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Thanks to a bubble, there won't be March Sadness this year


[1]



In an unprecedented move, the NCAA announced on January 4, 2021, that plans have been finalized to hold the entire NCAA men's basketball tournament this year in the city of Indianapolis.[2] Responding to the extraordinary challenges of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA hopes to avoid a repeat of last year’s abrupt cancellation of March Madness, which ended the season less than a month before championships would have been awarded.[3] The COVID-19 pandemic was novel at that time, and--due to concerns about the evolving public health threat--the NCAA decided to completely cancel all basketball tournaments, which sent players and fans alike into a deep March sadness.[4] Coaches, administrators, and executives at the NCAA have since been working tirelessly to ensure that the tournament will actually happen this year.[5]


Played every year since 1939, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament has grown through the years in size and prominence.[6] The annual three-week tournament generates almost $1 billion dollars in revenue each year for the NCAA, which in turn benefits all of its member schools.[7] Most money comes from a television contract with CBS and Turner, which pays the NCAA almost $800 million per year.[8] The men’s tournament is now one of the biggest events in American sports.[9] In fact, in a poll taken by Sporting News in March 2020, fans listed March Madness as the cancellation most missed in the sports world.[10] After the emotional and financial hit the cancellation caused, the NCAA was determined not to repeat last year’s decision.


Even though many professional teams experienced loss of gameplay during March 2020, the March Madness cancelation hurt just a little more.[11] Journalist Michael Rosenberg explained that if a professional sports league experiences a cancelled season, the best players are not only still paid well, but usually have a long career remaining ahead of them. In comparison, college players do not get many chances to shine, which is why the NCAA cancellation was an even greater loss for players.[12] Besides wanting to avoid the emotional and potentially career-altering ramifications of the March Madness cancellation, another missed NCAA basketball tournament could be a disaster for collegiate programs of all sizes.[13] The men’s basketball championship is the financial power source for the NCAA, bringing in over $867 million in television broadcasting and marketing rights annually and more than $177 million in town ticket sales.[14] While many schools relied on donors and cash reserves after the tournament was cancelled last year, they probably could not sustain that if there were to be another cancellation. The bigger the athletic program, the bigger the hit would be.[15]


Officially announced on January 4, 2021, the entire NCAA tournament is to be held in Indianapolis this spring.[16] This is no easy feat as 68 teams will play 67 games in a matter of weeks. In normal years, the games are played at sites all across the country. It seems impossible, but the NCAA has been working with the city of Indianapolis since last year’s cancellation to pull off this “bubble.”[17] Of course, an abundance of rules and procedures will be required to execute this plan. A local health provider will test players, coaches, and everyone involved throughout the month-long tournament.[18] Housing and transportation will be secure and limited. Besides a few family members, it is unlikely that any fans will be permitted to attend games.[19] Dan Gavitt, NCAA senior Vice President of basketball, admitted in a release that the tournament will be “complicated and difficult” to execute and that it will be “one to remember, if for no other reason than the uniqueness of the event.”[20]


The regular season of the NCAA so far, without the use of a bubble, has certainly been complicated and difficult. Amid college basketball’s pandemic chaos, dozens of teams have had to pause their seasons because of positive COVID-19 tests.[21] Hundreds of games have been postponed or canceled, some even when teams were already on site.[22] On January 4 alone, there were 32 games canceled or postponed due to either quarantine, COVID-19 infection, or exposure.[23] The Villanova Wildcats, looking forward to resuming play after being on pause following Coach Jay Wright’s positive test results right after Christmas, have been forced to cancel games once again after more players tested positive. This latest development means the earliest they could return to action would be January 15.[24] As these obstacles indicate, just to get the teams to the March Madness tournament will be an overwhelming task in itself.


