." I mean, that's going to be no surprise for anybody in our audience. We know we got to find a way that's going to present value to our audience, so they will attend our events and choose that over time with their families or friends or doing something else. But it really is surprising just to hear how much of a similarity there is.

JOEY:
And I think it's going to require a new level of creativity that we have to bring in. I think we've got... the world isn't going backwards. And so I think we've got to embrace this and realize this is a new opportunity for us to sort of leverage our value as an industry.

BRANDON:
One question is around sort of spectators. How are you and your team thinking about that, of introducing in-person attendees?

JOEY:
So last week, we were just in Atlanta and operated the NBA All-Star Game, and we had 1,500 fans in the building. Certainly, we thought about the physical distancing in different ways. We thought through separate entrances, but, I think, one of the things that we have become more clear on is that there is a way to safely host live events with fans in the building, and it's going to look different, and it's going to require investments in particular safety initiatives. As I mentioned, I think HVAC and air circulation being a key one, mass compliance, certainly thinking through different things.

JOEY:
But every day, right now in NBA markets, we're hosting live fans indoors. To date, we do not know of a single outbreak of COVID that's resulted from an NBA game, and that's really exciting to us. And we certainly have taken a measured approach, but our teams are doing that every day.

JOEY:
And we felt like as a League, we had a moment in Atlanta where we could push the envelope and show further another model for us to be able to do that. We're really excited about the result of having live fans back in the building for our All-Star Game, and certainly, it brought a different level of energy. We had over 1,000 HBCU-affiliated fans, as well as first medical responders in the building. And it was great to see and have a moment to be able to thank all of them for their efforts this past year. It truly was a ton of fun.

BRANDON:
Thank you so much, Joey. It's such an honor to chat with you and just to hear about what you and your team have accomplished.

JOEY:
Thanks, Brandon. I've really enjoyed it, and thank you again for all the things you guys are doing. It's great work.

BRANDON:
Thanks again to Joey for joining us at Reimagine Experience. And thank you all for listening.

BRANDON:
You can watch the full conversation with Joey along with the rest of the Reimagine Experience sessions for free at events.bizzabo.com/reimagine-experience. Or if you just want to type in Reimagine Experience Bizzabo into Google, well, that should do the trick too.

BRANDON:
If you like IN-PERSON, please do all the things that podcasts ask you to do: subscribe, rate, and leave a positive review, and also share this show with your colleagues and friends if you think they'll get something out of it.

BRANDON:
If you'd like to share some feedback or suggestions for a future episode with us, please drop us a line at in-person@bizzabo.com. You can also find full transcripts of the show along with key takeaways at in-person podcast.com.

BRANDON:
IN-PERSON is a production of Bizzabo. This episode was co-produced by Rachel Rappaport and edited by Brian Pake. Music by Ian O'Hara. A special shout out to Bizzabo's Rachel Ruggieri and Lauren Kerr for bringing Reimagine Experience to life.

BRANDON:
Until next time, I'm Brandon Rafalson, and this has been IN-PERSON.