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How the Cleveland Cavaliers paved the way for inclusive arenas across the country

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

CLEVELAND — It's all so exciting: the game, the cheers of the crowd, and that buzzer.

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

"We're here because we screwed up; that's the bottom line," Executive Vice President of Venues Antony Bonavita admits. "We had a security officer who did not handle a situation with an autistic family well, and it got 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 into this world, so we were trying to understand all the things around sensory issues."

Antony and his team got to work, tapping experts who'd know how to build a "quiet space."

"It was an education for us, as well, not only doing what I do for a living, but also as a parent," Senior Director of Guest Experience Patrick Scanlan said. "I saw the benefit of providing a more inclusive atmosphere not just at sporting events, but in the world in general."

Enter Kulture City, the inclusion advocacy group responsible for dreaming up the calming space at Rocket Mortage FieldHouse. Each detail was designed for sensory-challenged guests.

"It was just also invigorating and energizing that we got to do something so unique that we hoped it would spark a movement," Scanlan explained.

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

"And of course, almost every other NBA team now is sensory inclusive," Scanlan added, "and this is spilled out to the NHL, NFL, NASCAR, wrestling, you name it."

Then the movement grew bigger in the Cavaliers' home. The quiet space is open to all guests with sensory challenges, including veterans with PTSD. There's a nursing room nearby, and the team has added gender neutral restrooms.

"We worked really hard to make sure that 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 work is not done.

"I couldn't say it again, any stronger," he declared. "If there's something that you don't feel is right at Rocket Mortgage Field House, that doesn't make you feel included, please let us know."

What he's most proud of? That's Dominic, a constant inspiration for his dad to do better.

"Dominic has a special relationship with this room and with this program," Bonavita said, "so for that, I'm very proud and happy that he gets to have that."

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