Schwartz: Future Is Now For NCAA Tournament

March 12, 2020

Written by David Schwartz

Hawkeye Nation

How hard do you think it was for NCAA president Mark Emmert on Wednesday to agree to play NCAA Tournament games in near-empty arenas?

No organization on earth – not Goldman Sachs, not the International Monetary Fund, not Scrooge McDuck – cares more about money than the NCAA. The NCAA’s money lust swells so full and is so insatiable that not only does it want all of the money, it actively takes step to prevent others from having it.

So it would take something catastrophic – or potentially catastrophic, such as the rapid spread of COVID-19 – to pry money from the NCAA’s hand. They – Emmert and the NCAA – made the right call.

Sixty-three NCAA women’s and men’s tournament games will play in front of essential personnel, media, and a small handful of family members. That’s it. This might be one of the few times the players will be able to hear the announcers call the game live. It’s going to be an experience.

This affects both Hawkeye basketball teams. Each will earn an NCAA Tournament bid.

The players, we already can say, won’t like it, although most will understand the need for an empty arena. High-level athletes are creatures of habits. Without fans and under the expansive roofs of cavernous, barely filled arenas, new and unfamiliar sounds will disrupt them. Altered lines of sight and depth perception will confound them.

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We’re going to see some ugly basketball that first round. It’s going to be a weird experience for us fans, too.

We don’t have much precedent to draw on, and what we do have is awkward. The Orioles and White Sox played a baseball game inside a mostly empty stadium in 2015. Professional wrestling from time to time scripts matches inside an empty arena, to peculiar results. Soccer on a few occasions has had to keep fans from attending.

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Emmert must have been under tremendous pressure to bar fans. The NCAA will still make its television money, which means it will still make the bulk of its money since broadcast revenues dwarf ticket and concession revenues. However, it’s still lost money, an extra $50 here or there that could have helped prop up expenditures for the unnecessary, financially wasteful college sports, like any baseball program north of Arkansas.

That’s the real opportunity here for the NCAA: to see what college sports is capable of producing when fans are removed from the equation – those annoying fans who require universities to hire stadium ushers, who throw their half-eaten soft pretzels on the ground, smeared in nacho cheese.

The NCAA Tournament might give us a glimpse into the future of bigtime, broadcast sports. It will be an event attended by only the lucky few while the rest of us consume it on our screens. When we’re at games we miss most of the commercials. We’re forced to sit there and wait for the network to return from a television timeout. We’re more valuable to the NCAA and all sports leagues when we stay home, put eyeballs on their ads, and hook up our debit cards to one, two, three, four, five monthly streaming services.

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Emmert’s ego might feel the pain in 2020, but he can sleep well knowing he made the right decision. His successors will see opportunity. And the rest of us? It’ll feel a little unorthodox – at first. But then, just like anything else, what was once strange and uncomfortable will – in time – become the status quo.

* Talk with David Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.

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