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What Would It Take For A Big East Bubble For Fall Sports?

It worked for TBT, it’s working for MLS, NBA, and WNBA..... why not the Big East?

NCAA Basketball: Big East Tournament- St. John’s vs Creighton
Would commissioner Val Ackerman be amenable to a fall sports bubble?
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The Big East has been quiet since announcing the cancellation of non-conference games for all fall sports. We still don’t have a schedule for the theoretical divisional play that the Big East had previously announced, although some schools have been less careful with their websites than others. Still, last year Marquette’s soccer teams began playing tune-up games in mid-August, and even without non-conference play, it’s weird to have no idea when we might theoretically see any action for soccer and volleyball on campus.

With the rise in coronavirus cases in the United States, sports leagues have been extremely cautious in their return. One format that’s been very popular is having games inside a quarantined bubble. The Basketball Tournament, Major League Soccer, the WNBA, the NHL, and the NBA all implemented a bubble structure for their summer tournaments and/or return to play. Both TBT and the MLS had to send some teams home because players tested positive for COVID-19, but it’s important to mention that the teams were sent home before playing their first game of the tournament. Even though it’s unfortunate that some players were unable to participate, the testing worked and allowed the tournaments to continue to its completion. Even more important was the positive test rates decreased every day of both the TBT and MLS tournaments. Here’s a graphic that shows the breakdown of positive tests in the 10 day TBT tournament. For the MLS, no new positive tests have been found amongst teams continuing competition since July 10th – just two days after the start of the tournament.

I know it’s a limited scope but so far the leagues that have used the bubble format have been able to play and finish their tournaments. With the current ongoing strife in terms of positive tests in Major League Baseball, it seems more and more obvious that there can not be any serious consideration to non-bubbled sports in this country until we do a lot more work to get the virus under control. This is work that could/should have been done months ago, of course, but that’s a totally different discussion.

We’re here today to think about the possibility of the Big East running a bubble for their fall sports competitions.

Of course, in the circumstances outlined above, we’re talking about professionals who are paid to entertain us at the highest level of the game and also have unions to negotiate the terms of participation for everyone involved. It’s a lot more tricky to ask amateur athletes to go into a bubble for an extended period of time where they ultimately have no ability to dictate terms on any level — especially during a school year. If anything in that last sentence is a sticking point for you here, I respect your opinion and we will agree to part ways at this point of the thought exercise.

First things first. Before I even get started explaining my bubble suggestion for the Big East, four things must happen for a Big East bubble to even be a remote possibility.

