Basketball tourneys pose challenges unlike anything the NCAA has faced

  • Senior Writer for and ESPN The Magazine
  • Born and raised in Western Montana
  • Spent 11 years as a feature writer for The Baltimore Sun

If there was one truism about the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments prior to COVID-19, it’s that they felt — especially the opening weekend — like a shared American experience. Once the ball was tipped, the action was happening everywhere at once, in cities big and small, from sea to shining sea. A basketball fan watching a first-round game in Boise, Idaho, could feel connected — spiritually, emotionally and financially — to a fan watching a first-round game in Charlotte, North Carolina. The tournaments’ geographical diversity was, in a way, unifying.

What will happen to the energy of the tournaments when each event is compressed into one state over three weeks? How will limited attendance, limited travel and players’ sequestering in hotels so they can be tested rigorously each day for COVID-19 shape the outcome of one of America’s biggest and most lucrative sporting events? Will things go smoothly enough that the NCAA will actually be able to crown its champions?

For better or worse, we are about to find out.

The past week already showed how difficult it could be, as Duke, Virginia and Kansas each had to pull out of their respective men’s conference tournaments after positive tests. The Missouri State women’s team pulled out of the MVC tournament after its Saturday opponent, Bradley, had a positive test.

Any team in the men’s or women’s field that notifies the NCAA before 6 p.m. ET on Tuesday that it can’t meet the medical/testing protocol will be replaced. Single-bid conferences can go to a preapproved contingency replacement team from the conference that can produce seven consecutive days of negative tests. In this case, the replacement team will take the place of its fellow conference member in the same place on the bracket. Any multi-bid conference that has a team, at-large or automatic qualifier, unable to participate, will be replaced with a team selected by the committee, from a list of (at minimum) the first four teams out when the original bracket was released. As with all other teams, in addition to the seven days of negative tests, the replacement teams must provide negative tests upon arrival in Indianapolis before any practice or shootaround activities will be permitted.

Kansas announced on Sunday that three players will not travel with the team to Indianapolis for the NCAA tournament due to COVID-19. Since most of Virginia’s roster will remain in quarantine until Thursday, the Cavaliers won’t travel to Indianapolis until Friday.

Plenty of players, coaches, athletic directors and NCAA officials will be holding their breath until Tuesday afternoon, knowing how uncertain everything is.

“We’re really confident [we can play the entire tournament],” said Mitch Barnhart, chair of the Division I men’s basketball selection committee and University of Kentucky athletic director, on Sunday. “We think if we can get everyone here, they follow the health protocols once they get here, we have teams that come in with seven negative test, they will be tested and quarantined when they get here, they will be masked, socially distant, practice facilities sanitizing, all of the things that are in place for this to be an incredibly safe and healthy tournament. If the teams continue to do the great work they’ve done just to get to the tournament, we will have a very safe, very healthy 67-game tournament and will crown a champion.”

With $867.5 million from television and marketing rights at stake from the men’s tournament alone, the NCAA could not afford to pass on holding the tournaments for a second straight year, but the organization also knew it couldn’t resume the annual events with business as usual. So, for the next three weeks, the NCAA is going to redefine what it means for teams to be “inside the bubble” in two states. Players, coaches and staff will eat, meet and sleep within a closed ecosystem. The athletes will venture outside the bubbles only briefly, to play the actual games that are being broadcast around the nation. Meanwhile, the cities of Indianapolis and San Antonio, desperate for an injection of tourist dollars after a devastating year financially, are hoping they can still create a celebratory (but safe) experience that thousands of fans will want to attend in person.

It is, to put it bluntly, a logistical and ethical challenge unlike anything college sports officials have ever confronted.

“The thing about planning an event like this for so many years is it becomes a well-oiled machine. There is kind of a system in place,” said JoAn Scott, who has been the managing director for the Division I men’s basketball championship since 2013. “This year was like taking the operator’s manual, keeping the titles and eliminating all the content. You have to reevaluate the way you’re doing literally everything: travel, housing, practices. We’ve been saying: ‘We don’t control the virus, the virus controls us.’ So, what we decided a month ago, it’s already changed. You have to be nimble and willing to pivot.”

Scott said she and her staff began planning for this possibility as far back as May 2020, when every professional sports league in the United States was trying to figure out how COVID-19 was going to impact the future of major events. When the NBA was able to successfully resume its season inside a bubble environment in Orlando, Florida, and Major League Baseball was able to hold a World Series in Arlington, Texas, that helped Scott and her staff visualize what a modified NCAA tournament might look like.

Turner Sports, which broadcasts portions of the NBA Playoffs and the NCAA tournament, was particularly helpful, Scott said, in helping her understand how the NBA bubble worked, and how holding the playoffs in one city limited the variables. As the college football season unfolded — not without controversies, outbreaks and mass cancellations — NCAA officials began to grasp there was only one way to pull it off. They had to focus on establishing a controlled environment, and bring every team to the same region.

“Everything we heard from those who had done it is, once you’re in it, there is a sense you’re in a safer place,” Scott said. “Everyone around you is being tested and they’re contained within the space. And we learned a lot about how we have to have corridors to get people from one place to another. You can’t just put people in one place. They have to get to the actual venues.”

