VCU is hosting 2 college basketball tournaments. To do it safely has required careful planning.

Over the next two weeks, teams from over a dozen universities will be in Richmond for the Atlantic 10 men’s and women’s tournaments. Here’s a look at the steps taken to prepare for their arrival.

A VCU employee cleans a basketball during a game. [View Image] A VCU employee cleans a basketball during a game earlier this season. (VCU Athletics)

Virginia Commonwealth University’s Nate Doughty understands the logistics and obstacles to running an event at the Stuart C. Siegel Center, but admits the 2020-21 VCU basketball season has been one of the most difficult.

“I would call the basketball season a challenge like we have never faced,” said Doughty, the assistant athletic director for event management and facility operations. “It’s an unprecedented challenge. We are navigating things that we have never had to deal with.”

And now, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, VCU is co-hosting the Atlantic 10 Men’s Basketball Championship with the University of Richmond and also hosting the Atlantic 10 Women’s Basketball Championship. Over a two-week period beginning March 3, hundreds of basketball players and athletic department staff from over a dozen universities will be in Richmond. To make that happen, phone calls, meetings, emails and a huge amount of coordination were required to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19. 

“It’s never-ending,” Doughty said.  Workers lay down decals on the floor at the Stuart C. Siegel Center. [View Image]
Workers lay down decals on the floor at the Stuart C. Siegel Center ahead of the March 3 opening of the Atlantic 10 men's basketball tournament. (Courtesy of Nate Doughty, VCU Athletics)

Getting the season going 

In June, after the A-10 canceled its 2020 postseason basketball tournaments and all spring sports, the conference formed a COVID-19 medical advisory committee to help determine how and when to resume athletic events. The committee consisted of representatives from schools in the league, including Gonzalo Bearman, M.D., a hospital epidemiologist and chair of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the VCU School of Medicine. Bearman has been central to VCU’s response to the pandemic. He was willing to serve in the voluntary role because he wanted to help the Atlantic 10 navigate the issues and play games safely. 

Following guidelines from the NCAA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the committee helped the A-10 develop protocols for playing sports safely during the pandemic.  

For the basketball season, players and support personnel were divided into three tiers. Tier one is players, coaches, training staff and referees. Everyone within tier one was tested several times a week during the season. They will be tested on a daily basis during the tournament. Tier two is secondary staff. These are university athletic department staff, scoreboard operations and others required to make the game happen. These people must be masked and physically distant from anyone in tier one. Tier three is operations staff like housekeeping, catering, sanitation, transportation and media, and they also remain socially distant from those in tier one. 

“The season has been a constant evolution of adapting to COVID protocols, but it has all been stuff that we expected,” said Ed McLaughlin, VCU’s athletic director. “We know that we will be ready for anything that comes our way.”   Rodney the Ram. [View Image]
Rodney the Ram during a VCU basketball game earlier this season. (VCU Athletics)

Setting up the men’s tournament

Even before the basketball season tipped off in late November, the Atlantic 10 was evaluating where to hold the 2021 conference tournament. The league wanted to hold the championship in Brooklyn at the Barclays Center, but the location created challenges. New York City experienced a COVID-19 outbreak in the spring, and the state had strict rules in place. No fans would be allowed in the stands. Atlantic 10 athletic directors decided at their fall meeting to hold the conference tournament at one of the league’s member schools.

“Given that the A-10 has a number of first-class basketball arenas and that each member institution would have regular-season COVID protocols in place, the option of moving the A-10 championship to an A-10 campus site became a viable reality,”

Atlantic 10 Commissioner Bernadette V. McGlade said of the decision. 

The league accepted applications from member schools to host the tournament. McLaughlin worked with staff in the athletic department and developed a proposal that showed the benefits of holding the tournament in Richmond. VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., and the city of Richmond, which sent a letter to the league, supported the plan. 

“I think we put together a really good proposal,” McLaughlin said.

League officials analyzed the quality of the arena, university campus and local and regional public health policies. They also evaluated local public health departments, hotel accommodations, testing options and campus protocols for COVID-19. During that process, the league discussed the idea of having the men’s tournament in Richmond and having both the University of Richmond and VCU host it.

The women’s tournament already was going to take place at VCU, something that was decided last year (a member organization usually hosts the Atlantic 10’s women’s tournament, and VCU had been chosen as the site). The women’s tournament is set for March 10-14.

McGlade said logistics and timing were the main reasons that the league decided to utilize two schools for the men’s tournament. During the first two full days of the tournament, the majority of the teams will play. The league wanted to split games between the Siegel Center and the University of Richmond’s Robins Center so more time would be available between games for staff to sanitize the playing area. The schedule also fits better with the league’s television partners. 

On Jan. 28, the league decided that UR and VCU would co-host the men’s tournament. The first four rounds are set to take place March 3-6 in Richmond. The championship game is scheduled for March 14 at the University of Dayton.

“The proposals by each institution, VCU and UR, presented an opportunity to create a safer, COVID-protected championship event that could truly benefit the health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and staff while offering a great championship environment,” McGlade said.

McLaughlin believes the quality arenas at both schools and the presence of the VCU Health System were deciding factors for the selection. The city has the infrastructure needed to hold a safe tournament and is centrally located for many of the schools and easily accessible. 

Bearman said it makes sense to have an institution such as VCU Health near the tournament. He added that the Richmond City Health Department has also been involved in planning the protocols. Fans at a VCU game during the regular season. [View Image]
Fans at a VCU game during the regular season. As with the regular season, fans at the A-10 tournament will be seated in the upper parts of the arena, away from the teams and university personnel. The only fans in the stands will be friends and family of the teams. (VCU Athletics)

Hosting the tournaments

For VCU and the city, hosting the two tournaments, which will be broadcast on national TV, is an opportunity.

“Athletics plays a vital role in raising the profile of our great urban research university,” Rao said. “Our men's basketball program keeps VCU in the national spotlight annually and bringing the Atlantic 10 Basketball Championship to our campus this year enhances the positive attention that our programs generate.”

McLaughlin knows the athletic department and the university are prepared for the task of hosting both tournaments. 

“We have a championship tournament going on in our area, and I know that we will do an excellent job,” McLaughlin said. “Our staff is really excited.”

During the tournaments, tier one individuals will not be allowed to spend time in their hotel lobby, and teams will be assigned a meeting room and a meal room. No hotel guests will be allowed on the floor where a team is staying, and teams will only practice at university facilities. Student-athletes will be tested upon arrival in Richmond, then daily thereafter.

“It’s the hotel, bus and venue,” Doughty said. “You could characterize it as a mini bubble.”

If anyone in tier one tests positive, the team’s travel party would be subject to quarantine and contact tracing to determine if they are eligible to continue playing. These situations would be handled on a case-by-case basis. 

The only fans in the stands will be friends and family of the teams. No tickets will be sold to the public. Under Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order, indoor entertainment venues are limited to 250 people. Just as during the regular basketball season, fans will be seated in the upper parts of the arenas, away from the teams and university personnel.

McLaughlin is confident that VCU can pull off both tournaments safely. The athletic department and the university have worked hard to develop the proper procedures, and the league has been actively involved in every part of the process.

“We are going to keep people safe,” McLaughlin said. “We have done that with our fans at games through the season. We kept the team safe and are going to make it a really good environment.”

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