In Gwinnett hotel, a football bubble is formed

Fan Controlled Football professional Bones Bagaunte, center, runs plays at practice March 4, 2021 and is a league personality on the FCF broadcasts this season.  The FCF is in the middle of its first season with players and staff able to play and practice in their Covid-free bubble at the Silverbacks Field in Duluth.  The new league allows fans to interact, by calling plays during games, voting on trades weekly and participating in real-time online during live action.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Fan Controlled Football professional Bones Bagaunte, center, runs plays at practice March 4, 2021 and is a league personality on the FCF broadcasts this season. The FCF is in the middle of its first season with players and staff able to play and practice in their Covid-free bubble at the Silverbacks Field in Duluth. The new league allows fans to interact, by calling plays during games, voting on trades weekly and participating in real-time online during live action. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Jaylen Flye-Sadler proposed to his girlfriend on New Year’s Eve. Just a few days later, the 23-year-old offensive tackle got a call to gauge his interest in joining a new football league based in suburban Atlanta.

Flye-Sadler played at Tennessee’s Austin Peay State University, and was talking to NFL teams last year when his Pro Day was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

So for him and others, it was an easy decision: Flye-Sadler threw some clothes in a bag and headed to a Peachtree Corners hotel. He’s lived there in a bubble with fellow players from the Fan Controlled Football League ever since.

“I didn’t expect to spend the first three months of my engagement in a bubble,” said Flye-Sadler. “It was an adjustment.”

About 100 players, as well as coaches, training staff, a production crew and others have turned the Hilton Atlanta Northeast into football-themed condominium as they played the first season of Fan Controlled Football.

The Fan Controlled Football Commissioner Ray Austin catches the end of practice with his American Staffordshire Bevereaux on March 4, 2021 at the Silverbacks Field in Duluth. FCF is in the middle of its first season with players and staff able to play and practice in their Covid-free bubble. The new league allows fans to interact, by calling plays during games, voting on trades weekly and participating in real-time online.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
The Fan Controlled Football Commissioner Ray Austin catches the end of practice with his American Staffordshire Bevereaux on March 4, 2021 at the Silverbacks Field in Duluth. FCF is in the middle of its first season with players and staff able to play and practice in their Covid-free bubble. The new league allows fans to interact, by calling plays during games, voting on trades weekly and participating in real-time online. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

The league has garnered attention in the sports world, with former NFL players like Johnny Manziel, Robert Turbin and Josh Gordon signing up to play an altered version of the game in which fans call the plays.

Games are like a mixture of fantasy football and esports, played with real players. Four teams are redrafted week after week, and fans — who do the drafting — vote on which plays are called via smart phone.

Games air on Twitch, and are played at Gwinnett County’s Infinite Energy Arena.

“This is just the beginning for us,” said Ray Austin, the former Chicago Bears and New York Jets defensive back who is the league’s commissioner. Austin described the sport as a “live video game” and said he expects more teams in a second season later this year.

But back to the bubble.

The Hilton Atlanta Northeast, which had closed last April and laid off its staff, was able to rehire a quarter of its 100 employees to service the athletes’ new home.

For Dwayne Dean, the hotel’s general manager, it’s been a blessing. He was among those who lost his job, but was able to come back late last year. Lisa Anders, the executive director of Explore Gwinnett, said the economic impact has been “outstanding” at a time when many events still aren’t live and the hotel and other venues could have otherwise been shut down.

Anders said the number of hotel rooms alone was the equivalent of four large conventions in the county. A Fan Controlled Football executive estimated more than $7 million was spent on everything from housing and COVID-19 testing to venues and production.

Tom Cappello, the executive producer and CEO of Atlanta-based Crazy Legs Productions, compared the impact of the league to that of a medium-sized feature film.

Before he got the contract to produce the Twitch broadcasts, Cappello said his company had no revenue for several months. Not only has it made a difference to his bottom line — he’s also become a fan of the game, which he said feels “big and exciting and fresh.”

“Every game has gone down to the wire,” Cappello said. “Next to Atlanta United, it’s the second-best fan experience in a long time.”

Fan Controlled Football professional Donte Rumph #99, right, runs drills during practice March 4, 2021.  The FCF is in the middle of its first season with players and staff able to play and practice in their Covid-free bubble at the Silverbacks Field in Duluth.  The new league allows fans to interact, by calling plays during games, voting on trades weekly and participating in real-time online during live action.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Fan Controlled Football professional Donte Rumph #99, right, runs drills during practice March 4, 2021. The FCF is in the middle of its first season with players and staff able to play and practice in their Covid-free bubble at the Silverbacks Field in Duluth. The new league allows fans to interact, by calling plays during games, voting on trades weekly and participating in real-time online during live action. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

The first guests arrived at the hotel on Jan. 1. The transformation temporarily remade the business.

At the front desk, a security guard lets players know when packages or food deliveries arrive. Cleaning staff aren’t on the floor at the same time people are in the rooms. Masks are worn at all times by workers and players alike, and staff won’t get in elevators with their guests.

As part of the bubble, the staff — who are tested regularly for the coronavirus but who can go home each night — make a lot of effort to keep their distance.

And the space itself has changed to meet the needs of the bubble.

A one-time ballroom is now the fitness center; the hotel restaurant was transformed into a studio. There’s a barbershop in a meeting room adjacent to the bar, and the heat has been turned off on the indoor-outdoor pool so players can use it for cold treatment. Furniture has been removed from the lobby, to discourage gatherings.

