NCAA books big chunk of downtown hotels for March Madness

Most of the hotel rooms in downtown Indianapolis will likely be booked by the NCAA as part of the organization’s plan to stage the entire Division I men’s basketball tournament in the city.

Five hotels accounting for more than 2,800 rooms—the JW Marriott, the Marriott Downtown, the Westin, the Hyatt Regency and Le Meridien—have already been blocked out by the Indianapolis-based NCAA for use by the 68 teams that will participate in the tournament, which is set to tip off in mid-March and run through the first weekend in April.

The hotels, classified as Tier I by the organization, account for about 37% of the rooms in the downtown market. At least 2,500 of those rooms will be part of the heavily controlled environment for student athletes, coaches and support personnel. Each of the hotels is connected to the Indiana Convention Center (where practices will be held) as well as Lucas Oil Stadium.

Thousands more rooms will be reserved for what the NCAA considers Tier II participants, including family members of the teams, event staff, and broadcast teams and media, according to an industry source..

The source, who is aware of the NCAA’s plans, told IBJ that nearly all of downtown’s nearly 7,600 hotel rooms could be used for the event, as well as additional hotels in other parts of the city.

“Active discussions and negotiations are underway to modify existing hotel contracts, put into place as part of the initial NCAA Men’s Final Four block,” the source said. “It could escalate to 5,000 [additional rooms], maybe 7,500 … maybe 10,000—it really depends.”

Visit Indy, the city’s tourism agency, said Thursday morning it is continuing to work with the NCAA to determine how many rooms are needed for the tournament.

“In working with the NCAA on a daily basis, we feel confident a second solid block of hotels will be contracted to host visitors to the city,” said Chris Gahl of Visit Indy. “As we get closer to tipoff, the exact number of hotels needed to right-size the event will be fine-tuned and will be officially set.”

While contracts have already been signed by each of the Tier I hotels, the finer details of those deals have not been finalized.

Phil Ray, general manager of the JW, said he expects details on room cleaning, meals, and meeting space to be discussed during a series of meetings with the NCAA over the next several weeks.

“There’s just a host of questions to figure out, and operationally, how we can do it,” he said. “My guess is, we’ll have multiple meetings to be able to work out the plans. But I’m not overly worried that it’s going to be too difficult—there’ll be a lot of collaboration between NCAA and the hotels to be able to make it logistically all work.”

Ray said he expects to pick up staffing levels ahead of the tournament. The hotel laid off most of its staff at the start of the pandemic, but has intermittently picked up staffing since July, now employing 150 of its typical 500-person crew

The hotels will also be responsible for preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner for each team. At the JW Marriott, that’s expected to be about 1,500 servings for every meal, as the hotel is expected to host about 26 teams. The Indianapolis Marriott Downtown is expected to host 16 teams, but it’s not clear how many the remaining three hotels will host.

The number of teams that remain at each hotel depends on which advance to later rounds. Teams that advance in the win-or-go-home tournament are likely to remain in their same room block throughout the three-week event until they’re knocked out.

As the tournament advances, however, the agreements between the hotels and the NCAA bar the properties from opening to other guests—a bid to ensure limited contact between the teams and the general public, which could pose a greater risk of transmitting the virus.

The NCAA is renting every single room in each of the five hotels for the duration of the tournament, IBJ’s source said.

Renting massive room blocks for big events isn’t unusual. Often, groups get special, negotiated, room rates when they plan big events. Such was the case with the Super Bowl, as well as major conventions in the city over the past several years. However, it’s rare when entire hotels are rented in the way the NCAA is planning—and it’s even more unusual given the desire to create a “bubble” for participants.

Patrick Tamm, president of the Indiana Restaurant & Lodging Association, said the room bookings are “significant” for the city’s strained hospitality industry, which has been slowly on the mend for several months.

“It’s significant as we tell the world—show the world—that Indianapolis is open for business,” he said. “It shows to any major sports organizer in the world that Indianapolis in any circumstance or condition can pull off the greatest events, in the toughest situations, and do it the right way.”

Both Ray and Tamm said additional benefit could come if the NCAA is able to welcome fans at games, with potentially thousands more hotel rooms occupied by out-of-town visitors.

A source told IBJ that the NCAA is generally focused on securing permission for fans at the Final Four and national title game.

The Marion County Public Health Department said Wednesday that “no final decision” has yet been made about whether general admission for fans will be possible during the tournament.

