INDIANAPOLIS — Three weeks ago, during the second week of March, Big Ten basketball teams started to arrive at the Marriott Downtown hotel for an open-ended stay ahead of the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, each happening in this city.
Not long afterward, this 650-room, 16-floor place transformed into a veritable bubble, completely closed to the public while shielding two dozen teams from much of the outside world for nearly a month. The Marriott Downtown hosted an initial 16 teams during the NCAA tournament’s first weekend, like three other hotels here, before being designated as the home for all those that advanced to the Sweet 16 and beyond. The Final Four participants are the only ones left, each using an entire floor until they’re bounced from the Big Dance.
But this bubbled hotel won’t be popped when the national champion and runner-up leave after Monday’s title game.
There are more high-profile athletes on the way.
Some of the most talented NFL prospects, 150 in all, are scheduled to descend upon Indianapolis next week for a strictly medical portion of the combine, business leaders and city officials tell Sports Illustrated.
“I have 220 rooms booked,” says Michael Moros, the 54-year-old general manager of the Marriott Downtown, which will serve as the central hub of the event. “I’m excited to have it. It keeps my team working. It’s my job to get people back to work here.”
As soon as basketball players exit, rooms will be readied for stars of another sport to be isolated in a similar type of bubble. From April 8-10, NFL personnel will conduct medical evaluations of the draft’s biggest prospects here, similar to those they’d normally administer during the combine, the on-field portion of which was canceled this year. Two people from each team are invited to the event, but the league is limiting those people to team doctors, orthopedic specialists and other medically related personnel.
A total of 322 prospects received combine invitations this year, but about 175 of them are only being allowed to hold medical evaluations virtually. The other 150 will be here in Indianapolis, where a busy month rolls on.
“Indianapolis is delighted to have major sporting activity after the NCAA tournament wraps up,” says Leonard Hoops, the president and CEO of Visit Indy who confirmed the news Wednesday.
For the players and teams, next week’s unique combine experience is essential. In a year where the NFL is prohibiting prospects from visiting team facilities, Moros’s hotel will be one of the only spots that club medical personnel can evaluate players in a face-to-face environment.
That’s important for those highly-touted prospects who are returning from injury, such as Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley (shoulder) and Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle (ankle), and those who opted out of the 2020 college season, like LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase and Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons.
“The medical exams are always the most important part of the combine,” says Jim Nagy, the executive director of the Senior Bowl. “The workouts have been the glitzy, TV thing, but when you talk to football people, it’s really only the interviews and the medical exams. Next week will be another touch point for the staffs even if the football people aren’t there. I’m sure the GMs and coaches will sit down with their medical staff and fill them in on the players.”
For NFL clubs, the normal pre-draft process features three parts: (1) in-person interviews/psyche assessments, (2) physical evaluations and (3) medical exams. Most teams have already completed interviews and psyche evaluations during virtual meetings with prospects who received a combine invitation. Clubs are mostly relegated to relying on college pro days for the physical evals, aside from the Senior Bowl, which held a largely normal week despite the circumstances. The event hosted 135 prospects in Mobile, Alabama, and 31 of 32 teams were represented, says Nagy.
The medical portion is more complicated. Combine invitees were sent for in-person testing at independent healthcare facilities near their home or where they are training. After those test results, teams conducted telehealth exams with the prospects. Each team is assigned eight to 12 players. The results of both the tests and exams are shared among the entire league.
The exams in Indianapolis are more orthopedic in nature. The NFL selected the 150 prospects based on both their draftability (higher-touted prospects) and those who may have been flagged for medical risks after their general in-person exams.
Most teams are sending their head athletic trainer and team orthopedic surgeon. Players and personnel who have not been vaccinated (roughly 85% of medical team personnel attending the event have been vaccinated) must pass a COVID test before arriving and will be tested each day in Indianapolis.
All personnel and players will be isolated to the Marriott Downtown. Players will arrive in two waves. Day 1 will include imaging tests, and Day 2 will feature personal exams.
For the first time in 33 years, the Indianapolis Crowne Plaza, the central location of the annual combine, is not hosting the prospects. For space purposes and because of the Marriott’s familiarity with bubbling personnel, the league chose Moros’s property.
Players and staff will be in a more flexible bubble than the one that NCAA tournament teams find themselves. In fact, Moros says he’s being allowed to open his hotel restaurant, coffee shop and bourbon bar for event guests. For now, they are closed as the Final Four participants isolate before Saturday’s games. It’s part of the NCAA’s bubbled approach to this year’s tournament, all of which took place in the Indianapolis area.
The near month-long event has provided a much-needed cash infusion to the local hospitality industry that's been rocked by the pandemic. The Marriott was closed for nine months starting last March and only reopened for weekends in January before wrapping itself in an invisible bubble with a surge of clients starting with the Big Ten tournament.
It will, finally, reopen to the public on April 13, Moros says. By that time, his hotel would have hosted two dozen basketball teams, more than 500 basketball and football players, another 300 college coaches and staff members, nearly 100 NFL personnel and blocked off more than 1,200 rooms over 33 days—all the while operating with 300 fewer hotel employees than normal.
It's another sign that the country is emerging from the COVID cave, and Moros couldn’t be more ecstatic.
“We’re seeing light at the end of the tunnel,” he says.