In hopes of preventing the March Madness bubble from bursting again, the NCAA announced its marquee basketball tournament will be staged entirely in the Indianapolis region.
While many details remain to be seen given the changing nature of COVID-19, six venues are in play for the 67 games to be played over three weeks.
- Lucas Oil Stadium
- Bankers Life Fieldhouse
- Indiana Farmers Coliseum
- Hinkle Fieldhouse
- Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall (Indiana University; 45 minutes from Indianapolis)
- Mackey Arena (Purdue University; 45 minutes from Indianapolis)
“We're going to get to be the center of the sports universe,” says Visit Indy President and CEO Leonard Hoops.
The Center of It All
Being in the spotlight for big games is nothing new for Indianapolis. It hosted Super Bowl XLVI in 2012, multiple Big Ten championships and seven Final Fours since 1980.
The NCAA had already awarded Indy the 2021 Final Four, one of a trifecta of factors Hoops attributes to this week’s decision. Other considerations are the downtown infrastructure in which hotels are connected to Indiana Convention Center & Lucas Oil Stadium—limiting exposure to other city visitors—and, of course, the fact the NCAA has been based in Indianapolis for more than 20 years.
“It’s really a community partnership than anything else,” Hoops says.
Not lost on Hoops: For Indianapolis to take on all of the games, 13 other cities previously awarded early- and mid-round tournament games will have to sit out this year. A similar fate befell Indianapolis earlier in the pandemic when it learned its shot to host the NBA All-Star Game was being delayed from 2021 to 2024.
The NCAA scrapped March Madness last year just days before the tournament was to begin. It was among the sports world’s first lost events—and a stinging blow to Atlanta, the planned Final Four host. While the pandemic continues, college basketball is underway, albeit with some leagues not participating and many games being canceled or postponed because of the coronavirus.
Play It Forward
Visit Indy has been moving ahead with large-scale events since last summer. In June 2020, Indiana Convention Center completed $7 million in new health and safety upgrades, including hospital-grade air filters and hospital-grade deep-cleaning machines. The effort earned the facility a coveted GBAC STAR facility accreditation and facilitated the city hosting more than 30 events (50,000 combined attendees) from July to December 2020. Those events included marquee volleyball and basketball tournaments.
Typically, the March Madness and, more specifically, the Final Four are among the largest sporting phenomena each year. But at least the first half of 2021 will not be business as usual for large-scale events and tournaments. A final decision about tournament fan attendance is not expected for another month, although Hoops is hopeful between 10,000 and 12,000 spectators will be allowed for the Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium, which has held similar crowds for Indianapolis Colts NFL games this past season.
A realistic expectation for early round games is that somewhere between 300 and 400 friends and families will be allowed to watch in person. “Those will be the hottest tickets in town,” Hoops says.
Visit Indy opted against an economic impact estimate until more is known about fans and other potential restrictions. What is known is five hotels will host the teams, with each squad assigned a specific floor at their designated property. Local restaurants and shops will benefit from their stay.
Hoops acknowledges some elements of the tournaments remain fluid. The NCAA is prioritizing that Selection Sunday remain March 14 and the National Semifinals and Championship occur as scheduled April 3 and 5, respectively. The First Four—play-in games usually held in Dayton, Ohio—will remain part of the schedule.
For its part, Visit Indy worked with the NCAA to ensure it would not have to bump a junior girls volleyball tournament already booked for the weekend of March 14.
There is some flexibility for when the other games are played because the 68 teams will begin traveling to Indianapolis as soon as the tournament bracket is announced. Their hope is to remain in the city through early April. Teams will remain headquartered in their respective hotels until they are eliminated, and only then would they return to their home campus.
That’s where Indiana Convention Center becomes one of the city’s true assets. Its size and flexibility will allow the facility to be used for practice courts, workout centers and classrooms. Student-athletes will maintain their academic responsibilities via Zoom or their school’s preferred virtual platform.
To make room for the undertaking, Visit Indy’s staff will work remotely. Hoops says that's generally the case now, but some staff, including himself, venture into the office a few times per week.
An interesting tidbit, notes Hoops, is that the NCAA is refraining from referring to Indianapolis as a “bubble,” a term the NBA and MLS used for their 2020 tournaments in Orlando. Rather, Indianapolis will be a “controlled environment.” To supplement the safety push, the NCAA is working with state and local organizations on a “Mask Madness” initiative to reinforce the need to wear face coverings and maintain social distancing protocols.
But you can’t take the bubble out of the NCAA Tournament. To be sure, some dreams will pop when the field is announced in March.
Photo Credit: Visit Indy