Sports arenas

How the Cavaliers paved the way for inclusive sports arenas

In 2017, the Cavs became the first NBA team to have a sensory room in their arena.

CLEVELAND – Everything is so exciting: the game, the cheers from the crowd and that buzzer.

But it can also be overwhelming for fans with sensory challenges, and that was a huge wake-up call for the Cavaliers five years ago.

“We’re here because we screwed up; that’s the end result,” admits Antony Bonavita, executive vice president of Venues. “We had a security guard who didn’t handle a situation well with an autistic family, and it was brought to our attention.”

It wasn’t just eye-opening for the Cavs; it was personal to Antony, whose 12-year-old son Dominic is on the autism spectrum.

“We had only found out about Dominic’s diagnosis maybe two years before,” Bonavita told us. “We were just beginning our journey in this world, so we were trying to figure out all about sensory issues.”

Antony and his team got to work, bringing in experts who would know how to build a “quiet space.”

“It was also an education for us, not only doing what I do for a living, but also as a parent,” said senior director of customer experience Patrick Scanlan. “I’ve seen the benefit of creating a more inclusive atmosphere, not just at sporting events, but in the world at large.”

Walk in cultural city, the inclusion advocacy group responsible for imagining the soothing space of Rocket Mortage FieldHouse. Every detail has been thought out for guests with reduced mobility.

“It was also invigorating and energizing that we were able to do something so unique that we hoped it would spark a movement,” Scanlan explained.

It sparked a movement: In 2017, the Cavs became the first NBA team to open a sensory room in their arena, kicking down a door for others to walk through.

“And of course almost every other team in the NBA is now sensory inclusive,” Scanlan added, “and that carries over to the NHL, NFL, NASCAR, wrestling, etc.”

Then the movement grew in the house of the Cavaliers. The quiet space is open to all guests with sensory challenges, including veterans with PTSD. There is a nearby nursing room, and the team has added a gender-neutral restroom.

“We’ve worked really hard to make sure everyone knows they’re welcome here at Rocket Mortgage Field House,” Bonavita said. “When we say everyone, we mean everyone.”

Antony is proud of the Cavs’ journey to inclusion, but the job isn’t done.

“I couldn’t say it again, louder,” he said. “If there’s something that doesn’t feel right at Rocket Mortgage Field House that doesn’t make you feel included, please let us know.”

What is he most proud of? This is Dominic, a constant inspiration for his father to do better.

“Dominic has a special relationship with this venue and with this program,” Bonavita said, “so for that, I’m very proud and happy that he can have this.”