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.

The Lodge at Ballantyne.JPG
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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