Tulane alumni talk return of pro sports on webinar

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While the four major team sports are in the spotlight – and in some cases undergoing scrutiny – for their return, other sports have successfully come back already.

Four Tulane alumni with major roles in basketball, MMA and bowling participated in a Zoom webinar Tuesday night entitled “Return of Professional Sports: The New Sports Normal,” with Gabe Feldman and Dr. Greg Stewart, co-founders and co-directors of the Tulane University Center for Sport, leading the discussion.

As the NBA gets set to tip off inside the bubble of Disney World on Thursday, Tulane Law School alumnus and New Orleans resident Dan Friel has already put on a successful basketball event – The Basketball Tournament, which was held earlier this month in Columbus, Ohio.

The priority, Friel said, was making the participating teams “feel comfortable first” and take care of the other details afterward. Some of that included reducing the size of the tournament from 64 teams to 24 for 2020.

“As we started to develop the plan,” said Friel, TBT’s co-founder and general counsel, “the regional format like March Madness was just unrealistic from a staffing perspective and a cost perspective.

“What we started to figure out is we needed to be in one location to do it. From that point, it was a mad dash to find the location to implement all the things we’d been planning.”

TBT’s “bubble” included 400-plus people “from staff to players to production crew … that wanted to be there.”

Both teams showed up at games with bags packed. Losers sent across street to another hotel, winners went back to headquarters hotel.

“That was a health safety thing and a security thing. We wanted to make sure they had a safe place to go for themselves.”

The Cleveland Cavaliers are not one of the 22 teams in Orlando. The team’s senior vice president of global partnerships, 2006 Tulane grad Shelly Cayette, has faced a different set of challenges.

“The inability to engage with clients, how to build a rapport, all of that is gone,” said Cayette, who was a reserve center for the Green Wave women’s basketball team from 2001-06. “We were just focused on keeping people safe.”

From a business perspective, Cayette said, “We were focused on how our partners were doing. They’re having to furlough employees and we’re trying to get payments. From a humanity standpoint, we had to approach every partner differently. We had to get real creative on communication.

Things have been quiet at the Cavs’ home arena, Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, until the last couple of weeks, when it hosted a cornhole tournament and camps. “Is it driving revenue? No,” she said. “But it’s creating an impact.”

The Professional Bowlers Association was in the midst of its World Series of Bowling in Las Vegas when the sports world stopped in the second week of March. PBA CEO Colie Edison, also a 2006 Tulane graduate, was part of the team that made the decision to rearrange the tournament schedule but finish the World Series with a televised final on FS1 on March 15.

“Between March 11 and March 15, it was hour by hour,” said Edison, who took over as CEO last fall when Bowlero purchased the PBA. “We were actually the last live sporting event on Fox Sports.

“We were on a roll (when the pandemic hit). Viewership was up 50 percent year over year.”

The PBA has returned with “made-for-TV events” on Fox and FS1, which last month produced an audience that had 50 percent first-time viewers.

“We’re a non-contact sport and a niche sport,” Edison said. “It was about creativity and flexibility. We couldn’t do our large-scale tournaments.

“We ended up going to Florida because the governor said pro sports was essential business. Once we were on site, we had only eight competitors for one event and 10 competitors for another.

“We don’t have the funding to do widespread testing. It was ultimately about limiting the number of people on site.”

Unlike many of the other pro sports, because of the size of bowling centers, ticket revenue is not significant to the PBA. Still, Edison said, “It’s not been an easy process.”

Another sport that returned in Florida was UFC. Tulane Law School grad Jennifer Goldstein, who is a partner in the combat division for CAA, sensed a different situation with her clients.

“I don’t know of any fighters who feared coming back,” she said. “I don’t know there were many fears of the virus itself.

“The ancillary issues – the travel, the weight cuts – were the biggest problems.”

Tulane’s Center for Sport has been impacted by the coronavirus as well, said director of operations Eric Beverly, a nine-year NFL veteran with the Lions and Falcons. The center has a pair of contracts for former NFL players to receive care and screenings.

“We had parts of our operations suspended and postponed,” said Beverly. “Individuals typically fly into our clinic in New Orleans. We’ve had to now depend on players driving in. We knew there were players who still needed to be cared for.

“From the center, it’s really forced us to think creatively about engaging the different populations we serve – Zoom, limited meetings, focusing on issues around the virus with mental health. Creative ways to continue contracts and keep things moving.”

NFL players have been reporting to training camp over the last 48 hours.

“As a former player, individuals are itching to get back to some kind of normalcy,” Beverly said. “The challenge is the anxiety, the unknown, flareups. From a football standpoint, it’s full contact. To practice efficiently, it’s a full contact sport.

“The cancellation of preseason, that has cost people jobs – they needed to be on film. It’s a house of cards – one thing happens and it’s a domino effect.”

The difference with the NFL, and currently with Major League Baseball, is trying to complete a season outside a bubble, like basketball, the PBA, UFC and other sports like hockey and soccer are doing, especially in the wake of the outbreak within the Miami Marlins organization.

“I don’t see a scenario that you can permit that team to play in the next 14 days,” Friel said. “You’re not only supposed to quarantine but self-isolate for 14 days after a positive test.

“I’m skeptical about whether the NFL can proceed if they don’t have team-wide bubbles. You’re running the risk of having that happen. When soccer came back in Europe, they eliminated the use of locker rooms. That’s one of the most dangerous places you can be.”

One of the differences baseball and football faces, though, is a full season as opposed to a shorter run for a tournament or completing a season.

“The Marlins situation is very unfortunate,” Cayette said. “When it fails, it affects all of us. The NBA was in a different place; this bubble is us finishing our season.”

Dr. Stewart chairs the American Athletic Conference’s COVID-19 medical advisory group. “I think the Marlins really kind of opened everybody’s eyes,” he said. “We’re all watching that. We want them to be successful.

“At the college level, we’re not glad to see it happen but we’re going to learn from it. We’re going to watch what the Marlins do and what (MLB) does to get through it.”

What are the chances the NFL plays a full season? Said the NFL veteran Beverly, “In my opinion, very slim.”

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Lenny Vangilder

Lenny Vangilder

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Lenny was involved in college athletics starting in the early 1980s, when he began working Tulane University sporting events while still attending Archbishop Rummel High School. He continued that relationship as a student at Loyola University, where he graduated in 1987. For the next 11 years, Vangilder worked in the sports information offices at Southwestern Louisiana (now UL-Lafayette) and Tulane;…

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