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On Thursday, March 12, one of America’s biggest sporting events, March Madness, was canceled.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) made this unprecedented decision in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has reached over 1,800 cases in the United States.
Before the NCAA officially canceled the basketball tournament, individual college conferences had decided to cancel their tournaments. With the March Madness games no longer being played, the potential financial fallout from the decision is likely to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The NCAA takes precautions
On Thursday, the NCAA decided to cancel all sporting events for the year, including the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments collectively known as March Madness.
NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham gave the following statement:
“Today, NCAA President Mark Emmert and the Board of Governors canceled the Division I men’s and women’s 2020 basketball tournaments, as well as all remaining winter and spring NCAA championships. This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to spread of the pandemic, and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities."
Prior to canceling the tournament outright on Thursday, the NCAA had announced that it would bar fans from the games but allow the tournament to continue. It would have been the first time in the tournament’s history that the games were played without crowds.
The annual college basketball tournament is held over three weekends in late March and early April. It involves 68 teams from Division 1 (D1) colleges around the country. After an initial round to eliminate four teams, the 64 remaining teams play a single-elimination tournament in a seeded, four-region bracket.
The first games were set to begin on Tuesday, March 17, with the championship game being played on Monday, April 6 in Atlanta, Georgia. The seeds for the bracket are announced on Selection Sunday, which would have been March 15 this year.
In the week prior to the beginning of the NCAA tournament, college conferences play their own tournaments. There are 32 Division 1 conferences, and the winner of each tournament gets an automatic bid to the national tournament.
However, this year, many of the conference tournaments were canceled due to COVID-19. After the conference tournaments were called off, there were those who called for the NCAA tournament to also be canceled.
On the professional side of the sport, the National Basketball Association announced on Wednesday that it was suspending its season after a player was found to have the coronavirus. The player was Rudy Gobert, a center for the Utah Jazz.
The history of March Madness
The NCAA began holding the men’s basketball tournament in 1939, with the Oregon Ducks winning the first national title. The tournament didn’t start with 64 teams. In fact, the tournament only involved the top eight teams until 1951, when it expanded to 16. It expanded to a 64-team tournament in 1985. In 2001, one more team was added, and then three more in 2011.
The name “March Madness” is trademarked by the NCAA, but its roots go back to a man named Henry Porter. He coined the term back in 1939, as a high school official in Illinois. However, the first person to use the famous term for the NCAA tournament was Brent Musburger in 1982, who has been a sports announcer for decades.
A multimillion dollar event
The March Madness Tournament is a multimillion dollar event broadcast around the world.
While the NCAA oversees all collegiate sports, the basketball tournament is its biggest earner. In the 2016-17 school year, the NCAA collected US$1 billion in revenue, with 75% of that being made from March Madness alone. With increasing ad revenue, the tournament was expected to make nearly a billion dollars this year.
CBS has exclusive rights to air the tournament games, having signed a deal in 2010 worth US$10.8 billion to air the games until 2024. That deal was extended until 2032 for another US$8.8 billion in 2016.
The 2019 championship game between Virginia and Texas Tech had 19.6 million viewers in the United States, with 100 million people watching the tournament around the world.
College athletes don’t get paid
While the student athletes will miss out on the opportunity to play on one of the world’s biggest stages for sports, they don’t normally get paid for doing so.
This is due to an older rule barring college athletes from being paid to play sports for their universities, even as the schools bring in millions of dollars from the activities. California was the first state to vote to allow student athletes to be paid for their effort. The NCAA has also added a new rule to allow the athletes “to benefit from their name, image and likeness."
However, critics of the rule say it won’t actually benefit the athletes much and what they will earn will pale in comparison to what the NCAA and universities earn each year.