'Could we do this?' How Indianapolis plans to pull off a 'once-in-a-lifetime' NCAA tournament
The effort to pull off a once-in-a-lifetime NCAA tournament held exclusively in Indianapolis and its immediate geographic footprint started with a phone call.
In mid-November, NCAA President Mark Emmert reached out via telephone to Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb with the idea. Holcomb invited Emmert to the governor’s mansion to discuss it more in person — the two “met at the house and went over (that idea) as an exploratory endeavor,” as Holcomb put it on a call Monday — and thus began the process of planning of an unprecedented March Madness.
“‘Could we do this?’” Holcomb said on a Zoom call Monday, recounting his conversation with Emmert. “‘Would we have an interest in doing it?’ It didn’t take a nanosecond to say, ‘Yes, we want to, if it can be done safely.’”
And so it began in earnest.
After the NCAA’s discussion with Holcomb, came a call to Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett along the same lines. Like Holcomb, Hogsett jumped at the opportunity.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the city of Indianapolis,” Hogsett said Monday.
Planning for this tournament began on a variety of fronts last year.
The COVID-forced cancellation of the 2020 NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments made it clear the association would need to be flexible in preparing for 2021. The success of professional leagues like the NBA and the NHL in holding postseasons inside a bubble started Indiana Sports Corp thinking on how it might successfully host safe events amid COVID-19. The depth and breadth of the pandemic made it clear to everyone it would not be abating any time soon, and that drastic measures might be necessary to make March Madness work this year.
“It’s not just the challenge that is enticing,” Holcomb said, “but the opportunity it presents.”
From those meetings with the state and the city began a multi-pronged preparatory effort — one still ongoing — to address the practical, logistical, competitive and medical concerns necessary to making this happen.
The governance of college football, which runs its postseason largely outside the NCAA’s jurisdiction, is handled largely at the conference level. That’s where decisions for the football season that will culminate in next season’s title game were made regarding fan attendance, testing and a host of other considerations.
But the NCAA runs the rest of the championships, most notably men’s basketball, the revenues from which underwrite the majority of the association’s budget. Losing one tournament caused significant financial distress not just to the NCAA but also its member schools. A second would be hard to countenance.
That’s why the NCAA started into the problem as far back as last spring.
Relatively quickly, NCAA Senior Vice President of Basketball Dan Gavitt began raising the possibility of a one-site tournament.
“As the pandemic continued to roar on, it was something Danny had brought to the Board of Governors, the D-I board, a number of times,” Emmert said Monday, “the potential that we would have to approach this from a very, very different format.”
This year’s Final Four was actually awarded to Indianapolis back in 2014.
The preexisting relationship the NCAA enjoyed with the city, plus its reputation for hosting large-scale sporting events, made Indy a natural choice. So too did the extensive list of facilities in Indianapolis and the city’s footprint capable of hosting practices and games. But Gavitt said Monday the decision to settle on Indianapolis also stemmed simply from starting at the end and working backward.
“The Final Four for ’21 was awarded to Indianapolis in 2014, so we’ve been working for a number of years and very specifically since June on a monthly basis planning for the Final Four,” Gavitt said. “When we came to the difficult decision, the committee and staff, that having the tournament this year in a single geographic area may be the only way, and certainly the most logical way, to hold the tournament from a safety and health perspective, then where it ended seemed like the best place to consider where it should start.”
Game facilities will include Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Hinkle Fieldhouse, the Indiana Farmers Coliseum, Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington, and a pair of courts at Lucas Oil Stadium, only one of which will be used at one time.
The NCAA will not seal off a full bubble but rather what Gavitt termed an environment “which is highly controlled.”
Gavitt pointed to the rigorous safety protocols and extreme social-distancing practices many programs around the country are already engaging in, with the basketball season underway, albeit not without interruption.
Participating teams will be sequestered on their own floors within hotels, and assigned specific meeting and practice areas within either hotels or the Indiana Convention Center, which will house practice space. Only Tier 1 individuals (athletes, coaches and support staff) will have access to those areas, and they will be closely monitored.
“We’ve learned so much from the success of others about how to go about doing this,” Gavitt said.
There are competitive considerations.
For example, teams lending venues for host sites, such as IU and Purdue, cannot play a home game if they qualify for the tournament. And Gavitt said that while the dates for Selection Sunday and the Final Four (March 14, April 3-5) are set, the rest of the tournament calendar is fluid, dependent on both testing protocols and safe use of facilities.
“We’ll have those determinations soon. We do anticipate there will be fewer games per day in any one venue, because there will be more time between games to clean the facility,” Gavitt said. “It will be very much on a similar schedule to what we are used to, but not necessarily on the exact game days we’re accustomed to.”
The NCAA will also work closely with Indiana Sports Corp, Visit Indy and other traditional partners for logistical support.
While Indiana Sports Corp didn’t necessarily anticipate a one-city tournament, as far back as last summer, it was engaged in small-scale events like college basketball games in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, all the while mindful that those experiences could prove informative come spring.
“We’ve intentionally engaged in that effort, early in the fall, late summer, so that we could learn and take those learnings to an opportunity we thought might pop up,” said Ryan Vaughn, Sports Corp president. “It was conceivable to me when the NBA went into a bubble that if things didn’t improve dramatically, the NCAA might be looking for a similar solution, a controlled-site environment, so we just went to work hosting smaller games and learning things that are going to help a lot on the back end.”
Beyond that, Sports Corp also engaged traditional partners around the city already back to competition, like the Colts and Indy Eleven. Every two weeks, they met with members of sister organizations in other large cities, allowing everyone to share what they’d learned.
“This is not something where we have, in isolation, built any best practices,” Vaughn said. “Quite the contrary, it’s been a collaboration.”
None of this was done specifically with an all-in-one NCAA tournament in mind. Much of it was meant to plan purely for the Final Four. But when the challenge expanded, Vaughn said Indiana Sports Corp was able to quickly overlay what it had learned onto something that’s never been tried at this scale before.
“We anticipated playing three basketball games in April. Now we’re playing 67,” Vaughn said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done and a lot of detail that needs to be worked out. It’s an enormous undertaking, but I feel very confident that it will be successful.”
Everyone, ultimately, will have a role to play.
The city will provide civic support in the form of public safety and infrastructure. The state will help ensure that not just the Division I men’s tournament in Indy, but also the Division II and Division III men’s tournaments in Evansville and Fort Wayne, respectively, can be conducted safely and responsibly. Local partners will assist in logistics and planning. The NCAA has a tournament to run.
No one will have wanted to be here, but drastic measures have brought old friends to the table for an unprecedented undertaking. They are uniformly confident it can be done.
“This is the only time I hope this ever happens. I say that as the host of all these games, but hopefully we’re not in this situation next year,” Holcomb said. “But we will make hay while the sun is shining.”
Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.