Inside the athlete ‘bubbles’ happening at hotels to make sure college and pro sports can happen safely in a pandemic

The JW Marriott Indianapolis decorated for 2021 March Madness.
The JW Marriott Indianapolis decorated for 2021 March Madness.

  • Hotels like the JW Marriott Indianapolis have formed bubbles to host teams for 2021’s March Madness tournament.
  • Some pro teams, like the Toronto Raptors, moved from Canada to Florida to avoid pandemic restrictions.
  • Having the players on site has brought a new energy to the hotel, one hotel manager said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

From living long-term in a hotel abroad to turning hotel ballrooms into practice facilities, athletes and the people around them have been getting especially creative to stay safe during the age of COVID-19.

This is the first time in history where an entire NCAA March Madness tournament will be held in one city- Indianapolis – and there are plenty of protocols in place for both the hotels and the athletes to ensure it’s a safe and successful experience.

Phil Ray is the general manager of the JW Marriott Indianapolis, one of a handful of hotels in a ‘bubble’ which will be hosting teams and athletes for March Madness.

“We’re focused on taking care of the guests, and taking care of each other,” said Ray. “What we always say is it’s like they’re on a business trip, and our purpose is to take care of them so that everything goes well.”

During the weekends in summer 2020, the JW started to host sports tournaments as part of a bubble alongside a group of local hotels that could offer over 2,000 rooms with shared parking garages and a direct connection to the convention center. There, athletes were fed, housed, and quarantined for their games.

After this experience, Ray says the city is well-prepared to host March Madness. “We’re continuing to work through all the obstacles we’ll face to host the entire tournament. The cleanliness and the process of cleaning for the most part is consistent with what we’re always doing, just higher profile.”

Staff in the kitchen of the JW Marriott Indianapolis prepping meals for March Madness.
Staff in the kitchen of the JW Marriott Indianapolis prepping meals for March Madness.

The teams that make the final four can stay for up to three weeks in Indianapolis.

“We want to make sure they’re comfortable, and that the food doesn’t become tiresome, and that they’re going to be excited about being here,” said Ray. The manager added he’s confident that the tournament will run smoothly and safely.

A season abroad

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Nate Pearson spent the 2020 MLB season living out of the The Marriott at Lecom Harbor Center in Buffalo, New York, since the Blue Jays couldn’t play in their home city in Toronto, Canada.

“I tried to make my hotel space feel more like home by unpacking my suitcase and putting my things into the drawers,” he said. “I unpacked and made sure my clothes were away, hung up my shirts, and put my suitcase somewhere that I couldn’t see it, so it didn’t feel like I was living somewhere temporarily.”

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Nate Pearson
Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Nate Pearson.

Pearson says the hardest part of living in the hotel from July to October was the isolation and being away from family. Although he spent time with his teammates training and playing, Pearson says they didn’t hang out off the field due to safety rules.

“We didn’t get to go out or hang out in each other’s rooms. I really like getting to spend time with my teammates, and not getting to do that outside of the field was hard. But we made the most of it.”

For fellow athletes living at a hotel or resort property long-term during COVID, Pearson says to bring “whatever your ‘thing’ is with you.”

“Whether it’s video games, reading, or watching TV – make sure you have the access to that,” he said. “And buckle up – it’s much more of a mental grind than a physical grind. Don’t be afraid to call people when you need to talk to someone. If you need to step outside and go for a walk by yourself, do it. Being outside definitely helps you mentally.”

Hosting a 39-person NBA entourage

Non-athletes similarly adjusted their work lives to accommodate sports during the pandemic. Beth Allen, director of sales and marketing at The Ballantyne Hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina, was in charge of hosting the Charlotte Hornets in a bubble to prepare for the 2020-21 NBA season.

The Hornets ‘bubbled’ in two freestanding buildings adjacent to the main hotel. The Lodge features 35 spacious rooms, and The Cottage has four king bedrooms with private bathrooms, as well as a dedicated kitchen, dining, living room, and laundry space.

