2021 NCAA tournament will allow limited fans

Dana Hunsinger Benbow and Matthew Glenesk
Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS — Daniel McQuiston’s days are spent in academics, researching marketing and sports and trends, sizing up what works and what doesn’t. When the announcement came across Friday the NCAA would allow limited fan attendance for its men’s tournament, he said to himself: “I like it.”

“This is a good but bold move by the NCAA,” said McQuiston, a professor of marketing at Butler University, who specializes in sports. “The men’s basketball tournament is one of, if not the biggest sporting events for the NCAA.”

From a marketing standpoint it’s a nod to what the NCAA’s biggest supporters want, he said. To be back in a gym watching their teams play. And, in some ways, it’s a silent acknowledgment to where the NCAA believes the nation is in the COVID-19 pandemic, McQuiston said.

“With the number of cases down and the vaccines starting to have an impact, the NCAA appears to feel that this is the right time to allow more fans in,” he said. “It’s a move that will create a psychological boost for all sports fans everywhere that says ‘We’re going to do our best to get back to normal.’”

Up to 25% capacity will be allowed for the 2021 men’s basketball tournament, for all rounds, the NCAA said Friday.

The tournament, which will be played entirely in Central Indiana, is scheduled to begin March 18 with First Four games at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette and Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington.

The move to play the tournament all in one location was the result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA announced in early January. COVID-19 forced the cancellation of last year’s tournament.

“We continue to use the knowledge we have gained over the season on how to conduct games in a safe environment,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a news release. “I want to thank our host universities and conferences, the Indiana State Health Department, and the leaders in the Marion, Monroe and Tippecanoe county health departments as they help make that possible.”

IndyStar sports ran a 24-hour Twitter poll last month asking: “If the NCAA were to allow fans for the tournament, would you feel comfortable — COVID-19-wise — going?”

Nearly half of more than 500 respondents, 48%, answered “absolutely.” Another 29% said it “depends on the rules/capacity.” And 23% replied “no way.” In a similar Facebook poll, 54.3% said “absolutely,” 38.2% answered “no way,” and 7.5% said it depends on rules and capacity.

On Friday, Indiana reported 1,080 new cases of coronavirus and 44 more deaths.

While some were happy to learn fans would be allowed at the tournament, saying it might feel like March Madness again, others were skeptical. Then there were those, such as Jake Query, co-host of sports show “Query & Schultz” on ISC Sports Network, who could see both sides.

“I’m thrilled for all involved and notably the city of Indianapolis (that) fans will be allowed into NCAA tourney games,” Query tweeted. “That said, it does seem to nullify the purpose of a single host city. I imagine the original planned host cities are perplexed, no?”

Six venues will host the 67 total games for the 2021 men’s basketball tournament: Lucas Oil Stadium, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, Mackey Arena, Hinkle Fieldhouse and Indiana Farmers Coliseum.

Capacity will include all participants, essential staff and up to six family members of each participating team’s athletes and coaches and a reduced number of fans. All fans must wear face coverings and physically distance during the event. Thorough cleaning, disinfecting and safety measures will be a priority in all venues.

In conjunction with the NCAA’s announcement Friday, IU revealed it plans to allow up to 500 spectators for games played at Assembly Hall on March 18-20.

”Indiana University’s plan, based on recommendations from the Medical Response Team, is consistent with the attendance policy...during the 2020-2021 basketball season permitting immediate family members of participating players and staff members to attend the games,” read a school-released statement. “A limited number of seats will also be available for vaccinated medical personnel and first responders from Monroe County.”

Purdue told the Lafayette Journal & Courier it will allow 12 to 13% capacity at Mackey. And Butler will allow up to the 25% capacity number, a school spokesperson confirmed Friday. Hinkle Fieldhouse seats 9,100, so that’s 2,275 allowed for tournament games.

Butler has allowed fans at Hinkle Fieldhouse this season with a socially-distanced home attendance that has averaged 1,670 — highest in the Big East.

When 2,064 fans were at Hinkle on Jan. 30 for Xavier’s 68-55 victory, many cheering for Xavier, “it felt like a college basketball game we’ve become accustomed to in years past,” Bulldogs coach LaVall Jordan said.

For players, before arriving in Indianapolis, each individual must have seven consecutive negative COVID-19 tests. If any of the tests yield a positive result, the person will not be allowed to attend the tournament until he has completed a period of self-isolation.

“The number one priority for decisions around the tournament continues to be the safety and well-being of everyone participating in the event,” NCAA Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Hainline said in the release. “We have been in regular conversations with the NCAA COVID-19 Medical Advisory Group and local health officials to make sure we have the right protocols in place to provide a safe environment. Additionally, IU Health is providing critical testing and monitoring services enabling us to safely conduct the tournament.”

Each person on qualifying teams can invite six family members to watch, but these fans may have no in-person contact with the players during the tournament; and the select family members who are allowed to watch the games will be masked and seated in physically-distanced family clusters throughout the arenas.

On the day the teams arrive, players will undergo another COVID-19 test. Until participants have two consecutive tests in Indianapolis they will be required to remain in their rooms under “strict quarantine,” the health department said.

“This year’s tournament will be like no other, and while we know it won’t be the same for anyone, we are looking forward to providing a memorable experience for the student-athletes, coaches and fans at a once-in-a-lifetime tournament,” NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said in the release. “After the cancellation of the 2020 tournament, we are happy to welcome some fans back to all rounds of the Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament.”

Fans, with a packed Lucas Oil Stadium behind them, take a selfie during the 2015 NCAA Men’s Championship game in Indianapolis. Fans will be allowed at this year’s tournament at a 25 percent capacity.