The NCAA Tournament has been one of the last pillars of the college business experience, in that it pretends to be important to all the corners of the nation. It went to 18 metropolitan areas every year, and Boise could be the same as Anaheim and Lexington could be the same as Kansas City. It would eventually funnel into a big city with a gigantic stadium with high rollers willing to spend stupid money on stupid things and then sit 130 rows back to watch a massive scoreboard televise the game, but until then it could pretend to be the nation’s county fair.
But COVID-19’s place at the table is now pre-eminent, and the idea of having lots of games in lots of places is being shelved for the moment. The NCAA, which claims to have lost $375 million itself by having no tournament at all in 2020, announced it has seized upon a 67 games/one city idea for 2021. Without getting into the specifics (because the specifics are in many ways too horrifying to contemplate), the NCAA says it intends to hold the entirety of March Madness in and around Indianapolis because it isn’t leaving another $375M in the seat cushions, damn it.
That is, if there can be games by March. That is, if there are games at all. After all, when Iona’s coach thinks you shouldn’t be playing yet … well, we rest our case.
On the other hand, of course the NCAA’s basketball committees will find a way, because football showed them the way: letting kids get and spread the illness across the country.
Getting The Games In is already something college sports is struggling with, between the postponements, cancelations, and impromptu games. But they are being played wherever and whenever possible. Frankly, Cal-UCLA Sunday morning was every bit as frightening as Notre Dame–Clemson in front of field-rushing students because the new virus spikes were considered of less importance than having a game, any game, even one organized hastily in four days’ time. It was a pickup game in hell.
But whatever money was to be made had to be made, and the NCAA’s as-yet-underdeveloped plan to put all the hoops teams in Indianapolis basically takes all the obvious shortcomings of the football strategy and pressurizes them. It takes the bubble and makes it a petri dish, and in fact the women’s tournament would make it 132 schools, even though there is no mention of a similar plan by the Women’s Tournament Committee. Either they are smarter, safer, or warier, and none of those options would come as a surprise.
The idea of Not Doing This At All seems not to have been considered, or if it was, it was considered for only a zeptosecond or so. Whatever concerns existed about superspreader events have long ago been overtaken by making sure there are events at which to superspread. There has been, is, and will be no consideration to doing the only rational thing, namely, giving the whole thing a miss until there is an effective and widely attainable vaccine.
Now there’s nothing wrong with making plans; plans are good. The Golden State Warriors are planning to have games played for 50 percent capacity with a testing regimen paid for by team owners, which will cost the team an estimated $30 million in pursuit of a twentyfold return because even your lungs aren’t free. But there is a spike strip lurking in the Warrior roadmap, in the existence of city, county, and state governments that have shown themselves to be more skeptical about mass gatherings. Someone without direct skin in the game can say no, and no it shall be if the external conditions do not permit. Indiana just reduced its readiness to reopen because of spikes across the state. Indianapolis may not be up to this no matter how much it wants to be.
Nature abhors a vacuum, though, and if Indiana can’t house the tournament, the NCAA will almost certainly find a place that will because … again, money. That is, unless and until it recognizes the most obvious yet least heeded truth about COVID times. Viruses do not have calendars, do not have a favorite team except as a potential host, and already spotted us eight months before getting down to the real business of explaining our limitations to ourselves. Gathering college basketball as though it is the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally seems monumentally daft, but go tell adults chasing 375 large. They’ll find out. They’ll all find out.