Behind the Scenes at the Men's NCAA Tournament: Weird Bubble Requests and a City Showcasing What It Does Best

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INDIANAPOLIS — Mikela Earley is off to find some chips and dip. Not just any 'ol chips—Ruffles original potato chips, in an eight-ounce bag. Not a nine-ounce bag or the party size, but an eight-ounce bag. And the dip must be ranch, creamy ranch.

These things are important. After all, these chips and this dip may be destined for a March Madness hero. One thing is for certain: These items were ordered by one of the 2,300 people, mostly players and coaches participating in the NCAA tournament, who are quarantined in four hotels in downtown Indianapolis—each its own isolated bubble. Maybe someone got the munchies before their big game or had a midday craving while watching first-round buzzer beaters. Maybe these are meant for a top seed’s sharp-shooting guard or a legendary head coach.

Whoever it is and why ever they ordered them, Earley is tasked with retrieving the goods. She drives a minivan to a nearby Kroger, finds the chips aisle and after rifling through large bags of Ruffles—remember, eight ounces!—she finally retrieves the proper-sized bag and that creamy ranch dip. Moments later, her minivan arrives near a somewhat secret side entrance of the Hyatt hotel, where, in a small glass entry way, two tables are stationed at a marked drop-off zone, a mere five feet from a row of inner glass doors that serve, this week, as the gates to the hotel’s bubble. That’s as close as she’s getting. A security guard stares through the doors from the other side.

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Earley plops the chips and dip on one of the tables, to be claimed later by a team’s own ambassador, and she then flings open the outer doors, meeting the chilly midwestern breeze with a smile.

“O.K.,” she says, “on to the next trip!”

Since last Sunday, which was the start of quarantine for many of these teams, there have been more than 250 of these trips, paid for by individuals or teams depending on the order. In fact, the chips-and-dip run, ordered on Friday afternoon of the first wave of games, was No. 273.

Mikela Earley searches for a bag of Ruffles original potato chips to fill an order made by a person quarantined at one of the NCAA tournament's four bubble hotels.

Mikela Earley searches for a bag of Ruffles original potato chips to fill an order made by a person quarantined at one of the NCAA tournament's four bubble hotels.

Quarantined teams, not allowed to leave their hotels, can order random products from what is described as the tournament’s “host program,” a group of mostly volunteers acting as a sort-of VIP delivery service with a home base in the middle of downtown. They’re fast and they’re efficient, accepting requests and payment methods through a text hotline, finding the goods at a local store and then rushing them to the bubble’s front stoop.

“Think of it as the ultimate concierge,” says Leonard Hoops, the president and CEO of Visit Indy and a man with a most fitting last name.

The host program is one of three COVID-19-inspired catering arms serving the quarantined 68 teams, game officials and NCAA staff. Until they’re bounced from the Big Dance, it is their only real connection with the outside world. The second catering arm is a laundry service, which, by the way, has churned through five tons of clothing in five days. And there’s a dining service as well, basically the tournament’s own, local version of Postmates (we’ll get to that later).

For the most part, the host program, its 15 staffers and as many as nine runners fetch everything else: specific snack foods, certain flavored Gatorades, cell phone cords, HDMI cables, batteries, socks—whatever the bubbled hotel doesn’t carry. You name it, they find it.

One runner drove 30 minutes outside of downtown Indianapolis to fill a quarantined request for a specific size of pants. One filled a $350 grocery order. They get weird requests, too. In fact, one coach—he shall remain anonymous— has a scheduled delivery each night at the same time for a tub of chocolate ice cream.

They get odd combinations as well, such as a recent order for both melatonin and energy drinks.

“Someone ordered men’s underwear and chunky blue cheese dressing,” laughs Brad Bowman, the 50-year-old ring leader of this outfit who also serves as CFO of the Indiana Sports Corp, the local sports commission that partly mans and organizes the bubble-delivering catering arms.

The weirdest order of them all came Thursday, when someone requested through the hotline a ukulele, a small guitar-like instrument made popular in the Hawaiian islands. Bowman turned to his kindergarten teacher of a wife for help. Wouldn’t you know that she found a ukulele on loan.

“Not sure if you know,” he quips, “but they don’t sell ukuleles at CVS.”

With endeavors such as the host program, Indianapolis leaders believe that they’re showing America the route to safely host mega sporting events in a post-COVID-19 world, while also igniting an infusion of cash into the city’s pandemic-devastated hotels, restaurants and bars. The city, they say, is serving as a shining example to all others in what is one of the first multi-team, multi-game major events since the pandemic hit a year ago.

As the country emerges slowly from its COVID-19 cave, this city is lighting a path of hope and optimism, a microcosm of an inflection point for the nation. A Democratic-controlled city at the center of a Republican-bathed state, this place has pushed politics aside amid one of the more politically divisive times, coming together to put on one of the most unprecedented events in American history.

“We don’t agree on every single thing,” says Indianapolis mayor Joe Hogsett, a Democrat, “but when it comes to the community and efforts like March Madness, Hoosiers work together.”

There’s a half-century of history behind this.

Indianapolis is known as one of the country’s premier convention and sports destinations—two industries that have been rocked by the pandemic. Hotels and restaurants lean heavily on massive traveling-group parties that often camp here for annual conventions and sporting events—from Gen Con, the largest tabletop-game convention in North America, to the Indianapolis 500, to the Performance Racing Industry Trade Show to its many Final Fours (this year will be its eighth, the second-most of any host city).

