Hosting the entire NCAA men’s basketball tournament is likely to be a landmark moment for Indianapolis, industry observers say—on par with the 1987 Pan-American Games and the 2012 Super Bowl.
The tournament, planned for the third week in March through the first weekend of April, is deep into planning. But a number of items remain to be ticked off on a massive to-do list before 68 teams and thousands of visitors converge on the area in a manner, and on a timeline, the city has never experienced.
The unchecked boxes include finalizing testing protocols (some of which have already been announced), working with partner hotels to shore up resources and confirming schedules with the venues involved in the event—not to mention ensuring enough volunteers are available.
“We’ve always been a city, in sports, that wants to prove that we can do things that other cities can’t do,” said Allison Melangton, who led the city’s Super Bowl hosting effort. “I think this opportunity with the tournament is once again stepping onto ground that has never been touched before. And I think what we are playing for is the opportunity to do more things like that.”
Melangton is now vice president of Penske Entertainment, which owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar series.
She said the city’s experience in hosting numerous major events in the past and the institutional knowledge that comes with that work are likely to go a long way in helping the city manage the tournament successfully.
In doing so, she said, it’s likely the city will be lauded for the next several decades, similar to how many recall the Pan Am games and the Super Bowl.
“All three of them are complex, for different reasons,” she said. “And this one is going to be in that top three, because of the the duration of time, the number of safety protocols that have to be put in place, and the number of venues that they’re using.”
Milt Thompson, president of Grand Slam Cos., an Indianapolis-based sports marketing consultancy, echoed Melangton’s comments, calling the event “by far the biggest challenge” the city has ever faced from a tourism perspective.
He said the city has extensive experience coordinating with multiple venues and on events that require extensive resources, such as the Super Bowl and major single-sport events like gymnastics, track and field and the World Basketball Championships.
The most complicating factor—and the one that puts it on par with other major events—is that planning is underway in the midst of a major pandemic, Thompson said.
“Really, the distinguishing feature is the overlying health crisis. That’s really the wild card, if you will,” he said. “We’ve not had the experience of doing [these events], in a pandemic, where there’s still up in the air lots of issues” and questions.
Ryan Vaughn, president of the Indiana Sports Corp., which is spearheading the city’s partnership with the NCAA, said the group has been in touch with hundreds of would-be collaborators to ensure the tournament’s success.
“There are a million of those folks in Indy … to offer us great experience and advice,” he said, pointing to Melangton and her contemporaries, such as Bill Benner, Mark Miles and Rick Fuson—all of whom have had a hand in pulling off past big-time sporting events for the city.
“Candidly, it helps to short-circuit a lot of conversations because of their experience and relationships.”
Melangton said collaboration has long been key to the city’s success in hosting sports and convention-type events . This time should be no different, even with the additional layer of complexity created by the pandemic that requires incorporating new partners into the process, like the Marion County Public Health Department.
“Collaboration is a simple word, but it is a very complex execution,” she said. “This city and this state do it better than anywhere in the country, hands down. And this, tournament is going to require a lot of collaboration—as did the Super Bowl—to get everyone at the table and work through the operational areas, the functional areas and deliver the event.”
Al Kidd, president of the Sports Events and Tourism Association, said he believes Indianapolis stands to benefit extensively from hosting the tournament.
“If this comes off—which I think they have the resources to do it—it would really position Indianapolis in a unique situation when they go to bid on future events, and really in the worst of times, with these health conditions and these multiple moving parts in two months,” he said. “If they pull this off, I think that will aid the city’s future bids a lot.”
Visit Indy told IBJ that meeting and event planners have already started reaching out to the city to inquire about hosting events here, and to understand how the city plans to pull off the tournament. City officials expect even more to express interest in the city in the run-up to the event and following its execution.
For Andy Mallon, president of the Capital Improvement Board, which owns and operates the Indiana Convention Center and Lucas Oil Stadium (both of which will be used for the tournament), having Indianapolis thrust onto the national stage for this event could be a boon for a hurting tourism industry.
“I think five years from now, when I look back on this, I’d like to say [this] was the moment that solidified our recovery and our future coming out of COVID-19,” he said. “I can’t think of a better way to jumpstart the next five, 10, 15 years for our industry in the city.”