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Men’s College Basketball in 2021: The NCAA Tournament Stakes

Last Updated: July 20, 2021

Through cancellations, postponements, “bubble seasons”, a wide range of COVID-19 protocols, and more, the sports world persevered in 2020. The pandemic altered life on earth in countless ways but sports still gave us championship games in the NBA, MLB, WNBA, MLS, NWSL, and the NHL. One thing we did not get was a 2020 NCAA men’s basketball tournament champion. Set to begin March 17th, culminating in a championship game on April 6th, the tournament was cancelled for the first time in its 81-year history on March 12th. Plans for a smaller tournament or to release the brackets for the larger tournament were quickly scuttled, and 2020 went on without its “One Shining Moment” crowning an NCAA men’s basketball champion. 

Losing the tournament is a huge financial loss for the NCAA. In 2019, it alone generated $1 billion for the NCAA, nearly all of the $1.12 billion in revenue the NCAA pulled in that year, according to Forbes. Plus, the tournament’s broadcast partners, Turner Sports and CBS Sports, paid over $800 million for the right to broadcast the tournament, and expected to bring in over $1.3 billion in ad dollars as a result. As we head into 2021, there is a lot of incentive – and pressure – for next year’s tournament to take place.

But since the start of the season, many have been wrestling with the moral conflict at the heart of college basketball resuming, putting hundreds of unpaid athletes at risk. Indoor athletics go against nearly all of the precautions that CDC has suggested to prevent a COVID-19-19 spread, a fact not lost on even the most decorated coach in NCAA history, who publicly expressed second thoughts about this season. 

“I don’t think it feels right to anybody,” legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after a loss to Illinois. Krzyzewski had just learned a game between Virginia and Michigan State was cancelled due to COVID-19 issues. “I mean, everyone is concerned.”

While men’s basketball generates an exorbitant amount of revenue for the NCAA, resources are an issue in efforts to maintain the safety of a full season and an eventual championship tournament. The NBA’s bubble in Orlando cost the league $180 million to operate for 22 teams. The NCAA has over 15 times that amount of teams, and even if a modest number of teams sat out the season entirely, dozens of separate bubbles aren’t financially feasible. On top of money, there is the issue of protocols, which doomed an ESPN-backed bubble which would have been the staging grounds for several marquee tournaments and events that would have been broadcast on the network. ESPN and the teams couldn’t find middle ground on how stringent the COVID-19 testing should be, and the bubble idea was eventually nixed, costing powerhouses like Duke, Michigan State, Kansas and Kentucky games. 

The conundrum is simple: The 10-figure payout would be a windfall for the NCAA, even if the health risks – and ethics – are murky. Dozens of games have already been cancelled due to COVID-19, and multiple coaches, players and team personnel have contracted the virus. When Florida star Keyonte Johnson collapsed during a game, eventually needing to be placed in a medically-induced coma while he recovered, many wondered if the incident was related to his reportedly testing positive for COVID-19 earlier in the year. 

One major adjustment is the decision to place the tournament in one centralized location, as opposed to spreading it out nationwide as is customary. Though details of a potential tournament bubble remain scant, the most likely destination is Indianapolis, which was already slated to host this year’s Final Four. How the NCAA plans to host 68 teams and 67 games and maintain a COVID-19-free bubble is the billion dollar question that remains to be answered. Plus, there’s the question of whether fans will be allowed in the venue should the tournament be hosted at Lucas Oil Stadium, the home of the Indianapolis Colts, as the Final Four was set to be. The Colts have hosted fans at their games this season, and attendance has fluctuated between 2,500 and 12,500 fans per game. Should COVID-19 rates fall accordingly, it’s possible the NCAA could decide to follow the Colts’ lead and invite fans into the 70,000-capacity stadium.

Even as a COVID-19 vaccine begins circulatingthroughout the United States, cases of the virus continue to trend up, and the holiday season is only expected to amplify that trend even further. This further puts college athletes in danger, even as their pro counterparts trudge along in their own seasons. The NBA tips off this week with strict protocols and daily testing, while the NCAA has been operating with the minimum of three times a week and no testing on consecutive days. If the sport can make it to the Big Dance in three months, then it seems they could finally transition into an up to spec environment that will finally rival their professional counterparts. 

The tournament bubble remains the NCAA’s biggest hope towards a financial windfall this year, but they have to get there first. As unrest continues to fester within the college basketball community, that’s no certainty. But they’re inching closer to that endgame, even as games continue to be cancelled and postponed and players and coaches continue to test positive. The college football season faced its own share of difficulties, but they have their playoff finally set, and will crown a national champion soon. Until this year, theNCAA men’s basketball tournament had been played for 81 years without interruption, and it’s clear that teams and the organization are focused on starting a new streak heading into the new year.