Looking to avoid a repeat of March 2020, when its men’s basketball tournament became one of the first major casualties of COVID-19, the NCAA is looking to hold the three-week event in a single city next year.
In a press release Monday, the organization said it is in “preliminary talks” with the state of Indiana and the city of Indianapolis on a solution. Under the proposed plan, the 68-team tournament would be played in and around the metropolitan area during dates in March and April. Indianapolis had already been chosen to host the Men’s Final Four from April 3-5.
With rates of coronavirus infection surging to record highs across the country, the status of the season and the tournament has become a looming question. Already, there have been inauspicious signs, like the Ivy League canceling all winter and spring sports and popular fan draws like Duke deciding to play its games in front of no spectators. The original plan to hold tournament games in 13 different sites around the country was looking to be “very difficult to execute,” the NCAA release said.
The college football season is shaping up to be a cautionary tale for college officials and networks alike, though of course the scale and logistics of football are different than basketball’s. The Power 5 football conferences have all returned to the field, but hundreds of positive tests of players, coaches and others have caused the cancellation or postponement of two dozen games. Some notable schools could wind up playing half of a normal season. Even games that have been completed have sometimes yielded unsettling spectacles, like NBC’s broadcast of the Notre Dame-Clemson game on November 7, which ended with thousands of students rushing the field.
“My committee colleagues and I did not come lightly to the difficult decision to relocate the preliminary rounds of the 2021 tournament, as we understand the disappointment 13 communities will feel to miss out on being part of March Madness next year,” said Mitch Barnhart, chair of the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee and University of Kentucky athletics director. “With the University of Kentucky slated to host first- and second-round games in March, this is something that directly impacts our school and community, so we certainly share in their regret. The committee and staff deeply appreciate the efforts of all the host institutions and conferences, and we look forward to bringing the tournament back to the impacted sites in future years.”
Limiting travel and offering teams a safe, controlled environment with ready access to medical resources are the main objectives, the NCAA said.
“We have learned so much from monitoring other successful sporting events in the last several months, and it became clear it’s not feasible to manage this complex championship in so many different states with the challenges presented by the pandemic,” NCAA Senior Vice President of Basketball Dan Gavitt said. “However, we are developing a solid plan to present a safe, responsible and fantastic March Madness tournament unlike any other we’ve experienced.”