“For a city of two million people, Indy is proud to punch above its weight in terms of it being a convention and sports destination city,” says Michael Huber, the president and CEO of the Indy Chamber. “But that sector has been decimated the last year.”

Indiana has lost 40% of its tourism and hospitality workforce during the pandemic, or about 33,000 employees, many of them in Indianapolis. Many restaurants and hotels here laid off or furloughed more than 90% of their workers at the start of the pandemic. Roughly one-fifth of the state’s eateries closed, the hardest hit of which is Indianapolis’s central business district, referred often as Mile Square.

Patrons take in the tournament from a bar in Indy

Patrons take in the NCAA men's first round Friday at The District Tap in Indianapolis.

Here, even some of the city’s largest hotels, such as the JW Marriott, were shuttered for three months. Not only did the city lose the conventions and athletic events, but they also lost at least 80% of work commuters into downtown, says Patrick Tamm, the president and CEO of the Indiana Restaurant & Lodging Association.

“It’s a hard road to recovery,” he says, “but we’re fortunate to have the challenge to host this event.”

Leaders believe the men's NCAA tournament, even with reduced capacities, will bring in $100 million in economic impact. The surge is already washing over the restaurants and hotels here. All 7,400 of Indianapolis’s downtown hotels are sold out this weekend. The JW Marriott, shut down for 109 days last spring and now one of four hotels where teams are quarantining, is filled to capacity, with so many guests that general manager Phil Ray brought in workers from other Marriott properties.

“What I’ve told people is we’ve done the first and second rounds before and we’ve done the regional finals before and we’ve done plenty of Final Fours, but we never tried to do it all together,” says Ray. “We’re hoping to get a good lift from this for the back half of the year. Maybe people will say, ‘If it’s good for the NCAA, it’s good enough for my company.’”

A nasty storm Thursday gave way to bright sunshine and near 50-degree temperatures on Friday, with more warm weather moving in over the weekend. Downtown streets were teeming with fans, and restaurants even had a few waiting lines out front.

A mile away, at the city’s burgeoning Bottleworks entertainment district, the food hall was buzzing with lunchtime traffic. Cobblestone streets, shut down for outdoor watch parties, held giant projectors, and food trucks sold tacos and beer.

Blake Fogelsong, the 32-year-old part owner of eight restaurants in the city, brimmed with confidence. Business, finally, is good. At least eight basketball teams have ordered food from one of his eateries, Grindstone Charley’s, through a dining service that hospitality leaders arranged for the tournament. Teams can choose to make bulk orders from more than 80 locally owned restaurants. He expects, from the team orders alone, to make $10,000 before the tournament is over.

He’s gone from owner to delivery man, too. As part of the dining service, most restaurant general managers or owners are tasked with personally delivering the orders to the drop-off zones at each bubble hotel. Fogelsong served up a lavish buffet for Baylor on Friday night after their first-round win, leaving a dozen boxes at the drop-zone for team ambassadors to later retrieve.

For some of these restaurant owners, the pressure’s on. They’re taking extra precautions with the preparation of the meals—consistently having cooks wash hands, wear gloves and make sure to adhere to player food allergies.

“You don’t want to get the call,” says Fogelsong, “This guy is sick because of you!”

Brian Bowman, right, speaks with Heather Vaughn from the host program's headquarters in downtown Indianapolis.

Brian Bowman, right, speaks with Heather Vaughn from the host program's headquarters in downtown Indianapolis.

Meanwhile, inside the bubble, Susie Townsend is having the time of her life. Since games began Thursday night, the downtown Hyatt has been lively. A 30-year veteran in the hospitality industry here, Townsend oversees bubble management of the hotel. She entered the bubble last Sunday and won’t leave until April 6, the day after the men's national title game.

“It’s being a part of something pretty special and pretty epic,” says Townsend, a senior vice president at Visit Indy who’s worked plenty of these events—though none quite like this. “This means something. It feels like what I’m doing means something. I feel like Indianapolis was made for this moment.”

She spoke to a reporter on Friday while jostling through the Hyatt. “Oh there goes the Syracuse team walking right by me!” she says aloud.

Moments later, a fire alarm screams.

“That can’t be good!” she shouts to no one in particular.

After a long pause, she returns relieved.

“False alarm!”

Two blocks away, Earley has returned from her delivery of those chips and dip. She’s milling about in the host program’s headquarters—a somewhat spacious conference center that the Indiana Bar Association has loaned the group to work from for the next three weeks. On the first day of the tournament, the place is alive. Call takers steadily answer requests, both by phone and texts, and Bowman surveys the room, occasionally checking the latest game scores on a giant projection screen hanging from the room’s center wall. In one corner, Earley and a handful of runners await their next trip.

Bowman is like a proud papa, watching over his flock as the plan crafted by him and others come to fruition. Thankfully, there have been few hiccups. They’ve found everything requested, even that ukulele.

“Well, actually,” says Bowman, “there was one issue.”

It happened early on. The second overall request was for a runner to pick up a bouquet of balloons at a local grocery and deliver them to a bubble site, where a player’s parent planned to celebrate her son’s birthday.

No problem, right? The runner bolted out of the door, arrived at the store and then immediately called headquarters.

“There isn’t one bouquet. There’s 10 of them,” the runner told Bowman. “I drive a Mini Cooper.”

But like everything here, so far, all ended well.

“I’ll send over a van,” Bowman replied back.

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