State Farm Arena could host NCAA basketball bubble event



State Farm Arena possibly could be a site for a college basketball bubble event in December. It would be the evolution of a series of games already scheduled for the arena, including a game between Georgia Tech and Kentucky on Nov. 27.

“We feel really good with the event happening as it is, but we also have the option to pivot if we need to,” event organizer Chris Williams told the AJC.

Originally, Williams set up the Tech-Kentucky game along with four games Dec. 12 – Clemson-Alabama, Mississippi State-Dayton, LSU-South Florida and Auburn-Memphis. It was an addition to a nationally recognized high-school event that Williams has operated called Holiday Hoopsgiving. This coming season was the first time that the event included college teams.

However, the viability of those games has grown questionable as the start of the college basketball season has been pushed back from Nov. 10 to Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving. The NCAA voted to make the switch Wednesday, according an Associated Press report, also reducing the number of maximum regular-season games from 31 to 27.

Further, concerns about playing nonconference games against teams with less stringent COVID-19 testing protocols have created further doubt about standard nonconference games. Into that realm, the concept of bubble events, similar to the models used by the NBA and WNBA, have popped up nationally. Williams' plans for one at State Farm Arena have drawn significant interest, he said, including from Tech.

“He was saying they would be interested and to keep him updated,” Williams said of Tech coach Josh Pastner.

Said Pastner, “We’re open to everything, but we can’t do anything until we hear what the NCAA and ACC tell us what’s going on.”

The Hawks, which operate State Farm Arena, are having discussions with various parties about bubble events, but no decisions have been made, a team spokesman told the AJC.

Williams envisions possibly two different eight-team bubbles in which each team could play four games over the course of six days. Williams' plan also includes the teams staying at the Omni Atlanta Hotel by the CNN Center, which would enable players to walk to the arena without going outside. Teams also could make use of the practice court at the arena. COVID-19 testing would be provided, he said.

“We kind of have the perfect scenario for it to happen,” Williams said.

Williams said the 10 teams originally scheduled to play in the event are interested, although it’s likely each would be looking for games against mid-major opponents, as well. But if any teams back out, Williams has had calls from teams nationwide showing interest.

“It can almost be a plug-and-play type deal,” he said.

It has been a trying year for Williams, who left an IT job with NAPA Auto Parts in September 2019 to go full-time into sports marketing with his wife, Tiffany, forming a company called the VII Group.

“Really, we gambled on ourselves and formed a company, and we had the contracts and created the business, and then COVID hits,” said Williams, who also is an AAU basketball coach.

Not only did COVID-19 impact the event, but he was infected with the coronavirus in late February or early March, he said. He said he lost his sense of taste and smell for four weeks and suffered bad headaches and chills.

“My wife had me quarantined in the basement, dropping my food at the bottom of the basement like Sloth from The Goonies,” Williams said.

Even without ticket revenue, Williams said he is hopeful that he’ll be able to break even on the event. He said ESPN continues to have interest in broadcasting the games and that there are companies that are “right on the cusp of committing” to being sponsors. He already has teams secured for the next two seasons.

“Me and my wife, we’re making it through it all,” he said. “We always say we’ll have a testimony to tell at the end of the year, for sure.”