As the coronavirus pandemic began causing the cancellations or postponements of sporting events in mid-March, Jon Mugar started wondering what would happen to The Basketball Tournament, or TBT, an event he had founded in 2014.
TBT had become a staple on the summer sports calendar, featuring teams filled with professional players competing in a single-elimination, winner-takes-all format for $2 million. But at times over the past three months, this year’s tournament was in limbo due to the pandemic.
On Saturday, though, the seventh TBT is set to begin in Columbus, Ohio, albeit with a smaller field (24 teams vs. the typical 64), reduced prize money ($1 million) and heightened attention to the health of the roughly 350 players, coaches, general managers and tournament staff who will be on hand for the event.
After talking with epidemiologists, public health officials and state and local government leaders for several weeks, Mugar felt comfortable enough to hold the event. Still, he is being extra cautious when it comes to making sure everyone is in a safe environment.
TBT was scheduled to take place at nine cities in seven states and Washington, D.C., over a 19-day stretch in July and August, culminating with the championship game on Aug. 11 in Dayton, Ohio. But as the weeks passed, Mugar knew it wasn’t feasible to have teams flying all over the country and interacting with too many people.
Instead, TBT decided to hold all of the games at one site. Officials chose Columbus after gaining the approval of the governor, the Greater Columbus Sports Commission and others and realizing most teams could drive there rather than risk flying.
“We wanted to be in a centrally located spot,” Mugar said.
Still, Mugar had doubts about the tournament even being held this year.
“There were definitely times we didn’t know (if TBT would take place) because the key tool that was being developed over time was testing,” Mugar said. “We didn’t know how abundant it would be.”
In recent weeks, TBT was able to strike a deal with Vault Health, a firm that offers a coronavirus test developed by researchers at Rutgers University.
The tournament’s staff arrived in Columbus last week, while the teams began showing up this past weekend. Everyone associated with the event is staying at the same hotel, which will have no other guests until TBT ends on July 14. The hotel is attached to a convention center where teams will practice on one of four courts. They will always practice on the same court and only interact with a few other teams, to reduce the number of people they come in contact with during the tournament.
Meanwhile, no fans will be allowed to attend the games, which will all take place at Nationwide Arena, two blocks from the convention center.
Players are undergoing a strict testing protocol, too. They must test negative for the coronavirus twice in the two weeks before traveling to the tournament five days before their first game begins. They will then undergo tests when they arrive in Columbus and again on the third, fourth and fifth days they are in the city. Only then will they be allowed to compete.
And if a player from a team tests positive, that squad is automatically eliminated because the tournament only lasts 10 days, which is not enough time to quarantine everyone. Already, a team of former players from West Virginia University had to forfeit when a player tested positive. A team called Playing for Jimmy V, featuring former NBA center Hasheem Thabeet and former Gonzaga point guard Josh Perkins, is taking the place of the West Virginia squad.
Although TBT has a 24-team field this year, 28 squads received invitations, including four alternate teams that will enter the field if a team has a player with a positive coronavirus test.
“It’s a pretty strict measure in place,” Mugar said. “But with the timeline of our event, it doesn’t give people enough time to recover from the virus.”
Since April, Mugar has been in contact with Tom Hospel, MD, a physician who has consulted with numerous sports leagues, as well as Tara Kirk Sell, PhD, a public health policy expert at Johns Hopkins University who specializes in pandemics. Hospel and Sell have helped Mugar formulate a plan, which as of last Friday was in its 16th iteration and expected to evolve as Mugar gathered more data and information from experts.
“The thing that has really impressed me is that Jon has taken the effort to reduce risk as much as possible very seriously,” said Sell, who is not getting paid for her work with TBT. “He wants to know the ins and outs of things. He doesn’t want to just consult me because he has to consult a public health person. I do feel that when I make a recommendation or when I feel uncomfortable about something, it has been incorporated into the planning process.”
Despite the strict testing protocol, or perhaps because of it, TBT has been able to attract arguably its best field since the tournament started in 2014. Back then, the event seemed like a crazy idea hatched by Mugar, a former basketball player at Tufts University in Massachusetts who had given up a successful comedy writing career to devote himself full-time to TBT. The event wasopento anyone who was at least 18 years old, was willing to give up their amateur status and wasn’t currently in the NBA.
A team featuring former Notre Dame players won the first TBT, and the event has grown more popular each year since. A group called Overseas Elite, with players who competed in professional leagues outside of the U.S., then won four consecutive titles. Last year, a team of former Ohio State alumni known as Carmen’s Crew knocked off Overseas Elite in the semifinals anddefeateda team of former Marquette players in the championship game.
This year, Carmen’s Crew and Overseas Elite are the No. 1 and 2 seeds, respectively, and are favored to meet in the final on July 14. Carmen’s Crew has many of the same players as it had last year, as does Overseas Elite, which also addedformerNBA All-Star Joe Johnson to its roster. Alumni teams from Syracuse and Marquette are the third and fourth seeds, respectively.
The single-elimination format and deep field means upsets are bound to happen. And with fans starving for live sporting events, TBT should have a captive audience on ESPN, which will televise all of the games on its networks.
“To be in a position where we can try to put our event on in this very challenging climate and help usher the return of basketball to basketball fans is a pretty big deal,” Mugar said. “It’s something we’re taking very seriously. We want to be able to pull it off successfully, and we think we have a great plan to do it.”