NCAA basketball tournaments will welcome fans after all
By Billy Witz
The NCAA announced late last week that it would welcome fans — tens of thousands of them — to Indianapolis and San Antonio, where the entire men’s and women’s basketball tournaments are to be held this season, in a move that will generate millions in ticket revenue but risk further spread of the coronavirus to and from far-flung regions of the country.
The 68-team men’s tournament, which begins March 18, will be played in Indianapolis before crowds of up to 25% capacity at sites ranging from the quaint 9,100-seat Hinkle Fieldhouse, where the movie “Hoosiers” was filmed, to the cavernous Lucas Oil Fieldhouse, which in a normal year could hold up to 70,000 fans for the regional finals and the Final Four.
The 64-team women’s tournament, which begins March 21, will allow up to 17% capacity from the regional semifinals through the championship final in San Antonio. Those games will be played at the Alamodome, which has a 31,900-seat capacity for basketball. (Crowds at the first- and second-round games, some of which will be played in small arenas, will be limited to several hundred friends and family members.) The capacity limits were decided after consultation with local health authorities, the NCAA said Friday.
Still, several public health experts said they were baffled by the decision.
“I can’t see any good reason to do that, and I can see a lot of bad reasons to do that,” said John Swartzberg, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied infectious diseases and served as an adviser for the Pac-12 Conference. “Bringing people from all over the country to a congregate setting is just nuts.”
The NCAA made the decision to move its entire tournaments, which are each normally played at more than a dozen sites around the country, to Indianapolis and San Antonio to create a more restrictive environment for the dozens of teams involved and give the single-elimination tournaments a greater chance of avoiding interruptions because of positive tests.
Extensive measures are being put in place to play the games. All athletes, coaches and staff members will be required to have seven consecutive negative coronavirus tests before arriving in Indianapolis or San Antonio via a chartered plane or bus. Once they are there, testing will continue. All meals will be served in hotel rooms or in rooms with distanced assigned seating. Players, coaches and staff members also must wear contact-tracing devices throughout the tournament that measure if someone is within 6 feet of an infected person who also wears a device.
Previously, plans had been made for family and friends to attend the games with each player, and for coaches and staff members to each receive six tickets. Those guests would be prohibited from interacting with players, coaches or staff members during the tournament.
But having thousands of fans arrive from all over the country without the same measures creates a risk of turning the tournaments into superspreader events, said Ana Bento, an assistant professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics.
Fans will be required only to wear masks and to practice social distancing in the arenas.
“At this point in the epidemic, we can no longer say we don’t know enough,” Bento said. “We know what to avoid in order to minimize risk. This is something that carries a lot of risk.”
Said Kathleen Bachynski, an assistant director of public health at Muhlenberg College: “When you start bringing in thousands of people who have not been through these protocols ahead of time, you really are adding a much higher level of risk.”
“And to what benefit?” she added.
A benefit for the NCAA could be gaining a portion of the ticket revenue that would be expected in a typical year, and holding each tournament in one location should reduce some of the travel costs that the organization covers for teams. The NCAA said last month its revenue had dropped by $600 million last year — a 50% decline — largely because of the cancellation of the men’s basketball tournament. The vast majority of NCAA revenue is redistributed to the colleges, but the reduction forced the organization to tap into reserves, cut salaries and institute furloughs and layoffs. Its staff is about one-quarter smaller than it was a year ago, the NCAA president, Mark Emmert, told The New York Times last month.
The NCAA said it would announce information on ticket sales for the basketball tournaments next month.
The decision to allow fans comes at a fluid moment in the pandemic. Known cases are declining and thousands of people are being vaccinated each day in the United States, but those steps forward could be offset by new variants of the virus that spread more aggressively and may not be as easily countered by some vaccines. At the moment, many cities are trying to figure out how to fully open schools.
The circumstances may change by the time the tournaments start or when they conclude — with as many as 17,500 fans watching the men and about 5,500 spectators for the women in the final games.
But some things won’t change: The virus is more easily transmissible indoors, making a basketball arena more conducive to spreading the virus than an open-air football stadium. And fans, even if they are masked up and sitting at a recommended distance from one another while watching games, are going to spend time on other activities in the host cities.
“It’s not just having all these people in the stands,” Swartzberg said. “All these people are staying in a hotel and eating in a restaurant and drinking at a bar. Indianapolis is probably going to be celebrating what’s going on. All of these things don’t make sense in the midst of a pandemic.”
He added: “I can understand the argument for parents or siblings of the players to attend. But to open it up to as much as 25% of capacity? The only reason to do that is not player safety or family safety — it’s to sell tickets.”