Inside the Premier Lacrosse League bubble tournament in Utah

Marcus Holman coaches as an assistant for the University of Utah’s lacrosse team. He also plays in the Premier Lacrosse League as an attacker for the Archers.

So when the PLL chose to conduct its 2020 season as a tournament in Utah at the Real Salt Lake facility, Holman was more than pleased. He would have to drive only 20 minutes from his Salt Lake City apartment to Herriman as opposed to the hours-long flights others around the league took.

But more than the short trip to the bubble environment the league created, he looked forward to showing what Utah was all about — both in terms of lacrosse and scenery.

“Honestly, I felt a little bit of pride,” Holman said.

Holman’s Archers were knocked out of the PLL Championship Series semifinals Thursday. The title game is set for Sunday at 10:30 a.m. on NBC between the Whipsnakes and Chaos at Zions Bank Stadium, home of the Real Monarchs.

The professional lacrosse tournament started July 25 with the league’s seven teams in a fan-less environment. Players, coaches, league staff and NBC media have been confined to either the training facility or the SpringHill Suites in Draper, which the league bought out for the vast majority of the PLL traveling contingent. Some people are housed at the dormitories a short distance away from the facility.

The entire PLL bubble consists of less than 300 people. There have been no positive COVID-19 tests since establishing the bubble. Some people did test positive, but that was during the initial testing stage that occurred before arriving in Utah.

The PLL is one of several professional sports leagues that have used one location to return to play after the coronavirus pandemic postponed or suspended seasons all over the world. The National Women’s Soccer League brought eight teams — it has nine, but one dropped out due to a COVID-19 outbreak — to Utah and played in the RSL facility and at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, home of RSL and the Utah Royals FC. The NWSL finished a monthlong tournament in July.

The NBA, WNBA and Major League Soccer all created bubbles in Florida — MLS and NBA in Orlando, WNBA in Bradenton. Those leagues are still playing, but MLS will soon end its MLS is Back tournament with the expectation to continue its season in home markets later this month.

PLL players, coaches and officials who spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune all said they have felt incredibly safe during the entirety of their bubble experience and credited the league with taking their safety seriously. Everyone took three coronavirus tests — one before arriving in Utah, one directly after arriving and one prior to a three-day training camp.

“This league has proven to be flexible and nimble and creative,” Waterdogs coach Andy Copelan said. “The fact that they were able to pull this thing off and do it with safety being their primary concern, they deserve a ton of credit.”

Utah was among a few locations considered to be the site of the PLL Championship Series, which when concluded will have featured 20 games in 16 days. Andrew Sinnenberg, chief operating officer of the PLL, said the league already had a good relationship with the RSL organization because it was planning to play a game at Rio Tinto Stadium sometime this year.

When it came down to it, Utah had everything the PLL needed.

“The closed campus environment of Real Salt Lake Training Academy just really fit the bill there nicely,” Sinnenberg said. “It’s something that kind of checked all the boxes for us from a medical standpoint.”

Players had the ability to choose whether to travel to Utah to play in the tournament. Some chose to stay behind for various reasons.

Playing without fans has affected bubble-livers differently. Paul Burmeister, a play-by-play commentator for NBC, said calling the games has been somewhat of an adjustment because he is accustomed to connecting his energy with that of the crowd.

“It hasn’t been as huge of an adjustment as I thought it was going to be, but I do feel it and I do miss it,” Burmeister said. “It’s different calling a big goal when there isn’t that huge reaction from the crowd. It’s a lot different.”

But for the players on the field, not having fans hasn’t affected them much. Some don’t even notice because they are in the throes of a game. Redwoods midfielder Kyle Harrison, however, described the fan-less environment as “weird.”

The league did implement several features in order to bridge the fan gap. Artificial crowd noise is played during games, and some players said it sounds realistic.

“It really felt like the crowd was there,” Holman said. “Obviously you don’t get the cheering and the ooohs and ahhhs, but they had kind of that white noise buzz of a crowd.”

Fans also had the ability to pay a fee and send a photo of themselves, which was then converted to a cardboard cutout and placed in one of the seats at the stadium.

(Photo courtesy of Premier Lacrosse League) Cardboard cutouts of fans fill sections of Zions Bank Stadium during a game for the Premier Lacrosse League Championship Series.

Under a normal PLL season, games would occur once a week and teams would travel. In the case of the Championship Series, each team played one set of back-to-back games during the group stage and played several games a week.

But the quality of lacrosse hasn’t waned.

“These guys are professionals,” Copelan said. “You can throw them in the middle of a parking lot in Alaska and just ask them to compete and they’d give you a great effort.”

Of the 20 games in the tournament, four of them — including Sunday’s final —will be broadcast on NBC, with the rest on NBCSN or NBC Gold. Sinnenberg said the league was fortunate that it could occupy air time on those channels previously slated for Olympic programming.

Chrome coach Tim Soudan said the coverage of the tournament could only help the game of lacrosse.

“This is a big step forward for the sport of lacrosse because of the national coverage,” Soudan said. “I think they’ve done it right.”

Lacrosse has gained popularity in recent years. The University of Utah brought an NCAA Division I program to campus just two years ago. And the Utah High School Activities Association recently decided to sanction lacrosse.

Holman, who has played professionally for eight years, has seen the sport’s popularity grow not just in Utah, but across the country. The PLL was founded in 2018 and started play last year, but there have been other professional leagues.

The Utes assistant coach may have left the PLL bubble not winning the tournament title. But he views the experience as a positive and successful one after hearing testimony from teammates and players on opposing teams about how much they liked Utah.

“It’s a really special place,” Holman said. “It was cool to be able to showcase that to other people in the lacrosse world.”