In previous years, Scott would agonize over decisions like where to set up musical acts, such as Rihanna and Zac Brown Band, as part of Final Four weekend festivities. Now she is tasked with trying to keep people from contracting a virus that might send them to the hospital. The 2021 Final Four was already slated to take place at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, so the NCAA tournament staff began to wonder: Could the state of Indiana host every game over the course of three weeks? Admittedly, it didn’t hurt that the NCAA’s headquarters are also in Indianapolis.

“We did evaluate other cities,” Scott said. “But we were going to be [in Indianapolis] for the Final Four no matter what. We quickly realized that would mean establishing a contained environment somewhere, then moving to another contained environment in Indianapolis. So that was a factor. But the layout of the city also played a role.”

The four Marriott hotels where players, coaches and referees are staying for the men’s tournament all connect to the Indiana Convention Center through walkways. Only those designated a “Tier 1 participant” (players, coaches, support staff, medical and physical trainers and referees) can enter the hotels. The players will be able to walk to and from their practices, study halls and meeting rooms without leaving the controlled environment.

Tier 1 participants will also be required to wear contact tracing devices made by KINEXON, a sports technology company, during practices and games, which “coupled with video analysis, provide data that allows total time measurement of those who are within 6 feet of a newly infected individual with COVID-19,” the NCAA said. They won’t be required to wear them when in their rooms, during meals or when studying.

“We talked a lot about [participants wearing KINEXON devices 24 hours a day] and decided these are ultimately college students,” said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball. “We need to do everything we can to keep them safe and healthy and ready to compete, but the committee and staff didn’t think it was appropriate to be monitoring young men and women 24 hours a day. They’re responsible adults who can make decisions on their own. You always look at what the unintended consequences that could come from a decision, and the criticism that could come, the discomfort of a student athlete monitored 24 hours a day, especially when they’re in their hotels studying, sleeping or resting, was not something the committee or staff were comfortable with.”

Coordinating all the various moving parts — transportation, distributing meals to the players in their rooms, testing, practices, games — over the next three weeks is likely going to go down as a marvel of modern event planning if the NCAA can successfully pull it off. The NFL, which has held its pre-draft scouting combine in Indianapolis every year since 1987, mulled trying to go forward with a modified version before scrapping that idea and going all virtual. And what the NCAA is attempting is far more ambitious than asking players to run 40-yard dashes and bench press 225 pounds.

In addition to Lucas Oil Stadium, there will be games held at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (the Indiana Pacers’ home court), Hinkle Fieldhouse (Butler’s home court), Indiana Farmers Coliseum (IUPUI’s home court) as well as Mackey Arena (Purdue’s home court in West Lafayette) and Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall (Indiana’s home court in Bloomington). Every arena will need to be cleaned after every game, so unlike previous tournaments, there won’t be doubleheaders on the same court. Regardless of what protocols schools followed during the regular season, they will all have to follow one standard when they arrive in Indianapolis. In an attempt to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the state of Indiana is going to distribute 100,000 March Madness-themed masks outside every venue where games are held.

There will be testing collection sites in every hotel, and testing will be done by IU Health daily, paid for by the NCAA. Prior to coming to the tournament, players, coaches, staff and officials need to present proof they’ve had seven straight days of negative testing, and one of those must be a PCR test. Once they show up, everyone has to quarantine in their hotel for two days (and two consecutive negative tests) before they are released to move within the bubble. From there on, everyone will have PCR tests done daily. Players can have up to six family members or guests present at games but have been told they cannot interact with them during the tournament, an additional challenge that might be difficult to enforce.

The Marion County Public Health Department will administer COVID-19 tests and also handle any dispute about inconclusive results, Gavitt said. There are provisions in place to handle potential false positives and retest athletes quickly. The NCAA has decided that as long as a team has at least five healthy and COVID-19-free players and a coach, it will be allowed to continue participating in the tournament, so a minor outbreak won’t eliminate a team from competition.

“I think the biggest stress is that so many answers affect someone else,” Scott said. “How does something affect transportation? How does it affect a practice schedule? That kind of schedule has always been set in stone at other sites. My plan is to be in essentially a control center [at one of the hotels], putting out fires and making decisions when things don’t go well. We’re going to have to communicate to coaches what happens with testing. That’s the thing that’s on my mind the most.”

Under tournament protocols, a positive test is presumed accurate and the individual will go into isolation. A second test will then be scheduled, and if it is also positive, the result will be considered conclusive. If the second test is negative, a third test will be scheduled. If it’s also negative, the first test will be considered a false positive. The NCAA said on Wednesday that even if a team has an outbreak of positive cases after selection but before the tournament begins, they won’t be replaced as long as they have five healthy players and a coach. They can continue to advance as long as those minimums are met. If teams do need to be replaced before Tuesday, four teams — Louisville, Colorado State, St. Louis and Ole Miss — have been told to remain on stand-by at their campuses, awaiting the potential call.