As in previous years, March Madness will be televised and streamed by CBS Sports and Turner Sports.[25] Hoping to avoid the setback it endured last March, NCAA President Mark Emmert said about the bubble, “We have worked tirelessly to reimagine a tournament structure that maintains our unique championship opportunity for college athletes.”[26] It seems Indianapolis is the perfect spot to make this happen. Indianapolis, Indiana, is a centrally-located region which already has the infrastructure, volunteer base, venues, and passion for college basketball.[27] It also happens to house the NCAA offices in the downtown area.[28] Indianapolis, which has been the site of several Final Fours over the past years, had already been scheduled to host this year’s Final Four in early April at Lucas Oil Stadium.[29] This whole bubble-like plan is based on a similar strategy implemented by the NBA last summer when the league finished its regular season and playoffs in a quarantined campus at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. [30] This, however, will be even more difficult because the NCAA tournament consists of 68 teams compared to the NBA's 22 teams. Not a true bubble, like NBA's Disney, the NCAA plans a contained environment in a city which is historically the most basketball-loving state in existence.[31]


With so much uncertainty, why are all parties involved willing to go to so much trouble to preserve March Madness? The answer is, in part, because this tournament is extremely lucrative. According to the Wall Street Journal, the announcement of the bubble “is a sign of just how far the NCAA is willing to go to preserve its cash cow men’s basketball tournament, which typically accounts for about 75% of the organization’s operating revenue in a given year.”[32] A portion of that money then goes to member institutions through NCAA financial distributions. Last year, after the cancellation, distributions to Division I universities fell to $225 million, down from $600 million. Smaller universities also rely on the NCAA money to fund large portions of their athletic departments. Adding to the loss was the significant dip in revenue that Division I schools felt from the loss of football ticket sales.[33] All of these factors combine to make this year’s March Madness more important than ever.

With the cancellation of the March Madness 2020 tournament alone, schools lost out on approximately $375 million from the NCAA.[34] Certain to be a unique event, Gavitt says they are “making the most of the circumstances the global pandemic has presented.”[35] In addition to following all of the safety protocols, the NCAA in December 2020 also filed a trademark for “Mask Madness” to promote mask wearing around the 2021 tournament.[36] The NCAA wants to use the term to promote public awareness about the benefits of wearing masks while stopping at nothing to enable the tournament to proceed safely.


Despite all the obstacles, the goal remains to simply get to March and have a tournament.[37] Nobody wants to go through the depression, the March Sadness, of last year again, not to mention the economic deprivation. The bubble-like scenario in Indianapolis just may work. Officials from the city of Indianapolis and the NCAA have been studying the NBA, NHL, MLB, and other pandemic-era events all year.[38] Says Gavitt, “We’ve had the benefit of seeing what works, and what doesn’t work.”[39] Just maybe, with a little luck and a lot of Mask Madness, the NCAA can pull off this once-in-a-lifetime historical March Madness.

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Alec is currently a first-year law student at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.



[1] Photo, https://nypost.com/2020/03/12/march-madness-2020-officially-canceled-due-to-coronavirus-outbreak/.

[2] Zach Osterman, It’s Official: 2021 NCAA Tournament to be Played Entirely in Central Indiana, Indianapolis, IndyStar, (Jan. 4, 2021), https://www.indystar.com/story/sports/college/2021/01/04/2021-march-madness-played-entirely-indianapolis-central-indiana/4124594001/.

[3] Ralph D. Russo, March Madness: NCAA Tournaments Canceled due to Coronavirus, AP News, (March 12, 2020), https://apnews.com/article/2aadecde31bcf24c56b3b81e69f6f90c.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Russo, supra note 3.

[9] Id.

[10] Zac Al-Khateeb, Canceled Sports Bracket: Fans Will Miss March Madness Most in World Without Sports, Sporting News, (March 28, 2020), https://www.sportingnews.com/us/ncaa-basketball/news/canceled-sports-bracket-vote-for-sporting-event-youll-miss-most-this-spring/455ljfmzbx14zzuwfr6d5qiv.

[11] Michael Rosenberg, Cancellation of March Madness Hurts a Little More than the Rest, Sports Illustrated, (March 12, 2020), https://www.si.com/college/2020/03/12/march-madness-cancellation-coronavirus-hurts-more.

[12] Id.

