Not too many people say no to hosting NCAA championships, particularly when that opportunity is any game in March Madness, much less the entire tournament.
It was all the way back in early November that the conversations began, according to Leonard Hoops, president & CEO of Visit Indy.
“They reached out to us,” confirms Hoops. “It was a very preliminary discussion. They wanted to know if it was possible to do this.”
Visit Indy, which was already slated to host Final Four, took a bird’s-eye view of all the moving pieces of the tournament to try to decide whether they would fit together in the area’s time frame. From finding appropriate host facilities to establishing whether there was space in local hotels, to trying to establish the potential for appropriate health protocols, it was a complex question.
“It was less about the venues for us,” says Hoops. “We had to handle making the convention center available for the entire time. We were ready to host Final Four, but we hadn’t planned on having other events.”
Some organizations had already contracted to meet in Indy, either at the convention center, or in room blocks in key hotels, at the same time the tournament would be in town; however, Hoops notes, while some were ready to move forward with their plans, others were on the fence, trying to decide whether or not to meet in person. It made for complex negotiations.
“Everyone was different, and the key thing was making sure that those with in-person events were able to host. We began asking questions like: Can we move you a week, Would you be able to hold your event in April, What would it take to help you change this? “
Indy notes that a confidentiality agreement prevents them from disclosing any information about specific negotiations and arrangements with pre-existing events. This fed into all aspects of the event, including hotels.
Superseding everything was the need to create rock-solid health protocols.
“NCAA described needing what they called a controlled environment,” Hoops notes, “and some hotels had groups they would have to move to make that happen. To keep teams from comingling, we wanted to put each team on one floor of a hotel.”
Once it became clear that the preliminary pieces of the event could be put into place – a process Hoops describes as taking several weeks – more formal arrangements began.
Hoops says Indy had three big selling points in its favor, and that these helped tip the scales in favor of the city hosting the tournament.
“One was, of course, we already had the Final Four scheduled for here. Second, NCAA headquarters is here. And finally, our downtown has been designed to have 12 hotels, all with skywalks to create a connected campus. The reality was that we had those three variables in our favor.”
It was arranged that six different venues would entertain competition:
- Lucas Oil Stadium
- Bankers Life Fieldhouse
- Indiana Farmers Coliseum
- Hinkle Fieldhouse
- Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall (Indiana University; 45 minutes from Indianapolis)
- Mackey Arena (Purdue University; 45 minutes from Indianapolis)
Visit Indy began working in earnest with NCAA and the local health officials to create the protocols needed.
All Tier 1 travel party participants are going to be required to undergo and document seven consecutive negative COVID-19 tests prior to arrival into Indianapolis. The NCAA will work with IU Health to provide health related support including the administration of daily PCR tests for Tier 1 individuals upon arrival and throughout the tournament. Tier 1 participants include student-athletes, coaches, athletic trainers, physical therapists, medical staff, equipment staff and officials.
The NCAA will arrange charter bus and/or air travel for all Tier 1 participants. All teams participating will be housed on specific floors of designated Indianapolis hotels for the duration of their active participation in the tournament. Meals will either be in-room or in physically distanced meal rooms with assigned seating. Masks will be mandatory for everyone except those who are actively competing.
This will be a stripped-down March Madness experience, compared to years past, when fan fests, expos, trade shows, concerts and various other crowd-pleasing events were held.
“Right now, there are no official ancillary events moving forward,” noted Hoops. “The Marion County Public Health Department, will make the final decisions on whether there were concerts or other events that will take place.”
While the event technically will have fans, it will be a far cry from the sold-out venues from years ago. According to the NCAA website, up to six family members per Tier 1 participant (up to 420 family members total) will be allowed in each venue per game. The family members will be prohibited from interacting in person with any of the Tier 1 participants during the entire tournament. They will be seated in physically distanced family clusters. A final attendance policy will be announced after February 1.
Hoops and his staff remain hopeful that by the time of Final Four (Saturday, April 3 through Monday, April 5), conditions will allow for some more fans to be seated in Lucas Oil Stadium where, he notes, the city has safely hosted 10,000 to 12,000 fans for football games. However, he adds, from opening rounds through the sweet 16, there will be no deviations from the original rules.
Indy, says Hoops, has actually been in good practice for creating smart scenarios that allow events to go forward; since July, the city has been hosting events, including youth basketball and several small meetings.
“That was one of the things that made us confident that we could do it – we were already doing it. We were not starting from square one.”
Of course, he adds, “Everyone has differing thoughts on whether it’s safe or not. You’re trying to strike a balance between what is pragmatic and what is safe, vs. what is Draconian.”
The NCAA is working with the city and state to promote “Mask Madness,” an initiative to promote health and safety by practicing social distancing and wearing a mask. As part of this program, the NCAA will donate tens of thousands of masks throughout the state leading up to the tournament.
When the final announcement came that the tournament would be sited completely in Indianapolis, Hoops and his team had put in more hours than they would have ever believed possible.
“Every event has its own unique challenges but this one, given the time frame and all the unknowns, it was, in the 25-plus years that I have been in this industry, the most complex negotiations I have ever been part of. It was the most challenging too.”
Compounding the issue was the enormous number of pre-determined host destinations that NCAA had to work with in order to move games to Indianapolis.
“We feel for the 13 cities that won’t be hosting,” says Hoops. “We lost enough business of our own in 2020 to understand what it is like. And in the end, we’re not doing this for economic impact. We’re doing it to help people keep the goals they set in the beginning of the season.”