“The committee talked about this and wrestled with contingencies and thought it was fairest for a team that had a great season, earned their way into this tournament, even if they were to be compromised in some way, if they have five players, they have the opportunity to compete rather than be replaced,” Gavitt said.

In some respects, the men’s tournament in Indianapolis might be less complicated than the women’s tournament based in San Antonio due to Texas officials’ recent decision to lift — in its entirety — the statewide mandate for mask wearing. The NCAA is allowing up to 17% capacity for the Sweet 16 through the Final Four. But it is a bit unclear whether it will be able to enforce a mask mandate at the Alamodome or any of its other tournament sites in San Antonio, San Marcos and Austin. San Antonio mayor Ron Nirenberg has recently been encouraging residents to continue wearing masks but has stated that the city doesn’t have the authority to issue any kind of mandate that overrules Gov. Greg Abbott’s order.

In a statement, the NCAA said it will “continue to work closely with local medical authorities, the NCAA COVID-19 Medical Advisory Group, and CDC guidelines to determine the appropriate health and safety protocols for our events” but didn’t comment further on how it will handle any disagreements that arise.

Indiana remains under a mask mandate for indoor gatherings unless eating or drinking, meaning those who attend games (but don’t participate) will be required to comply, but outside the bubble, another COVID-19-related complexity is going to play out as the tournament unfolds: What kind of celebration and social interaction can Indianapolis offer to tourists when they need to keep separate from everyone involved in the entertainment?

Indianapolis businesses breathed a huge sigh of relief when the NCAA announced it would allow up to 25% capacity for games, albeit with some limitations (no fans, for example, will be allowed to sit within 20 rows of the court; attendance at Assembly Hall will be capped at 500; and attendance at Mackey Arena will be capped at 12-13% of its 14,222 seats). Indianapolis officials estimate the city has 83,000 people who depend on tourism for a paycheck, so any kind of lifeline is being met with gratitude. When Indianapolis last hosted the Final Four in 2015, the event generated an estimated $92-95 million in economic impact on the city.

“I think the planning around March Madness has given our community hope,” said Chris Gahl, the senior VP of marketing and communication for Visit Indy, a nonprofit organization that promotes Indianapolis tourism and local businesses. “It’s helped boost the confidence in our businesses, and that there is a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Tourism is a $5 billion industry in Indianapolis and right now, and 50% of people in that industry are either unemployed or underemployed. So this is a much-needed boost to our workforce. I think there is a real sense of pride that the NCAA is entrusting its premier event to Indianapolis in totality. We realize every other city in the nation would crave to have this opportunity, so we do not take it lightly.”

How many fans are likely to make the pilgrimage to Indianapolis to eat in restaurants, hang out in bars and socialize with one another with only so many tickets available? The truth is, it will likely depend on which teams advance throughout the tournament, Gahl said. You might be rooting for undefeated and top-ranked Gonzaga, but the city of Indianapolis will be unabashedly pulling for teams that have much bigger — and regional — fan bases.

“Columbus, Ohio, is a city we market year-round to come visit Indy,” Gahl said. “With Ohio State as a high-ranked seed, we’re already through our paid marketing starting to message Ohio residents to come to Indianapolis whether they have a game ticket or not. And we’ve already begun the same for fans in Lansing and Ann Arbor [Michigan]. I think regardless of which teams advance, it’s going to have a nine-figure impact on our community, and candidly, if the weather is good and people are able to sit outside, it could be even better than that.”

Indianapolis restaurants and bars have been trying to scheme up as much outdoor dining as physically possible prior to the tournament tipping off, and Gahl said several downtown streets will be closed by the city this month to help facilitate it. In the fall of 2020, the city implemented a grant program to help restaurants expand or create outdoor seating, including providing heaters. But the reality is, some of Indianapolis’ most famed restaurants simply aren’t set up for that kind of experience, and are hoping enough people will feel comfortable with what they can offer.

“It’s been a struggle,” said Craig Huse, the co-owner of the city’s famed St. Elmo Steak House, a downtown institution since 1902. “We were closed for 81 days this year. As business reopened in early June, we’ve been running about 50% of our normal revenue. We’re fortunate in that we’re still a bit of a destination restaurant. We’ve had people drive over from Michigan and Illinois, places with more restrictions than Indiana, just looking for a fresh scene and wanting to have a meal indoors. But it’s been tough.”

The NFL’s decision to cancel the combine was another blow to St. Elmo, considering it’s one of the restaurant’s biggest weeks of the year — nearly impossible to get a table if you didn’t book weeks in advance. But it also reminded him of what happened in March of last year, with the city of Indianapolis set to host the Big Ten men’s basketball championship and an NCAA regional, only to see it wiped away by COVID-19.

“Basketball is just such a huge deal in Indiana, and we do some fun events around the NCAAs,” Huse said. “It’s a guys’ event with aprons, huge cuts of beef, one price, all you can eat, day drinking. It kind of takes you back to your college days when you’d skip class just to watch the first day of the tournament. We ended up calling it March Sadness last year. So we’re happy this year to have March Madness back and the sadness gone, even if it is going to look and feel a little different.”

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