How the NCAA tournament built its ‘bubble’ in Indianapolis

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Sixty-seven games spread across six arenas. Hundreds of players, coaches and officials scattered across a half-dozen hotels. And 68 teams, all isolated from each other every second of the day—except for those 40 minutes on the game clock.

The coronavirus lurks around every corner at this year’s unprecedented NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and officials know that just a couple of positive tests—never mind the possibility of a larger outbreak—can doom the whole thing.

“When you condense 14 sites into one and bring 68 teams together to play 67 games in three weeks, it’s a logistical challenge,” said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball. “But it’s an exciting one, and one that we’ve embraced.”

The men’s tournament, which starts Thursday, is usually staged in 14 cities across the country. Last year, the event was canceled altogether, dashing championship dreams and costing the NCAA and its member schools hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue. This year it will be held entirely in and around Indianapolis—a carefully coordinated, highly scrutinized, 19-day affair at a time when coronavirus cases, while falling, are several times higher than they were when the tournament was scratched a year ago. It won’t be a strict “bubble,” per se, but organizers are calling the tournament a “controlled environment,” as they hope to limit exposure to the coronavirus and quash any possible outbreaks.

To pull it off, the NCAA contracted with Populous, a firm that has helped coordinate logistics at the Olympics, Super Bowls and the past dozen Final Fours. Marc Klein, senior event manager for Populous, likened the planning to fitting a square peg in a round hole—and making it “look like it was actually designed to be that way.”

“If we had 18 months to plan it, it’s much easier. We had three months to plan it,” Klein said. “That’s the real challenge—the time crunch.”

Suffice it to say, March has never known madness like this.

Concentrated downtown

Before the college basketball season even began, NCAA officials knew a traditional tournament wasn’t likely. They began talks in November with local and school officials around Indianapolis, where the NCAA is headquartered, and which features a consolidated downtown area accustomed to hosting big events. It was also already scheduled to host this year’s Final Four.

Twelve downtown hotels are connected by skywalk to the city’s convention center, which is also connected to Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts. Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where the Pacers play, is three blocks away. “I’ve been telling everybody, ‘We were really a bubble before the term bubble was used,’ ” said Leonard Hoops, president and chief executive of Visit Indy, the city’s tourism arm.

“Much of downtown has been built over the course of 50 years to host major events. It just so happens the pandemic has shown that it’s a pretty good layout for something like this,” he said.

The state approved limited attendance, and tourism officials now hope for an economic impact that tops $100 million. That means thousands of people traveling from out of state, increasing the chance of exposure for residents and visitors alike.

“We’re still going to have restrictions at restaurants and bars, social distancing, mask mandates,” Hoops said. “This is not the kind of event where people are going to be running around doing whatever they want to do. We do not want this to turn into any sort of public health crisis.”

Choreographed dance

The entire tournament amounts to a carefully choreographed dance, where every move is planned both within the city and within each building.

Teams will have a detailed itinerary of sorts for each day, instructing when they can move between facilities. They’ll use a smartphone app to reserve practice courts and shared spaces. A “command center” in the convention center and each arena will function similar to an air traffic control tower, with officials using a radio system to usher teams from place to place.

Teams will use charter buses to travel to most games and can only walk around downtown Indianapolis via skywalks. All participants are discouraged from leaving the NCAA-approved facilities, which means players will largely be restricted to their hotels, arenas and the convention center.

“I keep using the airport analogy, like airplanes moving on taxiways and runways,” Klein said. “When one team is moving, we have to have a set of staff and signage that says, ‘Okay, we have a holding space to move teams to the side or move staff away, so they can move through clean.’ ”

Lots of facilities, amenities

Inside the convention center, there will be 12 courts that teams will use for practices, each court housed in a different hall. All 68 teams will have a dedicated meeting room that can be used for study hall or film review. The space will also include six weight rooms that teams can reserve.

Organizers liken the convention center to a university’s student union, and they plan to expand the amenities, including bringing in local restaurants,as teams exit the tournament and more space becomes available. By the Sweet 16, there will be more indoor lounge space, and there are plans for an outdoor garden area with patio furniture and lawn games.

There will be dedicated mail and parcel service, plus a complex laundry system running almost around-the-clock. Two trailers typically used for disaster response will be stationed in the loading dock, outfitted with 16 washers and 16 dryers. They’re prepared to churn out more than 1,000 bags of laundry per day, accounting for practice and game uniforms, warmup gear, towels and personal clothing.

“We brought a lot of our Olympic Village expertise into helping plan these laundries,” Populous’s Klein said. “When we do the Olympic Village, it’s a similar setup.”

Tiers of testing, protocols

The NCAA has grouped all tournament participants into tiers, with each subject to different levels of testing and protocols. Everyone will be required to wear a mask at all times—except for those on the court.

