Safety protocols for The Basketball Tournament work as hoped

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

After what the previous three weeks had entailed, a 12-hour drive home felt like a walk in the park for Jon Mugar.

One night prior, he had been at Nationwide Arena as The Basketball Tournament crowned a champion Tuesday night in its 24-team, $1 million winner-take-all event that took place entirely in a quarantine bubble in Columbus.

The endeavor required Mugar and his TBT leadership team to be on-site for five days before the teams arrived, construct an artificial environment that was safe for competition and remain healthy themselves.

It was daunting. It was somewhat of a gamble. But it worked.

And as Mugar made the eastward drive to his family in the Boston area, he expressed satisfaction with the accomplishment before also turning his thoughts toward the future.

“We stuck to the plan,” he told The Dispatch. “We never diverted from it. A lot of our key assumptions ended up being accurate pertaining to testing and incubation period. It really defined how and when we tested players. We were resolute in mask-wearing.”

With games played on 10 days from July 4-14, TBT showed that a bubble could be safely maintained through strict adherence to medical protocols and constant testing. Players were quarantined inside the Hyatt Regency and were escorted to the arena for games. Four practice courts were constructed inside hotel ballrooms although moisture made two of them largely unplayable and players seeking outdoor time were limited to their walks to the arena or the modest courtyard outside the hotel.

Six rounds of testing were conducted, starting when players were home and continuing through a participant’s seventh day in the bubble. Of 2,021 tests, TBT received 43 positives (2.1%) and only three in the 1,180 tests conducted following the initial on-site isolation period (0.25%).

The plan was put to the test on the eve of the July 4 start, though. That day, the change in the state’s medical leadership after Dr. Amy Acton’s resignation meant that Mugar had to again detail TBT’s safety plan before it was approved, causing some 11th-hour worry.

“They wanted to make sure, I think with cases spiking especially in Columbus at the time, that we were adhering to our plan,” Mugar said. “They were very supportive from the get-go on the call, and we were able to work through everything very quickly.”

Linda Logan, executive director of the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, described the event as a success for Columbus despite the inability to have fans present. TBT chose Columbus rather than Savannah, Georgia, Wichita, Kansas, or the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, on the final date by which it had to inform television partner ESPN of its decision. That was June 8, and it came up against the deadline because health officials at the state and local levels were still monitoring the virus.

Logan said she had just finished watching Marquette alumni team Golden Eagles win Tuesday night’s TBT title when she texted a colleague holding a similar position in Milwaukee to offer her congratulations.

“She wrote back, ‘Nice job showing people how to host a safe event,’” Logan said. “You can’t buy that kind of endorsement.”

It took a lot of cooperation to make it all work. Jennette Puzzo, TBT vice president of events, said the willingness of their Columbus partners at Nationwide, the Hyatt Regency and elsewhere to assume extra duties while dealing with furloughed staffs was vital to making the event happen. But she and Mugar also lauded the buy-in from this year’s participants.

“We had a plan laid out, and we were excited to get on-site and execute it and play basketball,” Puzzo said. “It was an exciting accomplishment and something very unique that I hope we never have to do again.”

Major League Soccer has resumed its season, with the NBA and major league baseball close behind. Mugar said he hasn’t talked with any leagues about how TBT was able to function amid the pandemic, only a few colleges. With the fall sports calendar unresolved, though, and the overseas market in question for this season, he sees an opportunity for a possible repeat TBT event in about four months once everyone has caught up on their sleep.

“I would love to consider also slotting into November if our player pool is not playing overseas the way that they usually would be in previous years,” he said. “We’re going to monitor the overseas professional market and monitor what all the basketball properties here are doing.”