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The Lodge at The Ballantyne Hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina.

In preparation, Allen says property was deep-cleaned and fully sanitized from top to bottom, and a washer and dryer and additional golf carts were brought in for the players to get around.

The players enjoyed their own private parking, tennis courts to practice on, and a golf course for outdoor space to exercise. Allen says the 39-person group of players, coaches, administrative staff, and physical therapists was on-site for two weeks total, from the end of September through early October of 2020.

She says the players were gracious, friendly, and quiet – even if they ordered room service much more than the average guest.

“There were certain times of day we knew room service was going to get an onslaught of calls – so we started to adjust our staffing to accommodate. The team was also really good about being flexible and changing with us as the days went by – because every day is different.”

As a hotel director, Allen says the experience gave her valuable insights on hosting sports teams during the pandemic.

“Hotels are having to get creative, be flexible, and think outside of the box. It was a team effort and a bonding experience behind the scenes,” she said.

Turning a ballroom into a practice court

The Toronto Raptors basketball team also moved out of Canada during the pandemic to Tampa, Florida to play their 2020-21 season. They built a makeshift practice facility at the JW Marriott Tampa Water Street.

The property was still under construction last year, says general manager Ron McAnaugh, when they made a deal with the NBA team to offer the unfinished ballroom as a space for shooting hoops in isolation.

The team has been on-site using the hotel as a practice facility since the beginning of December and is committed to the space through March.

McAnaugh says the Raptors brought everything with them to set up shop in the Marriott, including hard floors and baskets, while Marriott staff built a full gym, an office for the head coach, and two locker rooms for the team. McAnaugh says they also turned one of the kitchen areas into a space where players can “go and take their recovery ice baths.”

People might spy the athletes outside working out, but on-site security is tight. There’s even a special, exclusive elevator to take the team to their practice facility.

“Security hasn’t been a problem, the most we’ve had is kids come in and ask ‘can we go watch them practice?’ and we say ‘sorry, you can’t,'” said McAnaugh. Still, he says having the players on site has brought a new energy to the hotel.

“It’s just incredible to see the life it brings to the building having them here,” said McAnaugh. “You can sense on game nights there’s an elevated vibe in the building.”

The hotel’s employees are used to interesting requests for the basketball stars, such as the need for a certain brand of protein powder for meals.

“After a while all the requests almost become natural, and you just learn to pivot,” he said. “It just goes to show you, if there’s a unique need for a customer or a group – we’ll figure out how to do it.”

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NBA stars like Kevin Durant and Kyle Lowry are increasingly pouring money into startups for the thrill of investing and a chance to break down barriers for people of color

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From left: Rich Kleiman, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala; Rudy Cline-Thomas, and Pau Gasol.

  • NBA stars have been investing in Silicon Valley startups since as far back as 2015.
  • Now it’s rapidly increasing: At least seven NBA players have backed startups in the past two months.
  • Athletes and their business partners say it’s about building generational wealth and giving more people of color a seat at the table.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Jason Gardner was sitting at his desk last year when he was handed a printout of a Bloomberg article.

Gardner, the CEO of burgeoning fintech startup Marqeta, read the note scrawled across the front: It contained the phone number and email address of Rudy Cline-Thomas, who was known for connecting athletes like Andre Iguodala and Steph Curry with Silicon Valley startups looking for investors.

The old-school, snail-mail approach intrigued Gardner. He decided to reach out.

One year later, Marqeta is a $4.3 billion startup backed by the likes of Iguodala and former Major League Baseball superstar Alex Rodriguez, and it’s reportedly headed for an initial public offering.

“[Cline-Thomas] is my connection to that world, the world of athletes that want to invest,” Gardner told Insider. “They trust Rudy’s forethought. He is the trusted confidant, the trusted connection to Silicon Valley.”

Marqeta is now one of dozens of Silicon Valley startups backed by athlete investors, particularly those who play for the National Basketball Association. And that number is steadily ticking up: In the last two months alone, a broad range of startups have received investments from NBA all-stars like Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant, Nets shooting guard James Harden, and Washington Wizards point guard Russell Westbrook.

