At this point in 2020, nearly every sports fan can describe the concept of a “bubble,” in which sports teams and personnel create a COVID-19 free environment by living and playing games in one singular location, often for months at a time.
However, these bubbles are restrictive in nature, so very few can claim the experience of being in a true bubble location, such as the NBA or WNBA’s.
For 2016 Bradley graduate Aaron Freeman, it was part of the job description as manager of basketball communications for the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx.
From late July through the conclusion of the Lynx’s playoff run in late September, Freeman resided in the WNBA’s bubble location –referred to as the “wubble”– at IMG Academy in Bredenton, Florida.
“I don’t think people realize how big of a mental toll the bubble took on people,” Freeman said. “When you go from literally zero to 100 miles per hour 24/7 for three straight months, it’s a lot.”
The aforementioned restrictive nature limited the number of team personnel each team could bring into the bubble, so a true team effort was necessary to pull off each game.
For Freeman, going 100 miles per hour meant conducting all his regular media relations duties in addition to helping out wherever he was needed – setting up the locker room and bench for a game, assisting with laundry, hauling equipment – to make every game happen.
“You can, in the moment, be like, ‘Wow, this … sucks,’ but in the end, I think you can’t take yourself too seriously,” Freeman said. “You’re doing it for the common good of the group and that’s most important.”
Freeman’s wheelhouse in public relations became logistically complex as well. With just one media member in the bubble – ESPN’s Holly Rowe – Freeman’s communication with journalists and broadcasters was strictly virtual.
Press conferences over Zoom, relaying information to beat reporters on phone calls and live stat feeds became essential to tending to the needs of the 10-15 media personnel that cover the Lynx every game.
“The relationships with our media are so important,” Freeman said. “Our market treats our WNBA team like they treat the Timberwolves [NBA team] and you don’t get that everywhere … So that was tough this year, not being with that group physically.”
On the other side of the coin, the strictly-online format allowed the Lynx to have a larger reach within the national media.
“It gave us a lot of opportunities to reach people we don’t usually reach during the season because all they have to do is hop onto the Zoom,” Freeman said. “The majority of the national media was able to be on every single Zoom of mine, which they wouldn’t usually get.”
Since Freeman joined Minnesota in 2017 as an intern, the WNBA has seen increased media coverage, popularity and television ratings. Freeman certainly has his theories as to why.
“If you put [the WNBA] on TV, if you put it in primetime, people will watch it,” Freeman said. “It’s good basketball.”
There’s no denying that the NBA and WNBA are treated differently. Freeman sees it firsthand, as he works for both the Lynx and the Timberwolves.
“On the NBA side … someone can sneeze and you’ll get some coverage,” Freeman said. “When, if someone sneezed on the WNBA side, you have to tell the media someone sneezed … On the WNBA side it’s a little more pulling teeth, and that sucks.”
Entering the field, Freeman was no stranger to the world of media coverage and public relations thanks to his experiences at Bradley starting in 2012.
He spent his first years on the Hilltop exploring career paths while working for The Scout and Braves Vision, and participating in internships at WBBM radio in Chicago and in the sports department at ABC Los Angeles. But it was a summer public relations internship with the Chicago Sky prior to Freeman’s senior year, combined with experience working with Bradley Athletics’ Sports Information Department that helped him settle on a career in the field.
“When I left Bradley, I didn’t want to have any regrets, and I don’t think I had any,” Freeman said. “I literally squeezed every ounce of juice that I could out of that place … I’m very thankful for those relationships and those experiences because you’re able to hone in who you want to be.”
From there, Freeman took an internship with Minnesota following graduation and worked his way up the organizational ladder to his current position as a basketball communications manager.
“There were a lot of nights when I first got out of college, a lot of nights when I first moved here when I was lonely, I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t have anyone to lean on,” Freeman said. “[I would] sit here after games like, ‘Wow, I’m just an intern, what am I doing?’ But it all worked out … And if you work hard and kind of put your head down and just have fun while you’re doing it, I always say it will all work out, and it did.”