NCAA’s Coronavirus Decision Looms Large For March Madness

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  • More than 75% of the NCAA’s annual revenue comes from its March Madness television deals alone.
  • The decision to cancel or close doors for the DI men’s basketball tournament would cost the NCAA hundreds of millions of dollars either way.
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Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As coronavirus spreads throughout the United States leading up to both college conference tournaments and the NCAA DI men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, so too does concern about hosting events in a public space. Without a clear answer to date, conferences, institutions, and partners all await the NCAA’s next move – one that could cost college sports’ governing body a significant sum.

What will – or should – happen is the question on everyone’s mind as March Madness nears. 

The Ivy League canceled its men’s and women’s conference tournaments on Tuesday and gave the conference’s automatic bids into the NCAA tournament to its regular-season champions. Other conferences have issued statements assuring fans that they are monitoring the situation and will make appropriate decisions as necessary, but no other cancellations have been announced.

The Big 12, following the example set by professional sports leagues, announced Tuesday that they are banning media from locker rooms at the Big 12 tournament due to coronavirus concerns.

The other apparent option on the table would be to play games behind closed doors. The day after Maryland confirmed three cases of coronavirus, Johns Hopkins University hosted the opening rounds of the Division III men’s basketball tournament in Baltimore inside an empty and eerie gym.

And while conferences across the country contemplate how to handle individual tournaments and hosts of DII and DIII tournaments grapple with the same questions, concerns about the biggest tournament of all are still unanswered.

“We’re monitoring [it],” Rich Ensor, commissioner of the MAAC, which is hosting a first and second tournament round in Albany, said. “We have to monitor events largely out of our control and see what happens, what the NCAA says. Like the rest of the country, we’re just waiting to see what happens. We’ll develop policies as it gets settled, or it doesn’t.”

If answers don’t emerge, however, a coronavirus-caused cancellation would have a tremendous financial impact on the NCAA, who receives most of its annual revenue from two sources: the majority comes from television and marketing rights fees, primarily from March Madness, and championship ticket sales comprise of the remaining revenue. 

The DI men’s basketball tournament makes more than $800 million annually from its television deal alone and draws an audience of around 100 million viewers. The amount equals more than 75% of the association’s yearly revenue, which hit $1.12 billion for the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2019. Last year, the NCAA made a combined $933 million in revenue from media rights fees, ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, and television ads during the three-week-long tournament. 700,000 to 800,000 fans purchase tickets to attend live games.

“It’s almost impossible to predict something like this,” Anthony Weaver, chair of Elon’s department of sport management, said. “I think that’s why you see a lot of this wait-and-see mentality. Especially with college athletics, it creates a whole other layer of concern because these are student-athletes. This isn’t professional sports. So in some ways, you don’t have to play these games. But the reality is that from an event management point of view, from a facilities point of view, from a revenue generation point of view – this next month is so important to so many people including, obviously, the NCAA.”

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Cancellation of the tournament would mean a loss of both of the NCAA’s key revenue sources. While the TV dollars would likely remain unchanged if games were closed to fans, lost revenue from ticket sales would still become a cost of doing business.

Considering all of this, the NCAA established an advisory panel last week led by NCAA Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline and made up of medical, public health and epidemiology experts and NCAA member schools to guide its response to the outbreak of the coronavirus disease. The panels’ most recent update recognized the fluidity of COVID-19 and its impact on hosting events in a public space but has not yet recommended cancellation or public spacing of upcoming athletic and related events.

“As the NCAA has made clear, they’re monitoring it on a daily basis, and as of now, everything is proceeding as scheduled,” Jeff Zucker, chairman of WarnerMedia News & Sports, said on a conference call Tuesday. “Obviously, we’re in close contact with them, but this is their decision to make. I know that they’re in contact with local governments, and that’s really what will determine whether there are any changes to the tournament.”

Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, added that while both broadcast partners – CBS Sports and WarnerMedia, the parent company of Turner Sport’s TBS, TNT, TruTV, which air tournament games – are being consulted during these ongoing conversations, the decision ultimately lies with the NCAA.

If games are played without fans in attendance, changes would have to be made on the broadcast side, so at-home spectators get more than the sound of squeaking sneakers against hardwood floors from the networks’ coverage.

“If the context of the game changes, and clearly that’ll be part of the storyline, right?” Zucker said. “We’ll tell that story. But the game will continue, and the game will be the primary thing. Frankly, if we are at that point, and, again, I think it’s incredibly hypothetical, if it were to come to such a point, it would probably be in a situation where much of the country would be looking to watch the games, to be home, to be looking for that outlet, that relief.”

From a production standpoint, Turner and CBS said things would remain unchanged. The same cannot be said for the atmosphere – which is something the analysts and announcers in both the broadcast and studio teams would have to work to compensate for. 

“We’re going to do whatever we’re asked to do, but I can only try to imagine what it would be like as a broadcaster,” Jim Nantz said on the call. “The hardest thing to get your mind around is calling a game with so much at stake with no crowd, no excitement in the building. What would that feel like? What can you think of that you’ve done that would be comparable to that?”

Nantz compared the hypothetical to an audition or to the summer of 2017 he spent calling games with Tony Romo inside a production studio without a crowd as practice for the former quarterback, which required them to force the energy that was absent from the live environment. 

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That energy, though, is key to keeping fans tuned in and generating good ratings for the broadcasters involved.

“I think the measurement and the generation of ratings would be the same, which are basically determined by the quality of the matchup, the closeness of the game, and the various storylines that always develop during the tournament,” McManus said. “So I would think that those factors would really be determining what the ratings are. And if we get fortunate with close games and good matchups and great storylines as we seem to have every single year, I think the ratings will be just as impressive.”

Charles Barkley, part of the tournament’s in-studio crew, said that his concern extends beyond no fans at sporting events.

“My question would be, okay, they’re not going to go to a basketball game,” Barkley said. “You took that out of the equation. But those people are still going to be walking around, going to work, going to dinner, doing things like that. They’re still going to be walking around in the world. Yeah, you took the [people] out of going to a sports venue, but these people still gotta live their lives. 

“So my question is, not having fans at sporting events – is that somewhat an overreaction? I think that’s a fair question.” 

Barkley, who starred at Auburn and went on to play in two Olympics during his fifteen seasons in the NBA, said the tournament experience is unique in that “it’s the greatest thing other than the Olympics I’ve ever been part of. March Madness – nobody can screw up March Madness. It’s just an awesome event, plain and simple,” Barkley said. 

Whether or not March Madness will continue as planned is a question fans, venues, partners, and participants might not have an answer to anytime soon, despite Selection Sunday lurking right around the corner. 

“The reality is you’d like to make a decision that gives everyone enough time,” Weaver said. “Unfortunately what’s happening right now is new to everybody. There may be a scenario where they have to make some last-minute decisions, and you just have to adjust. In a perfect world, you’d give everyone plenty of time to set a plan in place. Travel plans would be adjusted. But I just don’t see that happening here.”