These investments reflect the thriving business culture that has been cultivated in the league by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and LeBron James, as well the hard work behind the scenes by people like Cline-Thomas and Rich Kleiman, Durant’s manager as well as the cofounder of their investment firm, Thirty Five Ventures, and their multimedia platform, Boardroom.

“[Athletes] make more money than they’ll be able to spend, most of them,” Cline-Thomas told Insider. “There’s a responsibility for them to be educated in what’s going on around them. They obviously have a keen interest in this and learning something new, but it’s the education to the broader public – I think that there’s just so much we can do in having that microphone.”

Putting in the work

Kevin Durant Rich Kleiman
Rich Kleiman and Kevin Durant on stage during the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit in 2019.

For Cline-Thomas and Iguodala, who currently plays for the Miami Heat, it was their move to Silicon Valley in 2013 when Iguodala was traded to the Golden State Warriors that jumpstarted their investing career.

Soon after, the pair invested in Walker & Company, a company that makes personal care products with people of color in mind. Cline-Thomas said that deal eased them into startup investing because they could both understand the need for those types of products in the market, and it turned out to be a smart move: In 2018, Proctor & Gamble acquired the company for an unknown sum, reported to be between $20 million and $40 million.

Cline-Thomas said their investment philosophy has shifted in the years since, and he cited Zoom as an example: They decided to invest over two years ago because they trust CEO Eric Yuan’s vision and were emboldened by the fact that he had worked at the networking giant Cisco before building Zoom.

For Kleiman and Durant, being closer to America’s tech capital also propelled their investment career. Their first investment came in 2016 when they poured money into food-delivery app Postmates, another startup that has since had an exit – it was acquired by Uber last year for $2.65 billion.

When Durant joined the Warriors shortly after, Kleiman said the region’s tech elite welcomed them with open arms: Andreessen Horowitz founder Ben Horowitz hosted a birthday dinner for Durant at his house soon after the athlete arrived in the Bay Area. Kleiman said luminaries like famed investor Ron Conway and YouTube’s Chief Product Officer, Neil Mohan, were in attendance.

“In that room, I just started creating relationships,” Kleiman told Insider. “And I said to these people, ‘Listen, I don’t know anything about this. Like, I don’t even know what that term is that you just said, but I do know that I’m a sponge for information, and so is Kevin, and we want to just learn.'”

Kleiman said that was their whole business plan at first, to simply learn what Silicon Valley was all about and the best ways to get involved. He didn’t want Durant just to be a celebrity investor, but rather a strategic partner who really knows his stuff.

“The idea that there’s not an education to it and that the work that has to go into it, at least to be good at it, is skipped because KD’s KD,” Kleiman said. “KD will be the first person to tell you, he put the work in too. He went to so many dinners with me in the Bay. We went to conferences that he looked at me with the dirtiest look until we went on stage, like, ‘Why am I here on my g—— off day,’ but you can’t skip the process.”

Durant and Kleiman’s Thirty Five Ventures has since invested in fitness-tracking company Whoop and fintech firm Brigit, and recently backed trading card company Goldin Auctions and Therabody, the company behind the popular Theragun personal massager.

A thrill ride

steph curry 2021
Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry.

While Iguodala and Durant may have become some of the best-known athlete tech investors, and James may have built a multifaceted empire, they’re among countless investors whose day job is NBA player:

Pau Gasol, who won two championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and currently plays for Barcelona’s basketball team, is another Therabody backer, as well as an investor in BetterUp, a professional coaching platform. He told Insider by email that he’s interested in investing in later-stage startups that share his values, and that he was inspired by Lakers owner Magic Johnson’s business acumen, as well as Kobe Bryant’s.

“More recently, my beloved friend Kobe Bryant was an inspiration to me, and I could see how he was able to channel some of his passion from the basketball court into partnering with certain companies,” Gasol said. “He had some major successes – like Body Armor – because he always aimed to understand the product and what made it unique, understand the strategy of the company, and figure out what he could do to help the company achieve its goals.”

