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What TBT Showed the Sports World About Bubbles


For those unaware or uninterested, TBT (or: The Basketball Tournament) is an annual summer single-elimination and million-dollar-winner-take-all basketball tournament that took place over the past couple of weeks. 24 teams comprised of mainly college alums and overseas stars descended upon Columbus, Ohio to break in the idea of quarantined basketball in the United States. For the most part…it worked!

Phenomenal job by Jon Mugar, head of this entire shindig. He made the whole thing happen and was open and direct in planning for the tournament with unusual circumstances, preparing an overly-cautious bubble. Both are reasons sports took a step forward with TBT (even if Florida and the rest of the US can’t get their act together).

I’d like to take a look at the principles and procedures that went into creating and maintaining a clean “bubble” for the TBT and how the sports that are coming back soon–NBA, college football potentially, the NFL, maybe college basketball–can learn from it.

Starting with…


TBT tested its players every single day and made sure each player passed five consecutive tests without testing positive for the virus before they were allowed to join the campus. With even one positive coronavirus test among any player or staff, that team would be eliminated. In a 10-day, 23-games-total tournament, it’s a reasonable and effective rule. Over the course of the NBA Restart or an entire college football season, canceling a whole team over one positive test would be too strict.

I think we can agree that testing every player every week (at least) is a good place to start, and a number of positive tests in a row before starting practice or playing the games should be required as it was in TBT.

Dealing with positive tests is another issue. In TBT, it’s the boot, no negotiation. For college and professional sports trying to play large portions of or even their entire seasons, positive-testing players need to be immediately separated from the team without the whole squad (or sport for that matter) having to shut down.

I’d argue there definitely should be a minimum number of days a positive tester (even if they test positive just once) needs to quarantine from everyone else and also, obviously, a number of negative tests in a row that the player needs to pass to get back on the court or field.


TBT featured zero fans and it was only half the sneaker-squeak chalkboard scrape I thought it would be.

I’ll say this: I liked TBT’s approach to fans better than any other sports league that’s restarted. No cardboard cut-outs or stuffed animals or fans’ creepy pictures in the stands. In fact, no stands at all.

TBT wrapped the court in big black curtains and colored banners with past champions and sponsors. At midcourt, behind the scorer’s table, in full view of the exclusively-TV audience, they hung a giant velcro bracket. This was brilliant; (1) Because brackets are the coolest thing in sports, and (2) the kings crowned themselves. Following each game, the victorious team would stampede over to the central bracket and place their name on the next line, velcro-ing one line closer to the million.

(Dayton Daily News)

Here’s a picture of the court:

If you don’t have to show thousands of sweaty, mouth-agape Americans sitting and watching basketball, why not throw a handful of sponsorships and old champs and one behemoth bracket on colorful drapes in the background? It made for a cool viewing experience, I’ll tell you that. I didn’t even miss the fans because I couldn’t see the open seats, just the bracket.

Who needs fans anyway. At this point, we’re becoming more trouble than we’re worth in this whole pandemic shebang. As one of the guys on the TBT team named Brotherly Love said: “it’s nice getting that energy from fans, but we’ll create enough of our own.”

An Exclusive Campus

For sports considering a bubble, TBT, while lasting just a week-and-a-half, paved an innovative example. The TBT ruled its campus a little more barbarian that I think the NBA will, assuring players essentially were jailed in individual hotel rooms every minute of the day aside from the games and practice.

But you can’t fault them because…it worked! One of the 24 teams had a positive test or two and was outed but otherwise, every game in the bubble happened on schedule and as the days went on, the positive tests came with less and less frequency; and the whole campus was corona-dry for a nearly a week straight by the time TBT ended.

That feat required the very skills I try to impart on my Kindergarten students: follow the rules, stay safe, be courteous to others and  everything  will  be  alright.

Again, it was easier to contain over a short period of time and with much fewer people than other bubbles will have, plus…no fans at all, including no family or close friends or girlfriends. 10 days without your wife or kid…ok that’s probably fine. Multiple months of separation…that’s tough and maybe not worth it to some professional athletes. We also have to factor in the multiplied risk that comes with nearly doubling the bubble’s population by letting everyone bring their family.

What the NBA and MLB are doing with bubbles relies on the same concepts and guidelines that governed the TBT so perfectly, but on a grandiose multi-million dollar scale over all of fall 2020. We’ll see.

Now, with college sports, while schools and teams should govern themselves in a manner concurrent with a bubble, creating one won’t be possible, at least for the most crucial sport: football. In terms of basketball, Mark Emmert and the NCAA are full steam ahead with 2021 March Madness plans (it is their major moneymaker).

At the very worst, they’ve indicated they will find a way to host a March Madness, even if no regular season is able to be played. Maybe we’d see a TBT-esque set up with an even bigger velcro bracket, maybe some group play, a few regional bubbles leading to a Final Four or Sweet 16 (or however many) championship bubble.

The Games

The only flawless part of sports’ return: the actual games. TBT was awesome because everyone pitched in to help make the bubble work and guys competed their tails off! From tip-off to Elam-ender, nearly every game was decided in the final few possessions by 2020’s hottest basketball trend: the Elam Ending, where the clock expires after four minutes in the fourth quarter and eight points are added to the leading team’s total–whoever reaches that number first wins. “Every Game Ends On A Made Shot” is the Elam motto, and it bore out excitingly in TBT 2020.

Over everything, TBT brought basketball (and Fran Fraschilla) back into my life and suggested a reality where sports are played safely in 2020. It was quite refreshing.

Article written by Alex Weber

@alexweberKSR on Twitter.