Don’t Burst the Bubble: College Basketball Tournaments Planned to Take Place in Makeshift Bubbles

The Mohegan Sun, a casino in Connecticut, has teamed up with the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and Gazelle Group to host early-season basketball tournaments. The teams would be in “modified” bubbles and play different teams between November 25 and December 5. Rick Giles, the president of the Gazelle Group, stated that they were still finalizing plans for the games, but they expect to have about 35 teams from more than a dozen conferences to compete in “Bubbleville.”

“It’s a single site, secluded location, with enormous square footage for social distancing.” Said Greg Procino, vice president of basketball operations for the Hall of Fame. There are a lot of things that will work in our favor.”

The plan is to separate the teams into at least nine different “pods.” The pods will include several other teams who will play against one another. Some of the teams set to participate in the unprecedented Bubbleville will include Villanova, Baylor, Arizona State, Boston College, UConn, USC, Virginia, Florida, St. John’s, UMass, Vanderbilt, BYU, Louisville, North Carolina, and other men’s and women’s programs. The officials from Gazelle and the Hall of Fame met Friday with casino officials to finalize some of the tournament details. We’ve been able to combine and leverage both our organizations and strengths to create something bigger than what we originally had.” 

The Mohegan Sun has already developed protocols for coronavirus testing, cleaning, and managing sports during the pandemic. The casino has its own medical staff to treat and isolate those athletes who may have been infected. Further, the casino has experience holding sporting events during the new age of COVID-19. During the summer, the casino partnered with Viacom to produce televised boozing matches and mixed martial arts events.

Image Credit: David Butler II / USA TODAY Sports

While Bubbleville will not meet the same safety protocols as the NBA or WNBA, the partners have developed a plan to ensure a high level of control. Tom Cantone, the senior vice president for sports and entertainment at Mohegan Sun, said, “we’re just following the playbook we’ve already established and has been working brilliantly,” further expressing that the casino would continue to follow their doctors’ advice and follow their protocols.

The NBA’s bubble worked. The bubble painted a picture of how sports can continue to be played during COVID-19. The NBA had an elaborate plan that the NBA players and personnel agreed to. The protocol heavily restricted the member’s movements and separated them from their families. The sacrifice resulted in a bubble that never burst. MVP Lebron James described the success of bubble, “we had zero positive tests for as long as we were here, 90-some days, 95 days maybe for myself. . . that’s a success for everybody that was involved.” Each member of the bubble had to wear MagicBands that kept tabs on where players were and who they were with whenever they left their rooms. This level of surveillance is wholly impossible for the casino to accomplish. However, the casino does have a plan to make Bubbleville as safe as possible.

The casino has already put precautionary measures to combat the virus, including installing safety devices like ultraviolet lighting and special filters in its HVAC system. The organizers will also require each team to be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival. Each school will have its floor in the casino’s hotel. The teams will also have designated meeting and catering rooms. The massive 125-square-foot exposition center will be converted into a practice facility, creating plenty of space for social distancing. What about casino goers? Will the teams come into contact with other casino customers? No, the organizers plan to transport the teams through designated “back of the house” corridors, ensuring that the teams do not interact with the public. 

The organizers are not planning to allow fans at the game unless there is a change of COVID-19 metrics, suggesting it is safe to allow a limited amount of fans. The media will also be set up in skyboxes to view the games and conduct the post-game interviews by teleconference. 

The organizers are still developing a plan for how often and what type of COVID-19 testing will be done. Planning is especially difficult since each conference has its own testing requirements. For instance, when the Big Ten decided to reintroduce football this fall, it introduced a safety plan for monitoring COVID-19. The stringent measures required each student-athlete, coach, trainer, and any other individual on the field for practices to undergo daily antigen testing. The results must be completed and recorded before each practice and each game. Therefore, Bubbleville may have to account for the differences in testing protocols for the different conferences.

The organizers may also need to consider state and local health department directives. Accordingly, the casino may need to address concerns of institutions from restricted states coming to Connecticut. The Governor of Connecticut, Governor Lamont, issued an Executive Order requiring anyone who visits the state from a “restricted” state to quarantine for 14 days from the time of the last contact within the identified state or country.

Image Credit: Kyle Ross / USA TODAY Sports

There are several states on Connecticut’s restricted states list, and there is no sign of slowing COVID-19 cases, especially since the tournament is taking place during what some have deemed the “dark winter.” Thus, unless Governor Lamont is comfortable excusing these athletes from the required quarantine, the teams would have to quarantine in Connecticut 14-days before competing. Similarly, some teams may have to quarantine after leaving Connecticut to return to their institution’s state. For example, in New York, Governor Cuomo has developed a list of “restricted states” that meet the criteria for a required 14-day quarantine. While Connecticut is not on the restricted state list, the list is adjusted on a seven-day rolling average. If any state’s positivity rate exceeds 10%, or the number of positive cases exceeds 10 per 100,000 residents, the state will be added to the list. However, Governor Cuomo announced that he would not require New Yorkers to quarantine from visiting Pennsylvania, New Jersey, or Connecticut because there are too many “interchanges, interconnections, and people who live in one place and work in the other.” Thus, New York teams attending the tournament would not be forced to quarantine according to state guidelines. Each institution will need to look at local and state travel advisories to determine if the team will need to quarantine upon its return from the tournament.

Also, institutions may have different quarantine requirements than the local or state governments. Put differently, an institution may have stricter quarantine requirements than the state or the local government has. For example, even though New York teams may not have to quarantine after playing in Connecticut, their institution may require a quarantine if students leave the state. Therefore, it is no secret that this venture will need plenty of waivers and plenty of money. It is yet to be determined who will be fronting this bill. It may be the institutions, the organizers, the casino, or the TV deals. One thing remains clear, it doesn’t take much for Bubbleville to pop.

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'21 J.D. Candidate at the University at Buffalo School of Law

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