Gasol said he thinks athletes are attracted to the “thrill ride” of investing – the competition to get in on a deal, the possibility that a startup could become a unicorn, and the “promised land” of an exit.

But retirement is a factor, too.

“They want to find something that excites them and where they can apply the skills they have learned along the way,” Gasol said. “Investing in startups, as long as you know what you are doing and you have the right advisors to help you make the right decisions, can be one of those areas.”

‘We want to create our own table’

Kyle Lowry
Kyle Lowry holds the championship trophy during the Toronto Raptors victory parade following their NBA Finals win in 2019.

But the investment culture that NBA players have cultivated goes deeper than just returns, says Kyle Lowry, who plays for the Toronto Raptors.

Lowry has been in the league for 14 years and said he began realizing as he got older that he had the time to educate himself on what was going on in the tech industry. Lowry said he’s most interested right now in putting money into healthcare, cryptocurrencies, and renewable energy, and he invested in healthcare firm Spring Health’s Series B last November.

He told Insider that investing for him is about building generational wealth and breaking down systemic barriers for people of color.

“Getting the African-American, the Black person into those types of positions, it changes the outlook of the culture, right?” Lowry said. “It changes the thought processes of who these people are.”

Lowry cited Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, and LeBron James as athletes who were ahead of the curve, as well as Junior Bridgeman, who created a fast-food empire after retiring from the NBA and recently bought Ebony magazine for $14 million. That’s the culture that athletes are trying to grow, Lowry said.

“We don’t want to just be sitting at the table with everybody else – we want to create our own table and bring people that we want to be in there, to have people of our color at the table with us,” he said.

Cline-Thomas, Iguodala’s business partner, said that’s what drives him to help athletes invest in startups, beyond the financial gain. While corporate America has come to recognize the importance of diversity inside their companies – spending money on racial equality initiatives, diversifying their leadership, and coming out in support of movements like Black Lives Matter – it hasn’t done enough to open doors for the Black community.

But giving more people of color the opportunity to invest in high-growth startups will, Cline-Thomas said.

“We hear about all the companies that are going public and all the different people that are investing in them, and unfortunately, not too many – hardly any, if any – African-Americans are on the cap table,” he said. “They’re creating billions of dollars of value, but it’s going into the same pockets.”

Now, after making dozens of investments over the past six years or so, Cline-Thomas said things are slowly starting to change.

“There is a gap that was created; I think the athletes are helping tighten the gap,” he said. “And that’s the seat that I’m sitting in right now – we opened the door, but how to keep the door open for the broader culture.”

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I’m a former NFL pro who started a winery with two of my teammates – here’s how we carried lessons from football into our business strategy

Tony Moll Jason Vince
Former NFL players Tony Moll and Jason Vince holding a bottle from their winery.

  • Tony Moll is a former Green Bay Packers player who opened a winery in Sonoma, California with his former teammates, Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitzs. They named it Three Fat Guys.
  • Lessons from football — like coordination, quick thinking, and rolling with the punches — have helped the cofounders tackle challenges.
  • This is his story, as told to freelance writer Molly O’Brien.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

I grew up in Sonoma, California and played sports year-round as a kid. The wine industry was always a fascination growing up here, and part of my family history. My great-grandparents on my mom’s side moved to Sonoma County from the Lucca province of Italy in the early 1900s, and on their ranch, they grew zinfandel to sell to the local wineries – along with making a little for themselves. 

I graduated from Sonoma High and went to the University of Nevada Reno, where I played football on a full scholarship. I was drafted in 2006 to the Green Bay Packers, which was an eye-opening experience – being a rookie, I was a player that could easily get cut from the team.

Courtesy of Tony Moll
Tony Moll playing for the Green Bay Packers.

Joining the Packers motivated me to work hard and make the best of what was put in front of me. I ended up starting my rookie year and blocking for Brett Favre.

