- Baxter Holmes (@Baxter) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print, focusing on the NBA. He has covered the Lakers, the Celtics and previously worked for The Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times.
With COVID-19 testing becoming more available and more vaccines being administered, the NBA expects all arenas to be at full capacity next season and is hopeful that it can safely welcome additional fans into arenas this season, league sources said.
A key aspect toward that effort is the NBA’s new multiyear leaguewide partnership with Clear, a biometric screening company known for its expedited security process at hundreds of airports worldwide. The partnership makes Clear’s COVID-19 health screening technology available to all 30 teams in their NBA arenas, and it’s expected to help facilitate more fans returning to games, though it’s up to each team how to use the technology.
The partnership, which is in effect, is expected to be announced as soon as Wednesday morning, according to league sources. A third of the league — including the Orlando Magic, San Antonio Spurs and Atlanta Hawks — has already been using Clear’s Health Pass program, which includes a combination of health surveys and secure linking to COVID-19 lab results and vaccination records, for their employee or fan safety protocols in-arena.
Currently, there are no plans for players to use the Clear service, league sources said.
More than two-thirds of NBA teams are allowing a limited number of fans to attend games in their arenas, though the number varies depending on evolving state-by-state regulations during the pandemic. The Phoenix Suns announced that they’re increasing capacity to 3,000 fans at home games. The Milwaukee Bucks announced that they were expanding attendance to 18% capacity, or roughly 3,280 fans.
The Magic were the first team to use the Clear services, signing up at the end of December, just before the start of the season. Conversations for a leaguewide partnership began in early September. This is Clear’s first leaguewide partnership with a professional sports league, but the company has been working with teams in MLS, MLB, NHL and the NFL. Clear first rolled out this program in a leaguewide format with the NHL’s bubble season across two cities in Canada last year.
All 30 NBA teams are not required to use the program, league sources said.
As it pertains to attendance, fans can download the Clear app and upload an identifying document along with a selfie. To link their COVID-19 test results, fans log into their testing account through the app, and results will be linked to their health pass.
Before entering the venue, fans can open the app, verify their identity with another selfie and then answer health survey questions. (There are also expected to be an unspecified number of Clear kiosks where fans receive a temperature check and scan their QR code.) Fans are issued a red or green notification depending on their COVID-related health information.
A Clear spokesperson noted that the arenas only receive information about whether a fan has passed the requirements for access and not any private health information from the individual.
“You can do this with hardware or without,” Clear CEO Caryn Seidman Becker told ESPN in an interview. “You can just be purely mobile to drive throughput. I look around the world and Australia is back. New Zealand, back. China, back. It just depends how it plays out, but obviously, the goal is 100%.”
She added that as more people get vaccinated and as rapid testing and other measures improve, “I am very optimistic that you can head back to full stadiums.” (The Clear program is scalable, the spokesperson said, and could facilitate thousands of fans entering arenas.)
In terms of evolving restrictions, teams hosting fans must still comply with applicable state and/or local requirements, as well as the league’s health and safety protocols, league sources said. One fan-related aspect pertains to pod sizing. A pod is a group of ticketed seats next to each other representing a party that is attending the game together and therefore does not need to be physically distanced from each other.
Teams can create fully vaccinated fan sections in which social distancing is subject only to state and/or local requirements, league sources added. But in arenas with such sections, vaccination must be verified digitally or manually, signage should be present and other league protocols must be followed, such as wearing face masks, those sources said.
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