The Toronto Raptors’ season may have had some bumps on the court, but some have called what the team has accomplished behind the scenes a miracle.
“We’ve spent 25 years building up what the Raptors are in Toronto,” says Teresa Resch, vice-president of basketball operations. “We just picked that up and moved it to a completely different country in two weeks.”
The Toronto Raptors may have built their brand around the slogan “We the North,” but they’ve now rebuilt the team’s infrastructure in the U.S. south. They’re playing home games out of Amelie Arena in Tampa, Florida, and have turned the ballroom at a hotel next door into a practice facility and team headquarters.
Resch says the team tried to replicate what it has in Toronto, including two full-size basketball courts on the fourth floor of the JW Marriott hotel.
“It was a very heavy lift,” Resch says.
In addition to four baskets for the players to practice, Resch’s team also built office spaces for coaches, locker areas, socially distanced meeting rooms for tape sessions, therapy rooms and training facilities.
To make the move, the Raptors called on Toronto-based BaAM Productions, the same company that helped the Toronto Blue Jays with their temporary relocation to Buffalo last season.
Annemarie Roe, BaAM’s president, says when the call came in on Nov. 18, her team had to spend a couple of days evaluating whether the timeframe was even realistic.
“It was a huge deal,” Roe says. “We needed to do a lot of pre-work from Toronto, in two days, to get ourselves oriented enough to say ‘this is possible.’”
On top of COVID-19 complications, BaAM had to deal with building a practice facility on the fourth floor of a hotel that was itself still being built. The JW Marriott hadn’t opened and was still under construction.
“They were installing lights and we needed them taken down,” she says. “As they were bringing things in, we needed to have them taken out.”
Moving the team to Florida also meant moving staff from both BaAM and the Raptors. That meant asking employees to relocate from Ontario to a place where there were far more COVID-19 cases and where it was spreading more quickly.
Florida’s population is only about 1.5 times Ontario’s, but it’s had more than twice as many COVID-19 cases. Florida has had 1.78 million, compared to Ontario’s 810,000.
Roe says her company left it up to employees whether they wanted to move to Florida for the project.
“Not everybody who was invited is here,” Roe says. “And that’s OK. We hope that we can get them the next time.”
Toronto Raptors open their season in Tampa Bay, FL
The COVID protocols around the team are so tight that no one with any contact with the players, is allowed to have contact with people outside that travelling bubble. It meant that even this journalist who travelled to Tampa had to conduct interviews remotely by Zoom.
“We try to create a space in our environment where we’re staying safe,” Resch says. “No matter what the virus is doing outside our group.”
Roe says BaAM employees follow strict rules for how they interact even among themselves. No one rides together in vehicles or speaks to each other in person for more than 15 minutes a day. Morning meetings were moved outside to a tent – without chairs.
“Everyone stands on dots with masks,” Roe says. “We all have microphones so we can communicate with each other.”
When the Raptors started playing in Tampa, about 3,000 fans were allowed in the building for games. That was stopped after about 10 games, but may be changing soon. Florida does allow spectators for sporting events. Last weekend’s Super Bowl was held only about six kilometres north of Amelie Arena with 22,000 fans in attendance.
The owners of the arena said this week they’re re-evaluating the decision to close the building to fans and may allow limited numbers back by the end of the month.
One thing this project has given Roe is satisfaction. At a time when people are stuck in their homes more than ever, having basketball back is a welcome diversion for many.
“We’re not health-care workers,” she says. “But I feel like I’m contributing on some level – even if it’s by entertaining.”
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