[13] Lukas Southard, When Collegiate Sports are Sidelined, Schools and Local Economies take a Hit, Marketplace, (Aug. 4, 2020), https://www.marketplace.org/2020/08/04/when-collegiate-sports-are-sidelined-schools-and-local-economies-take-a-hit/.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Zach Osterman, It’s Official: 2021 NCAA Tournament to be Played Entirely in Central Indiana, Indianapolis, IndyStar, (Jan. 4, 2021), https://www.indystar.com/story/sports/college/2021/01/04/2021-march-madness-played-entirely-indianapolis-central-indiana/4124594001/.

[17] Id.

[18] Greta Anderson, NCAA Rolls out Plan for March Madness Bubble, Inside Higher Ed, (Jan. 5, 2021), https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2021/01/05/ncaa-rolls-out-plan-march-madness-bubble.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Matt Bonesteel, Amid College Basketball’s Pandemic ‘Mess,’ Calls for Pausing the Season Grow Louder, The Washington Post, (Dec. 9, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2020/12/09/college-basketball-schedule-covid/.

[22] Id.

[23] Joe Juliano, Villanova Again Pauses Men’s Basketball Activities after two Players test Positive for COVID-19, The Philadelphia Inquirer, (Jan. 4, 2021), https://www.inquirer.com/college-sports/villanova/villanova-wildcats-mens-basketball-covid-coronavirus-coach-jay-wright-quarantine-isolation-three-games-postponed-20210104.html.

[24] Id.

[25] Bill Chappell, NCAA Says 2021 Men’s March Madness will take Place in a Bubble in Indiana, NPR, (Jan. 4, 2021), https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2021/01/04/953261708/ncaa-says-2021-march-madness-will-take-place-in-a-bubble-in-indiana.

[26] Id.

[27] Bob Kravitz, Indianapolis is a Perfect Host for Men’s NCAA Tournament: Here’s Why, The Athletic, (Jan. 4, 2021), https://theathletic.com/2301669/2021/01/04/indianapolis-host-ncaa-tournament-march-madness/.

[28] Id.

[29] Dan Mennella, Indianapolis to Host Entirety of March Madness in Bubble Setting: Report, Radio.com, (Jan. 4, 2021), https://www.radio.com/sports/nba/indy-to-host-entirety-of-march-madness-in-bubble-report.

[30] Id.

[31] Pat Forde, March Madness in Indianapolis? The NCAA’s Tentative Plan Would make a lot of Sense, Sports Illustrated, (Nov. 16, 2020), https://www.si.com/college/2020/11/16/march-madness-2021-ncaa-tournament-indianapolis.

[32] Laine Higgins, NCAA Will Stage All of 2021 March Madness in Indianapolis ‘Bubble’, The Wall Street Journal, (Nov. 16, 2020), https://www.wsj.com/articles/ncaa-will-stage-all-of-2021-march-madness-in-indianapolis-bubble-11605550080.

[33] Id.

[34] Bill Chappell, NCAA Says 2021 Men’s March Madness will take Place in a Bubble in Indiana, NPR, (Jan. 4, 2021), https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2021/01/04/953261708/ncaa-says-2021-march-madness-will-take-place-in-a-bubble-in-indiana.

[35] Id.

[36] Billy Heyen, NCAA Files Trademark for ‘Mask Madness’ to Promote Mask Wearing Around 2021 Tournament, Sporting News, (Dec. 28, 2020), https://www.sportingnews.com/us/ncaa-basketball/news/ncaa-files-trademark-mask-madness/1hqepa0rs62o115odk59fr6b3h.

[37] Pat Forde, March Madness in Indianapolis? The NCAA’s Tentative Plan Would make a lot of Sense, Sports Illustrated, (Nov. 16, 2020), https://www.si.com/college/2020/11/16/march-madness-2021-ncaa-tournament-indianapolis.

[38] Mike Lopresti, An NCAA Tournament Like no Other will take Place in a Basketball State Like no Other, NCAA.com, (Jan. 4, 2021), https://www.ncaa.com/news/basketball-men/article/2021-01-04/ncaa-tournament-no-other-will-take-place-basketball-state-no-other.

[39] Id.

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