  1. Marquette and the rest of the Big East schools need to shift to online courses in the fall. So far, Georgetown is the only Big East member who has announced they will shift to online classes for the foreseeable future. Quite honestly, it’s incredibly dumb to even pretend to attempt a bubble situation for student athletes if the academic end of things is pursuing an effort to teach classes in person. You can’t tell the general student body “Hey, all y’all need to be on campus to go to classes” and then turn around and tell the athletes “Hey, we didn’t mean y’all, please enjoy your remote learning experience in the bubble.” This is actually a bigger hurdle than you would think, because we’re dealing with 11 different cities and 10 different states (shouts to Georgetown in Washington, D.C.) in terms of health standards. What might make sense for Creighton might not make sense for Connecticut. This would take massive collaboration between athletics and the higher ups in each member schools’ administration.
  2. There needs to be overwhelming buy-in from the coaches and players. Whether they vote on it or whatever, there needs to be an overwhelming consensus. This cannot happen if even a notable segment of the coaches and players don’t want to do it. There needs to be an agreement struck between each member institution where the coaches and players sign off that they agree to all the conditions of the bubble. Honestly, I totally understand if players, who don’t get paid to play like the pros, aren’t willing to play under the strict conditions we’ve seen in the professional bubbles. In light of what’s going on in the Pac-12, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this item being the sticking point that makes the whole thing impossible.
  3. There’s also the money aspect of it which, by the looks of it, is spreading very thin for most universities who’ve been hit hard by the pandemic. Marquette, for example, is already expecting to take a $20 million hit for their 2020-21 school year, and that’s the conservative estimate. There needs to be massive financial backing from the Big East Conference and/or its members to provide the resources it needs to implement the bubble format for its fall sports. It was mentioned at some point during a TBT game that the prize money for the tournament was cut from $2 million the last few years to $1 million this year because the other $1 million went towards constructing and executing the bubble. That was for a bubble that lasted for two weeks and by design had a rapidly decreasing number of people in it. The Big East will need to have extensive testing both before players enter the bubble and repeatedly during their stay. They will need to rent out a hotel where the players can stay. There will also need to be security around the bubble to ensure players don’t exit the bubble and put the entire venture at risk. Everyone in the bubble will need access to meals in one fashion or another. That’s just the obvious items on the list of many things the Big East will have to consider to effectively implement a bubble. Plus, that’s just for one bubble. We’re talking about bubbles for the three fall sports that Marquette participates in — women’s soccer, men’s soccer, and women’s volleyball — and as we’ll get to, multiple bubbles for each sport! Could they be all in one bubble in one location to defray costs? Maybe, but I have no idea where that could be. It’s possible that the best option is separate bubbles, and maybe that’s wildly expensive! Maybe Fox Sports is interested in chipping in and putting some of these contests on TV? I have no idea what their long term programming situation is over there, but maybe they need something to fill the hours.
  4. The NCAA has to plunge ahead with the fall championships. On August 4th (hey, that’s tomorrow!), the NCAA Board of Governors is going to meet, and they are likely going to make a decision about whether or not to proceed with the national championship events for fall sports. If they make the decision to cancel the tournaments, then as was the case when the spring seasons were ended, there’s no point in going through any version of a fall season when there’s no national championship at the end of the line. Given that eight conferences have already cancelled their entire fall sports calendar anyway, the NCAA cancellation seems likely to happen, but hey, who knows?

Assuming all of those things align in a positive direction for our purposes here, and that’s obviously a BIG if, here’s my plan for the Big East Conference Bubble. Call me crazy but I’m trying to be the optimist here. Lord knows we need optimism, right?

Okay, let’s get down to the good stuff. Please feel welcome to offer additions/suggestions/creative solutions in the comments section below or even ask questions about something that doesn’t make sense to you. We’re brainstorming here, and there’s no bad ideas in a brainstorming session.

The Big East already announced that they will break up conference play into two divisions back in early June. For reference, here’s our article discussing this plan. This bubble discussion will only apply to men’s and women’s soccer and women’s volleyball as those are the major fall sports that we discuss on AE. Again, apologies to field hockey, but we’re not paying close enough attention to you to suddenly start now. We also have to apologize to cross country, but there’s not really anything to consider for those teams. There isn’t a “conference schedule” to consider and only one league championship race. That would seem to be relatively easy to figure out in terms of a bubble anyway.

The Midwest division is comprised of your Marquette Golden Eagles along with Butler, Creighton, DePaul, and Xavier. The East division will have Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Villanova, and new/returning member UConn. This already makes a bubble format easier because these teams are closer to their division rivals geographically from the get-go. The first action item on the agenda would be to pick one site for each division to play all its league games. Logically, you would pick the home arena of one of the member institutions from each division. For safety reasons, you would also pick the site fully-dependent on which city has the lowest number of coronavirus cases.

COVID-19 plan

All staff, team personnel, and athletes would be required to take two COVID-19 tests the week before entering the bubble. They would only be allowed to travel to the bubble if both tests come back negative. They would also be required to take a COVID-19 test when arriving in the bubble and once every two days they are in the bubble. If any person tests positive inside the bubble, they must remain quarantined at least 10 days or until they receive two consecutive negative tests and aren’t experiencing any symptoms. Every team will be monitored and will be required to socially distance and wear masks when they aren’t practicing or playing games. There will also be strict security surrounding the bubble and players won’t be able to exit the bubble unless they have permission from commissioner Val Ackerman. Like we’ve seen in the NBA Bubble, players are basically only granted permission to leave in the case of a family emergency. Players, coaches, or staff that don’t follow the safety protocols could face mandatory quarantine and miss games.

