2021 Year in Review: Entire NCAA tourney rolls into Indy area

Indiana took on one of the most gargantuan events in its history this year, playing host to all 68 teams and thousands of spectators for the entire NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

The NCAA chose to hold the three-week event, March 18 to April 5, in a single region due to pandemic concerns. The tournament brought millions in economic impact to Indianapolis (although final numbers were pending at the end of November). Tens of thousands of fans flooded downtown and sporting venues across the city, along with arenas in Bloomington and Lafayette that hosted several games.

The participating teams were housed in a “bubble” of five downtown hotels. They were joined by game officials, NCAA staff and hundreds of volunteers, and were permitted to leave their designated hotel floors only for practices, games and some team recreational activities. The controlled environment suffered only one setback, when Virginia Commonwealth University was forced out due to positive COVID tests.

Ryan Vaughn, president of the Indiana Sports Corp., the organization that spearheaded the local effort, said in April he was excited about what the tournament’s success meant for the city.

“It certainly enriches that reputation [we’ve built] nationally, the fact that it went so well,” he said. “There’s some really cool opportunities on the rise and, as the new [Pan Am Plaza] hotel gets developed and we have even more expanded capacity, we could chase maybe multiple events at the same time, or events that are even bigger.”

Though the tournament brought far fewer fans than in 2019 because of social distancing—about 174,000 people, or 26% of the previous tournament’s figures—it was the first time so-called March Madness had ever been hosted entirely in a single area.

The city spent $800,000 on infrastructure on Georgia Street, along with a few million dollars more to prep parts of the city for the event. Initially, the city was expected to host only the Final Four, but the NCAA announced in November 2020 that it was in preliminary talks to bring the whole event to Indiana. Similarly, it staged the entirety of the women’s championship in the San Antonio area.

It’s unlikely Indianapolis or anywhere else will be asked to repeat the feat—the NCAA prefers to allow more cities to participate in earlier rounds, and few cities have the necessary infrastructure to support a 100% full-capacity tournament.

“Knowing what we’re able to pull off here in such a short amount of time, I think gives me and the NCAA staff incredible confidence that we have—minimally—an incredible [Final Four] backup plan,” said Dan Gavitt, NCAA vice president of men’s basketball.•

Check out more year-in-review stories from 2021.

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