Everyone in Tier 1 is required to document seven consecutive negative coronavirus tests before arriving in Indianapolis, one of which must be a PCR test. Once they arrive, to participate, they’ll reportedly need to test negative again twice.

Teams will then submit to testing daily, usually at the team hotel, and can only continue participating with a negative test.

A company called Kinexon will outfit athletes, coaches, staff and game officials with its “SafeTags,” domino-sized devices that help monitor interactions and limit exposure. There will be 4,800 deployed in Indianapolis, and they can be worn as a wristband and hung from a lanyard, each one capable of communicating with the others.

Before the pandemic, Kinexon worked with teams across several sports to monitor and dissect training and athlete workload. It has reprogrammed its technology to record contact between users, including the proximity and duration of each contact.

“If you can imagine I have symptoms and they remove me from the environment immediately,” said Jim Garofalo, an executive vice president for Kinexon. “They’d then look at my Kinexon tag, in addition to their interview process and asking questions. They could go right to my tag and see everybody that I had contact with, for how long and what distance.”

The NCAA can study each interaction and determine who might need to be isolated or even tested. If a player comes in contact with another individual who has tested positive for the coronavirus but the interaction is less than 15 minutes over a 24-hour period, then quarantine may not be required.

The technology was used last season by the NFL, where 10,000 SafeTags helped identify 37 individuals who were able to isolate before they tested positive for the virus. The NBA, MLB and dozens of college programs are using the technology, too. Because they’re so small—and can even be sewn into jerseys or shorts—tournament officials want players to wear them in and out of competition.

“You want to get the most complete information,” Garofalo said. “The best information is going to be in the facility, team activity, practice, games, all those environments. That’s where we see our NCAA clients have had success wearing it in game and in practice.”

The German-based company touts its privacy measures and says only approved medical officials have access to contact information.

Attendance caps

Local restrictions cap attendance at each venue at 25 percent. This includes all players, coaches, essential staff, and family members and fans. Lucas Oil Stadium seats approximately 70,000, so roughly 17,500 people could be allowed inside for games. The other venues are smaller, so only a few thousand fans will be allowed in. Assembly Hall at Indiana University only plans to allow up to 500 spectators, primarily family members of players and staff, the school announced.

Typically, fans purchase session tickets for the NCAA tournament, allowing them to see two back-to-back games. But this year’s tournament will only offer single-game tickets so arena workers can thoroughly clean between games. Everyone will be ushered out, and crews will have at least 90 minutes to wipe everything down and prepare for the next game.

Because many of the existing locker rooms in arenas aren’t big enough, organizers have had to create makeshift locker rooms, and in some cases utilize large spaces far removed from the court, to help players and coaches keep their distance. The locker rooms will be thoroughly cleaned after each team exits the arena.

Players will be seated in rows on the team benches, similar to the setup of many schools during the regular season. The scorers’ table will be two-tiered and set back from the court. It will be shielded, and officials seated there will be masked.

On either baseline, there will be only three camera operators and a ball person stationed under the hoop.

Playing though positive tests

Even with all these precautions, the NCAA is preparing to play through positive tests. It has not outlined what circumstances would prohibit a team from playing. Presumably, a team could play as long as it has five athletes. If a team can’t play, its opponent will advance to the next round.

There are also backups in place in the event an entire team can’t make it to Indy.If a team can’t meet the testing requirements, the NCAA will add a replacement team to the field up until Tuesday at 6 p.m.

After the announcement of the tournament field, teams will not be reseeded, but replacement teams can be added until the Tuesday deadline. The first four teams out of the tournament—Louisville, Colorado State, Saint Louis and Ole Miss—have been designated as replacement teams and ranked. If a team from a multi-bid conference cannot participate in the tournament, the first replacement team will enter the field in the same spot as the team that can’t play. Theoretically, a replacement team that initially didn’t qualify for the tournament could take the place of a No. 1 seed, if one of those top teams has to withdraw.

If the team that cannot participate is from a single-bid conference, the league can replace that participant with another team from its conference, as long as that team can meet the requirement for seven consecutive daily negative tests before arrival.

These adjustments can only be made through Tuesday evening. After that point, no new teams will enter the field. If any team has to withdraw from then on, its opponent will simply advance to the next round without playing a game.

It all amounts to what’s expected to be an especially mad March. But teams say they’re prepared.Well before Selection Sunday, programs received emails, slide show presentations and videos outlining the plans for the tournament. Staffers have absorbed the convention center setup and the daily protocols to ensure their programs can navigate the tournament seamlessly, without worrying too much about the unusual format.

“It’s something that we’ve been preparing for,” said Mark Bialkoski, director of basketball operations for 10th-seeded Maryland. “It’s something that we’re ultimately excited to do and be able to participate. We just go back to last year. And the guys on this team, the staff—not being able to get that opportunity last year, I think it’s just made this year so much more precious.”

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