Mohegan Sun ‘Bubbleville’ Shows Sports Can Be Safe

A multi-college tournament held inside “Bubbleville” at the Mohegan Sun has demonstrated that it is possible to run a multi-school athletic competition and still keep students and staff safe from Covid. It just takes some really strict protocols.

For Tom Cantone, it began in March.

“When we and the entire planet closed, I sat in my office with total darkness all around me at Mohegan Sun thinking of a way to bring my team back who were all on furlough,” says Cantone, the senior vice president of entertainment and sports for the Connecticut casino.

Cantone says he reached out to several of his contact.

“This is a time when relationships matter,” he says. “I made one important phone call to our friends at Viacom and proposed that we turn our arena into a bubble broadcast center with no fans but we could still produce live content of their top two sports brands—Showtime Boxing and Bellator MMA. After many operational, legal and health related hurdles, and with no existing protocol playbook, we created one. I totally credit our Mohegan Sun management and our health department for establishing a pandemic guideline that became the protocol model for the state and industry. We combined that with Viacom’s Covid Task Force and after months of planning the first bubble broadcast was on July 24 ‘Live From Mohegan Sun Arena’ seen across the country. The television coverage we received with live opening footage of our property and continuous exposure during hours of  the broadcasts were a marketing bonus for our brand.”

The Mohegan Sun’s experiment in Covid-safe sports tournament protocols, which became known as Bubbleville, was extended to basketball. It has demonstrated a possibly viable method for ensuring the health of young college athletes, and maybe older ones too.

The two-week tournament of nonconference games was watched closely. It included teams from UConn, Boston College, Hartford, San Francisco, USC and BYU.

The different floors were cordoned off so strictly that the story is told of one coach who wanted to buy a candy bar had to be accompanied by a security detail.

Mohegan security details were deployed on every floor 24/7. Teams were strongly encouraged to move in groups rather than singly.

This experiment was spearheaded by Cantone, Greg Procino, vice president of basketball operations for the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame and Gazelle Group CEO Rick Giles.

Procino told CBS Sports, “There is absolutely nothing that compares to this experience,” Procino said. “This experience has been a daily, round-the-clock rollercoaster that has forced all parties involved to be nimble and flexible. Add into that the layers of extra measures and plans needed from a health-and-safety protocol to carry out an event that has not existed in this type of format inside of our sport. And although we all trust our abilities to succeed, we continue to learn and adjust on a daily basis.”

Each team that participated had to provide documentation of negative Covid test results for every person in the party within 24 hours of travel and then had to submit to another test upon arrival and quarantine until the results came back.

“Our strict bubble protocols called for teams to submit the latest testing procedures that included saliva samples, and were tested both before arrival and upon arrival and then kept in quarantine to practice and play each game,” Cantone says. “They were also tested day before every game played as well.”

Anyone leaving their assigned floor required a security escort, and then transport to the Mohegan convention center, where meals and more tests awaited. The same protocol was in effect for traveling back to the Expo Center. And only those routes were employed.

Anyone outside of their rooms were required to be masked, unless actually eating or drinking. They were required to maintain 25 foot distance from persons not in their group.

Some schools had to cancel their participation because one team member tested positive.

“We expected some issues as the virus spiked around the country,” says Cantone, “but we had enough teams from many different basketball groups to successfully reschedule games and find opponents while they were here. It was a unique circumstance that everyone involved showed great flexibility with.”

Giles commented, “When Maine and Stephen F. Austin had to leave that first morning, it shocked my system. Candidly, it worried me about how this was going to work out. However, it reinforces how important it is to have tight protocols and we have been fortunate that our testing and security has enabled us pull this off.”

Procino added, “Nobody is bulletproof from the COVID-19 pandemic. We certainly don’t have all the answers and have no playbook, but we have the right team that has gotten us this far.”

More than two dozen teams participated in the event.

With the college basketball season under way with different protocols in every league, the NCAA is looking into putting their “March Madness” tournament inside a bubble. While Indianapolis is mentioned most frequently as a site, Cantone says he’d be eager to host the event at Mohegan Sun.

“With the success of Bubbleville and the Viacom residency,” he explains, “we have become the go-to staging area to produce and broadcast sports programming in a safe and healthy environment for players, coaches, and media outlets.”