Athletes are making the most of the experience.

Flye-Sadler, who said the thing he misses most about life outside a bubble is going to the grocery store, used Sam’s Club shipments to set up Flye’s Midnight Munchies in his hotel room — where he sells Pop-Tarts, Skittles and hot varieties of Cheetos and Doritos, netting about $100 a week from fellow athletes starved for some variety. He’s saving the cash for his Nov. 13 wedding.

Like Flye-Sadler, the pandemic also canceled plans for scouts to watch Travis Toivonen work out.

The wide receiver said he didn’t know what to expect of the fan-controlled version of the game, which is played indoors on a 50-yard field with seven players on offense and defense at a time. But he said he’s had a blast.

“I just want a chance,” Toivonen said. “It’s a different type of football, but at the end of the day, it’s still football.”

Instead of a coin toss, the teams face off for a game of rock, paper, scissors to decide who gets the ball first. The players are allowed to put whatever they want on their jerseys. And they’re encouraged to cultivate their own brands and personalities to bring attention not just to the league, but to themselves.

Caleb Lewis, who was playing for the arena football team the Quad City Steamwheelers before the shutdown, came in as a quarterback. He’s injured now, but stayed in the bubble working as an executive assistant equipment manager.

He’s also charging $20 a pop for haircuts — tips are appreciated. He trims about three people a day.

Lewis still hopes to make it to the NFL, and said the tradeoff of living in a testosterone-filled building with nary an escape will be worth it if he succeeds. The players go to the arena for games and to an outdoor field to practice three days a week, but are otherwise confined to the Hilton.

“If you’re trying to pursue a dream, it’s not really a minus in my eyes,” Lewis said.

Donte Rumph, a defensive tackle whose release from the Falcons was featured on the HBO show Hard Knocks in 2014, is also hoping to get another chance. That “unfinished business” is why he was willing to leave his wife and three sons in Alpharetta in the hopes that Fan Controlled Football would get him more exposure.

His wife knows opportunities like this end, Rumph said, so she encouraged him to play football while he still can.

“It still sucks being so close and not being able to see them,” he said. “I miss them so much.”

Two players were expelled from the bubble in separate incidents when they left the hotel late at night and lied about doing so, said Cyrus Farudi, Fan Controlled Football’s senior vice president of operations.

The league has taken a lot of precautions to ensure everyone is safe — from the pods that players are grouped into for travel, workouts and meals to the contact tracing devices everyone in the bubble must wear around their necks.

Fan Controlled Football players and staff, including head athletic trainer Sarah Johnson, front, are isolating as a group at their FCF-only hotel and the practice field.  They have designated vans for transportation and strict Covid restrictions.  The FCF is in the middle of its first season with players and staff able to play and practice in their Covid-free bubble March 4, 2021 at the Silverbacks Field in Duluth.  The new league allows fans to interact, by calling plays during games, voting on trades weekly and participating in real-time online.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Fan Controlled Football players and staff, including head athletic trainer Sarah Johnson, front, are isolating as a group at their FCF-only hotel and the practice field. They have designated vans for transportation and strict Covid restrictions. The FCF is in the middle of its first season with players and staff able to play and practice in their Covid-free bubble March 4, 2021 at the Silverbacks Field in Duluth. The new league allows fans to interact, by calling plays during games, voting on trades weekly and participating in real-time online. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Fan Controlled Football professional Travis Toivonen #13, right, is at practice March 4, 2021.  The FCF is in the middle of its first season with players and staff able to play and practice in their Covid-free bubble at the Silverbacks Field in Duluth.  The new league allows fans to interact, by calling plays during games, voting on trades weekly and participating in real-time online during live action.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Fan Controlled Football professional Travis Toivonen #13, right, is at practice March 4, 2021. The FCF is in the middle of its first season with players and staff able to play and practice in their Covid-free bubble at the Silverbacks Field in Duluth. The new league allows fans to interact, by calling plays during games, voting on trades weekly and participating in real-time online during live action. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Everyone in the bubble was subject to a three-day quarantine upon arrival, followed by two negative COVID-19 tests before they were able to leave their rooms. They’ll stay together until later this month, when the players disperse. The last game is Saturday.

In some ways, Farudi said, the pandemic was a “blessing in disguise” — it made more athletes available and the game was always intended for audiences to watch on a screen. Even in a pandemic, the business model still works.

“We really think the future of sports is what we’re building,” Farudi said. “The whole world is moving online. We’re rethinking football for the digital age.”

It’s the opportunity to be “more than an athlete” that appealed to Bones Bagaunté, an injured wide receiver who’s stayed in the bubble to host the Players’ Club show. He came to the league from the indoor football Cedar Rapid River Kings in Iowa. Though he didn’t have the season he expected, Bagaunté said it’s gratifying to see that he still has fans, even if he isn’t playing.

Bagaunté, who celebrated his 33rd birthday in the bubble, has organized chess, spades, dominoes and cornhole tournaments to help boost morale. He said he and others can get antsy, and the games help break up the monotony when players can’t just go outside for a run. It helps to find distractions.

“Of course we all have those days where we miss doing what we want,” he said. “It’s harder than people would think. Even though we’re being treated good and can’t want for anything, we can’t leave.”

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