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Keith Strudler: The Question Of College Basketball

It is never too early to plan ahead. Especially now, when there’s an expectation that everything requires a detailed, medically driven, multi-page Covid plan that will inevitably be completely changed within hours of execution. That’s the nature of 2020. Hope for the best, and plan for the apocalypse.

Of course, there’s a lot of planning going on for sports, everything from little league baseball to the NFL, which is only weeks from starting a season that feels something akin to a shuttle launch. There’s nothing that says sports more than a room full of doctors and lawyers figuring out how to label one way exits from stadium bathrooms. And while the NBA and MLB and NHL are in full throes of their experiments, there’s one sport that’s planning for a long way off, with stakes that run higher by the hour. And that sport, or sports organization, is Division I men’s college basketball, a sport best known by its climactic March Madness Championship Tournament, where 68 teams play for one shining moment while the world exchanges money bet a series of brackets. While college football may be the 800-pound gorilla of higher ed, college basketball is the engine that keeps the car running.

That’s because unlike major college football, which runs its championships outside of NCAA governance and generates revenue largely through conference affiliation, the Division I men’s basketball tournament is by far the largest source of revenue for the NCAA and the vast majority of its member institutions. So while Texas and Alabama are concerned about playing fall college football, a whole lot more schools are already thinking ahead to winter. Because if this upcoming college basketball tournament is cancelled like the last, and they don’t generate the nearly billion dollars they’d expect in a non-pandemic universe, college sports and the NCAA as we know it may cease to exist.

To be clear, it’s hard to imagine this year’s basketball season operating anything approximating normal, if that’s still a word, especially as some conferences have already cancelled sports through the end of the year. Which means even an optimistic time table puts them five or six weeks behind schedule. And I’m guessing early, if not most, if not all games would be played without live fans, meaning Kentucky and UNC couldn’t collect millions of dollars of gate revenue. So even if they play a season, and dear God I hope they do, it’s not going to generate the normal flow of dollars, and I’m sure it will come with higher expenses. But at least TV money, which is exorbitant around the tournament, will send enough back to the hundreds of Division I athletic departments and the NCAA’s Indianapolis headquarters to let them pay light and heating bills. And if they don’t, well, who knows.

This is why a lot of people in college sports have said fairly definitely that they will play a college basketball tournament this year, or 2021 I suppose. It may a month or two later than normal, and it might even be played in some kind of super college bubble, but one way or another, they will play.

But, and this is a big but, what if they don’t? What if we can’t get it together by this winter and spring, and what if there’s no way to reasonably get colleges from all over the country to play a championship season without it turning into a hospital ward? What if a vaccine can’t come fast enough, or hot spots turn into volcanoes? What if the 2021 NCAA men’s tournament is just like the 2020 version – non-existent?

That, my friends, is the billion dollar question. And a signifier of the general frailty of the current constitution of Division I college sports, where a complex business model based on media dollars, student fees, a small elite group of unpaid professionals, and thousands of less profitable amateurs in Olympic sports somehow brings hundreds of very different organizations under one umbrella to fund everything from squash to diving. As robust as big time college sports may be, it’s also as fragile as a house of cards, at least in its current carnation. And if they don’t play this year, that won’t be the end of college sports. But it might be the end of college sports as we know it, something foreshadowed by the vast number of colleges cutting non-revenue generating sports in the front ebb of this crisis.

Play or not this year, American Division I universities will need to plan to for change. And it’s never too early to plan.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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