The NCAA is still planning to play the 2021 men’s basketball Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis in April, despite uncertainty over the sport’s regular-season schedule.
The Indianapolis-based organization plans to announce details for the Division I basketball season by mid-September—with a possibility it could be delayed or drastically altered because of the pandemic.
Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball, said in a statement this week the organization has “developed and studied contingency plans for alternatives” to starting the regular season on Nov. 10. He noted a short-term delay might be necessary, but outright cancellation was not mentioned.
“We recognize that we are living and operating in an uncertain time, and it is likely that mid-September will be just the first milestone for many important decisions pertaining to the regular season and the NCAA basketball championships,” his statement said. “While circumstances may warrant flexibility resulting in a different and perhaps imperfect season, the ultimate goal is to safely provide student-athletes and teams with a great college basketball experience.”
A delay to the season could affect the NCAA tournament—and, by extension, the Final Four scheduled for April 3 and 5 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
‘No indication’ for date change
The NCAA and the Indiana Sports Corp.—which helps organize the event during its regular turns in Indianapolis—said they’re still planning for the event on its original dates.
“The NCAA’s planning for the 2021 Men’s Final Four in Indianapolis continues as scheduled,” the organizations said in a joint statement. “Indiana Sports Corp., the NCAA and the local organizing committee have had monthly meetings since June, which is standard for the NCAA and its Final Four host cities each year, and there are scheduled meetings taking place this week.”
An industry source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said local officials “have not heard one way or another” about whether those dates will be kept, although the NCAA is still accepting ticket applications for the event.
The Final Four is a boon for the Indianapolis economy each year it’s in town—typically on five- or six-year intervals. When the city last hosted the event in 2015, the economic impact was estimated at $70.7 million. In 2010, when Butler played for the national title, the impact was estimated at $76.8 million.
A spokesperson for the Capital Improvement Board, which operates both Lucas Oil Stadium and the Indiana Convention Center, said “there’s been no indication from the NCAA that the dates [are] going to change.”
“[We] are continuing to meet with the NCAA and plan ahead for the Final Four next year, just like we are for any other convention or event,” said Lisa Vielee, the spokesperson. “We will continue to plan for any mitigation that’s needed and we’ll work with the event organizers to make it as great an event as possible for our city and the fans.”
The comments come just days after the NBA said All-Star Weekend, originally slated for Feb. 12-14 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, was “unlikely to happen” as scheduled.
The Big Ten also is eyeing a spring football season. The conference typically hosts its football championship game in early December at Lucas Oil Stadium, but with the fall season scrapped, such a contest could move to sometime in April or May.
If the Final Four is delayed, it’s unclear how that event, the Big Ten football championship and the NBA All-Star Weekend would be integrated into the city’s spring event schedule.
Chris Gahl, vice president of Visit Indy, said he believes “extra thought is being put into how to execute a successful, healthy event” by the NCAA.
He said there is general uncertainty with all events scheduled for the first half of 2021 because it’s not known whether concerns over coronavirus will have waned by then.
An event calendar for Lucas Oil Stadium for the spring was not immediately available, but it is likely to include big annual conventions like FDIC International, which uses the venue—including the football field—for exhibition space.
Under usual conditions, events like the Big Ten Football Championship and Final Four require several days to several weeks of lead time for venue preparation, as do large conventions.
Vielee said if the NCAA ultimately needs to reschedule the Final Four, convention center and stadium officials “would work with them to try and accommodate the event.”
IBJ’s industry source said organizers believe that, because Indianapolis is the NCAA’s home city and has a proven track record at hosting the Final Four, the organization can be “more flexible” on when it finalizes its plans.
Many public health experts say the public shouldn’t plan to attend most regular-season games but that the jury’s out on the tournament. Gavitt’s statement did not mention fans.
The NCAA canceled the 2020 tournament after initially saying it would go on without fans. The organization confirmed it received the last of its $270 million insurance payout for the canceled tournament last week.
If fans can’t attend this year’s tournament, the NCAA might move the Final Four games to a smaller venue. It’s also possible the entire 68-team tournament will be hosted in a single location for the first time.
Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports business consultant, said the NCAA should consider adopting a “bubble” strategy for both the regular season and the tournament, similar to what the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League have done.
Bubbles are typically locked-down, heavily regulated and tested zones that seek to minimize the spread of the virus through limited person-to-person interaction.
A CBS Sports writer last week laid out his own ideas for such an event in Indianapolis, which included playing games at Lucas Oil Stadium, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Hinkle Fieldhouse, Southport High School and other venues in the region.
Ganis agreed that, “if there’s a bubble, the best place for it would likely be Indianapolis. Unless there was some [virus] hot spot in Indianapolis, that could be a very interesting bubble.
“It’s not a complete bubble—you’re not keeping everybody out, as it’s a downtown area—but you can … limit interaction meaningfully in Indianapolis.”
He said hosting a full basketball tournament in an Indianapolis bubble would be beneficial for both the city and the NCAA, given the concentration of downtown hotel rooms and sports facilities.
“Everyone needs to be flexible,” Ganis said of the NCAA and event organizers. “Flexible with the format, flexible with whether the games will need to go into a bubble rather than be traveling around the country. But everyone has to be prepared to adapt and adjust.”
Ganis said testing for COVID-19 likely will be far more advanced by the time the tournament is scheduled to start in mid-March than it is today. He said looking at how prominent universities address the virus throughout fall and early winter—and whether they permit students to come back to campus and take normal, in-person classes during the second semester—will guide how the season plays out.