As the NCAA women’s basketball tournament heads into the Final Four on Friday, organizers have allowed more sunshine into the otherwise restrictive “bubble” that players live and play in.

After weeks of heavily restricted time outside, players staying in the hotels bought out by the NCAA recently have enjoyed controlled walks on Market Street, a private tour of the Alamo, and after the Final Four teams are decided, they may soon get to visit the San Antonio Zoo.

The new opportunities for teams mark a change from the early part of the tournament, when the complexity of coordinating 63 teams made any breath of fresh air difficult to plan safely. The first two Final Four teams were to be determined Monday night, with the other two quarterfinal games Tuesday.

Jenny Carnes, vice president of San Antonio Sports, one of the main organizers for the tournament, said on Monday that the smaller number of teams remaining in the tournament has allowed the local organizing committee and NCAA to coordinate more opportunities for players to see the city.

“We want to provide them an experience,” she said.

She said players in the last week or two have been allowed on walks through the corridor linking the downtown hotel – where teams have been consolidated – to the Henry B. González Convention Center, where practices are held. And over the weekend, organizers opened two new outdoor spaces for athletes at the convention center: an interior courtyard and a balcony overlooking Market Street.

Players have voiced their appreciation.

“They’ve done a super good job of giving us certain activities,” Iowa’s Caitlyn Clark said last week during a press conference. She and other athletes earlier this month were taken on a river barge tour with teams spread out across multiple barges.

Amy Shaw, one of the tournament’s team hosts who coordinates meals and goods into the controlled environment, said hosts have tried to give players and team officials a “feel for the culture of San Antonio.”

The recommendations of Shaw and other hosts have made Mi Tierra and Los Barrios popular choices among the teams for ordering food to be delivered to the bubble.

The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a long shadow over the tournament.

Last year, the tournament for both men and women was canceled altogether, dashing championship dreams and costing the NCAA and member schools hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue.

This year, the pandemic brought all 63 women’s teams to San Antonio, after the NCAA decided consolidating the games into one geographic area would simplify logistics. San Antonio was previously slated to host just the Final Four games.

The pandemic also brought extensive restrictions to the tournament, slashing what would have otherwise been a major tourism draw for the region. In the tightly controlled affair, players have only been allowed sparing contact with the city and its residents.

“It’s not allowed for individuals that are part of the travel party – or even myself, for example – to just go to the River Walk,” said Lynn Holzman, the NCAA’s vice president of women’s basketball. “It increases the risk of a possible COVID-related issue.”

Seven hotels were reserved for the event, though they have since consolidated the remaining teams to one hotel.  Outside of the planned activities, players are still largely confined to their team’s hotel floor when not at their practices, undergoing COVID-19 tests, or games. For games, teams have been bussed to their locations.

Many of the activities provided to players have been virtual. The tournament’s “Tourney Town,” normally a festival that accompanies the games, has been turned into “Tourney Town Connect,” a program that allows the players to communicate with one another and do shared activities like puzzles, cooking classes, and yoga.

Players were also invited to a Q&A with Becky Hammon, the assistant basketball coach for the San Antonio Spurs and the first female full-time assistant coach in NBA history.

But despite the unusual restrictions, it’s hard to find players complaining.

“We were prepared for it,” said Indiana’s Ali Patberg at a media briefing earlier this month. “We knew there would be sacrifices in order to play here.”

She said that even though she hadn’t been able to experience San Antonio, she thought it had a rich culture. “You can tell just from walking and riding the bus,” she said.

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org.