SOCCER

The Big East divisional play announcement that I cited earlier states that in men’s and women’s soccer each team will play their division rivals twice. That comes out to an 8-game league schedule for the Golden Eagles. Historically, the men and women have played two games a week during the regular season so it would make sense for that to continue inside the Big East bubble. For example, last season the women played games on Thursdays and Sunday each week while the men mostly stuck to a Tuesday/Friday schedule. In my version of the bubble, men’s and women’s soccer would play twice a week for four weeks straight. That would get them through the entirety of their 8-game league schedule.

Last year, Marquette women’s soccer wrapped up the regular season on November 1st, while the men finished on November 6th. Keeping in mind that the other division is going to play a 10 game slate because they have six teams, as long as a bubble could be set up by September 20th — which allows time for travel and testing before competition begins — then this should be possible.

VOLLEYBALL

Their schedule will look a little different since Marquette is scheduled to play 16 games according to that Big East press release I mentioned earlier. It states that they will play each divisional opponent 4 times. It seems a bit funky but hey sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to get enough conference games in to have some sense of normalcy as the volleyball team typically plays an 18-game regular season.

Unlike soccer, the volleyball team has often played three games per week, especially early on in the year in non-conference tournaments. Those are three games in three days events, sometimes even three games in two days. Even during the conference schedule, the volleyball teams in the Big East regularly play on back-to-back days. Playing three games a week for five weeks (or six-plus in the case of the Eastern Division and their 20 game slate) isn’t an unreasonable ask for volleyball in the Big East. There’s days off between games, which is something that usually doesn’t happen, and it’s mostly in line with what they’re asked to do anyway. The Big East volleyball tournament isn’t until Thanksgiving weekend, so there’s a bit more time here. Since the East side of the aisle needs six weeks to play out, that gives the conference all the way until October 1st to get everything up and running and still have enough time for travel and pre-competition testing.

Big East Tournament Plan

The following tournament structure would be applied to each sports’ conference tournament. The two divisions would pick one bubble site to carry out the Big East tournaments. The move is probably to just have one division champion travel to the other bubble instead of moving the whole league to one site. Otherwise, the move is to throw all of this out and just run one bubble for everyone and play your regularly scheduled season in said bubble. Honestly, that’s not a bad idea either, although I’m not sure which version is more technically complicated to execute.

This is how I would structure the Big East tournament:

  • Each division is separated with the midwest playing on one side of the bracket and the east playing on the other.
  • Seeding is based on regular season record with regular tiebreakers applied in the case of ties.
  • In the midwest region, the top three seeds will advance into the league quarterfinals/division semifinals with the #4 and #5 seeds playing each other in the first round with the winner playing the #1 seed. The #2 and #3 seeds will matchup in the other quarterfinal.
  • In the east region, the top two seeds will advance into the league quarterfinals/division semifinals with the #3 seed playing the #6 seed and the #4 seed playing the #5 seed in the first round. The winner of the 4/5 matchup will play the #1 seed and the winner of the 3/6 will play the #2 seed in the quarterfinals.
  • Eventually, the winners of the midwest and east region will face each other in the finals of the Big East tournament.

Everything should be wrapped up in time for the NCAA tournaments in their respective sports. Whether the NCAA can even pretend to try and stage these tournaments with multiple teams from multiple conferences coming together on short notice all over the country is an entirely different issue at this point, and I’m really glad I’m not the one trying to figure that out!

So, there you have my master plan! A 4/5 week regular season for men’s and women’s soccer and a 5/6 week regular season for volleyball with a conference tournament the week after the regular season concludes. If the Big East wants to have sports in the fall, the bubble format is the best way to do it. We have clear evidence that it can work, as well as clear evidence that following Major League Baseball’s path will not work. This plan is far from foolproof but it’s the only way I can think of to have collegiate sports amidst the pandemic in a safe manner.

As mentioned above, I’d love feedback on this! Fire away in the comments section with whatever constructive criticism you can think of, whether that’s something I missed or something you think could be improved. I am 100% sure I did not consider all the variables and/or missed some moving parts that would be clearly obvious to another set of eyes so if you have a crucial nugget that I missed, please share your thoughts below.