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11 thoughts on “NCAA books big chunk of downtown hotels for March Madness

  1. Wow!!! I am really, really excited. Since Indiana is totally unable to control the pandemic now, it will definitely be unable to deal with it by the time the tournament begins. If we start now, it will give the City enough time to build a bunch of new portable hospitals just like the Chinese did. We need the construction jobs, you know. Sports, are one of the more important economic drivers for our State. Oh and by the time of the first tip off, we will still not have enough of our local citizens vaccinated, so we can be the ultimate Midwest epicenter for the pandemic by early May. New York had first honors, and now California is taking center stage. The Midwest should not be forgotten. Indiana will lead the way, but we have a lot of work to do. Everyone, who comes in from out of state for the tournament, will provide the additional cases of COVID if native Hoosiers do not have enough COVID to keep our streak going. If necessary, we could import the UK strain or the one from South Africa. City planners may need to consider this as a serious Plan B. However, I think that Hoosiers coming back from their recent holiday trips, will be able to bring back enough cases of COVID and not need any outside help. Souvenir masks, with “MARCH MADNESS 2021” on the front, may provide an eerie and ominous reminder when the final games are over, the outsiders have left town, and our local healthcare systems have become overwhelmed.

    1. Look, I’ve taken this pandemic as seriously as most since the beginning. I’m disgusted by people who flout the rules and show no concern for the safety of those around them. But this response is just so hyperbolic and negative it’s ridiculous.
      The NCAA and downtown hotels are trying to create a safe environment for these student athletes to compete. We need ideas for how to make gatherings and events like this possible. We’ve tried keeping everything shut down and it does not work. People don’t comply, the government provides no support, and the mental health and spiritual well being of our nation has suffered because of it.
      As vaccines are rolling out we are beginning to see the end of this stage of the Pandemic.Anyone who is trying to think forward and find new ways of re-entering the world gets my support.
      Maybe if there had been any sort of coordinated effort by our government to provide actual support to PEOPLE we wouldn’t be here today. But hindsight is 2020 (Ha) and the needless fearmongering needs to end.

    2. Joseph W…Please take a look at the “previous notable NCAA basketball games from Nov 25 to present” that have been canceled or postponed due to + Covid tests. It’s a long one. And ALL Indiana counties are presently in the red or orange zone with most of the positive cases being in Marion County as well as most of the deaths. Statewide, Indiana has now exceeded 8,400 deaths. Indiana is still at work getting health care workers vaccinated . They will move on to those over 80 yrs of age on Friday. If you seriously believe that the vaccine roll out has been a success and that we will see the end stage of the pandemic in March you are living in a “bubble” yourself. Just because you want it to be true, Joseph W, doesn’t mean that it is. People such as yourself need to stop calling it “needless fear mongering”. You are part of the problem and why Covid continues to rage in this state…

    3. Phillip T……assigning these games to a state whose counties are all currently all in red or orange covid zones is March Madness alright. Perhaps the Governor and the NCAA will have the IN Health Dept fudge with the numbers so the entire state is not in the red/orange zone come March. I wouldn’t put it past them.

  2. I’m more concerned with a practical question: how will the hotels, restaurants, and caterers staff themselves adequately? I’d imagine that more than a few laid-off folks found other jobs in the past year.

    1. Chris, Thanks for the question. This is something I’m continuing to look into and report on. But you’re correct—it seems that could be a challenge.

    2. How they will keep these workers Covid-19 free and not spreading it to others should be more of a concern.

  3. California for the last several weeks has been leading the nation in cases and deaths even though they have been almost completely locked down. They have not had attendance at sporting events or any indoor dining since last March yet their cases are on the rise. States that have taken extreme lockdown measures on average have had the same case and death rates as those who have not locked down as tightly. Our neighbor to the west, IL, is a good example.

    Most exposure seems to be due to family gatherings so you cannot automatically say that holding the tournament in Indy will lead to significant increases in our local COVID rates.

    1. California has had 28,045 covid deaths, with a population of 39.51 million people. That’s a death rate of .07% of total population. Indiana has had 8,452 covid deaths, with a population of 6.73 million. That’s a death rate of .13% of the total population. Sorry, but you are wrong.

    2. California has been leading in cases and deaths because it has the highest population in the nation. Same with New York and Illinois. If Indiana ever has more cases or deaths than NY, CA, or IL, there’s a serious problem in Indiana.

  4. As disappoint as I am about the entire country not getting to enjoy games in there local area, I am sure that Indianapolis Hospitality Industry will knock it out of the park. If the collaboration is similar to the Super Bowl, lets check the box an rock and roll.

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