I made great friendships that year, especially with two other “fat guys” on the team.

TFG Color
Green Bay Packers’ players Daryn Colledge, Tony Moll, and Jason Spitzs.

The nickname “fat guys” comes from our positions on the football team as big guys – the linemen. Sometimes in the locker room our older teammates would tell us that it’s easy to make friendships while you’re on the team together, but guys come and go and afterwards it’s easy to lose touch. Still, I became such good friends with two other “fat guys,” Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitzs, that I didn’t want to lose touch. 

In 2007, we started making wine together, first as just a hobby and then as a business. 

We decided to call our business the Three Fat Guys. It’s humorous, but it’s a solid (and fitting) name. We were able to work on building a brand for ourselves while playing professional football because we had supportive people at home in Sonoma to take care of the details while we were away in Green Bay. 

Pretty soon, I started coming home to Sonoma every off-season and doing more with the winery because our brand was quickly growing and sales were taking off. We built successful relationships with local restaurants and businesses, and we went from making just 100 cases of Cabernet to becoming a full-fledged winery now with a team of 10 people. We’re a small but mighty team here at the winery, so we can do things on the fly; it’s almost like playing football.

Read more: I’m a 29-year-old Instagram influencer who made $17,000 in one month. Here’s how I turned my love of fruit into a lucrative business.

As former pro athletes, we run our business model to roll with the punches.

Tony Moll Jason Spitzs Daryn Colledge
Moll, Spitzs, and Colledge.

We’re “making audibles” left and right, just like we did in football, which allows us to stay ahead and change our game plan as necessary. The idea that it takes a village  is completely true. I look back and appreciate everyone that’s helped me get to where I am today. 

We especially wanted to create a winery that was luxurious but didn’t feel exclusive. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from: If you walk into our tasting room, you’re going to have an amazing experience. 

The company wasn’t originally meant to make money, but after I retired from the NFL and started growing the brand, it became important for me to break even. 

Once the wine club was launched and our focus shifted to direct consumer sales, we started growing. As we grew, we also set goals to make a positive impact and create better opportunities for the people in our community. We support and are active members of charities and organizations like the USO, the Boys & Girls Club of America, and the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation, keeping a connection to our football roots.

Read more: A day in the life of a pilot in Kenya who juggles chartering the wealthiest 1% and celebrities like Sir David Attenborough on ‘heli-safaris’ with crop-spraying and rescue missions

When I retired from football and moved back to Sonoma full-time, I decided to join the fire department as a volunteer.

Tony Moll
Moll on duty as a volunteer firefighter.

The assistant chief of the fire station used to be the varsity head defensive football coach at my high school, and I always wanted to do what I could to help out my community. I became involved with the fire department in 2018. It’s been an eye-opening experience ever since, and I’ve loved every second. Those intimate moments and the feeling of working together as firemen is inspiring to me. At the station, there are people who fit into every role, similar to a football team, and the station’s ability to build groups that work well together is vital for getting the job done. 

Our fire station has between 15 to 20 active volunteers who are available to respond with the on-duty crew when a call goes out. This last fire season I went to Napa to help fight the Glass Fire. Being part of the coordination between teams of command on the ground, planes, and helicopters was a moving experience, to be even just a tiny help in the big fight to put those fires out. 

The sense of comradery out on the field as a firefighter is similar to being on the field with a football team – you’re in the trenches, working together. 

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Moll playing for the Packers.

A lot of the team coordination and quick thinking I learned in football goes hand in hand with firefighting, with running our wine business, and just with leading a successful life. 

Profitability matters, but I also evaluate TFG’s bottom line by means of “brand value.” 

Every year since 2017, we’ve seen consistent sales growth, even during the pandemic, that has allowed us to continue to grow and support our amazing team. Still, we want to be more than just another winery, and we work hard to make a difference in our community every way we can.

By reaching our business goals financially and our mission with the charities we partner with, I’m proud that we’ve built a company that does more than just make a profit.

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