To minimize health risks due to the pandemic, the NCAA decided that this year’s March Madness basketball tournament will be held in one regional location: Indianapolis. A look at how the city’s convention and visitors bureau is gearing up for “The Big Dance.”
Following ongoing health and safety upgrades, Indianapolis has hosted more than 50 live events since July 2020, welcoming 130,000-plus visitors with no known COVID-19 cases.
But, in a few weeks, the city will host an event known round the world: March Madness. For the first time ever, all 67 games of the 2021 Division I Men’s Basketball Championship will be held in one location due to the pandemic—what the NCAA is calling a “controlled environment.”
“It’s a really exciting and busy time here in Indianapolis,” said Visit Indy President and CEO Leonard Hoops. “But it’s the kind of busy I like. We’re ready to go and be the center of the sports universe for a few weeks.”
While the NCAA officially announced its decision to host March Madness entirely in the Indianapolis region in early January, Hoops said Visit Indy got word in early November that they needed to get started on “clearing the decks” in case they were awarded the tournament. “We needed to make sure the convention center was available for those three or four weeks, that there was hotel space available for teams,” he said. “We were able to move already planned events to other spaces or reschedule them for other dates.”
Hoops believes three factors contributed to the NCAA choosing Indianapolis. The first is that the city was already scheduled to host the 2021 Final Four. Second, its downtown infrastructure—in which several hotels are directly connected to the Indiana Convention Center and Lucas Oil Stadium, two of the main venues for the tournament—limits exposure that athletes and coaches will have to other city visitors. And third, the NCAA has been based in Indianapolis for more than 20 years.
“Having that connection with the NCAA to our community definitely helped,” Hoops said.
Hosting 68 teams—each can bring up to 34 players, coaches, and other support staff—and 67 games is a tremendous undertaking with several venues involved. Among them: six sports arenas, five hotels, and the Indiana Convention Center.
During the duration of the tournament, Hoops said, the convention center will be transformed into a student union. “That facility is super flexible, so there will be several practice courts, weight rooms and workout facilities, and virtual classrooms for the student-athletes,” he said. “I even heard there will be a few videogame areas for them to blow off steam and have some fun.”
Last week, the NCAA announced that it would allow a limited number of fans to attend games in all rounds and the Final Four. The decision to allow up to 25 percent capacity with physical distancing and face coverings was made in conjunction with state and local health authorities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This will bring even more people to the area—and, more importantly, to restaurants and local stores that have been affected by the pandemic. “Our restaurants are open and ready and very happy to safely serve fans and other participants,” Hoops said.
With Selection Sunday scheduled for March 14, Hoops said the entire Visit Indy team and their partners are eager to see all their hard work in action.
“If we can pull this off, we can host anything,” said Hoops. “It’s a pretty great proof of concept that even during a non-pandemic would be challenging to put together in a matter of months.”
Hoops is hopeful that the return of large sports tournaments like this one will usher in the return of association gatherings in the not-so-distant future.
“Call me optimistic, but the case numbers are trending downward and vaccinations are picking up, so I don’t think it will be too long before we bring people face-to-face to connect again,” he said. “Plus, doing so will be a huge boost to the hospitality industry that has suffered tremendously over the past year.”