College basketball’s scheduling infrastructure is a mess at the moment. If you’re curious about who your school of choice is going to play and when, know this: league schedules have never affected nonconference play more than right now.
Only one conference, the MAAC, had the foresight to not only advance-plan for exactly when it will hold its men’s and women’s basketball games this season — it’s already published the thing.
Many league sources told CBS Sports they’re strongly considering playing a minimum of two conference games in December in order to create more wiggle room if necessary at the end of the season. There’s also no shortage of leagues that will play 20 conference games. Because of that, it’s put some nonconference scheduling into a hurried holding pattern. Fortunately, there is no shortage of people trying to salvage the structure of the season, specifically nonleague play.
We now know the target date. The NCAA Division I Council voted Nov. 25 to be opening day. NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt told CBS Sports that date is “aspirational.” But whatever adjective you want to attach to it, everyone is now off to the races and banking on Nov. 25 while attempting to figure out what games to play, how to play them and, most important of all, where to play them.
Which brings us to a central issue facing the sport this week: multi-team events (MTEs) and the organizations that host them. Seventeen events were scheduled pre-Nov. 25 and now they will either be rescheduled or canceled. CBS Sports previously revealed an initial pitch on behalf of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, in coordination with Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun resort and casino, to host dozens of teams for nonconference play in November and December. Some of those matchups are proceeding as planned, with additional inventory being allowed for teams that may want or need only one or two games inside the Mohegan Sun bubble.
Connecticut is one of many destinations. Sources told CBS Sports that ESPN is dutifully on its way to fleshing out a schedule for an Orlando bubble, hosting dozens of teams in November and December in events such as the Champions Classic, the Wooden Legacy, the Jimmy V Classic, the Myrtle Beach Invitational and plenty more.
Arguably just as big: other MTE organizers and leagues are in talks to figure out solutions for nonconference — and even potentially conference games — that could be held in a controlled environment. Cities such as: Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Asheville, North Carolina; Rock Hill, South Carolina; Louisville; Houston; Indianapolis; and Las Vegas are gaining traction. Las Vegas and Indianapolis pose perhaps the two most intriguing prospects.
Las Vegas because it might have the best infrastructure of any site.
Indianapolis because its logistics and geography might make the most sense.
Let’s start with Vegas. Brooks Downing, who owns and operates bdG Sports, has been organizing college basketball events for well over a decade. His week-before-Thanksgiving MTE, the MGM Resorts Main Event, was scheduled to have Louisville, Arkansas, Colorado State and San Francisco. Louisville, which is now openly inviting schools to its own proposed “bubble,” is likely out.
But that doesn’t mean MGM’s event is done. Just the opposite. See below, as Las Vegas and bdG Sports seek to build an oasis of in-the-desert November and December college basketball opportunities by enticing teams with this sales deck.
It’s an ambitious undertaking, one that’s gaining momentum. Vegas, which has for decades been the epicenter of grassroots and Summer League basketball in July and August, is advantageous with arenas and hotel rooms. And because of the nature of how the city makes a lot of its money, it’s had to be as aggressive with its COVID-19 protocols as almost any place in America. Because of this, Downing not only expects to replace Louisville with a quality team — he wouldn’t be surprised to see the MTE, scheduled for the final week of November, expand.
“Louisville decided if we can attract some teams in the local market that we do ourselves, we want to give it a shot — but don’t give our spot away,” Downing said. “We’ve had so many calls about getting into the Main Event that it could be an expanded event. It could be as many as eight teams or 16 teams, including teams from [power conferences].”
The clientele would mostly be teams from the Pacific and Mountain time zones that are in need of nonconference games, are looking for reduced travel and aren’t interested in heading east. Some schools from the Midwest would also be ideal choices.
Schools and organizers alike have been searching in the dark for months. Downing said as recently as a month ago he was highly uncertain college basketball would have any nonconference games. Now he’s positioning bdG to organize more games than it’s ever had before in a single season. Downing’s company owns and operates two other MTEs: the Island of the Bahamas Showcase, which is scheduled to be held in Naples, Florida, and the Gulf Coast Showcase, which will be held nearby in Fort Myers. Both have eight-team fields, plus women’s teams will be involved as well. Downing plans to have a nonconference bubble in that area afterward, too, with an intent on helping out mid-major teams and women’s teams who will need access to the inventory.
And then there’s the unprecedented conference quasi-alliance in Vegas that could come in December. That’s where this enterprise becomes interesting and potentially crucial for college basketball’s season, because it might not be the NCAA that helps save the season; it could be the MTE organizers. In order to bring as much order as possible, the sport will need as many nonconference games as can reasonably be pulled off to help metrics and thus the selection committee’s seeding and selection process, providing as strong/accurate of an NCAA Tournament field as possible in this climate. It is the NCAA’s strong recommendation that every team try to play at least four nonconference games. Companies like bdG Sports and Intersport could be what makes this goal a reality.
Mark Starsiak is leading Intersport’s planning to host its annual Fort Myers Tip-Off, but the company’s aims on this season go well beyond one MTE. Its Fort Myers event is still on, and provided Colorado is given clearance later this week by a Pac-12 presidents’ vote, the field will remain the same (with Wisconsin, Butler and South Florida). There is still ongoing discussions about how to flex that tournament format if need be or if it should be expanded. (Intersport also runs the CBS Sports Classic, which Starsiak said is still scheduled to be played in December.)
This week is supposed to provide a lot more clarity. Organizers and coaches alike are waiting on leagues to decide scheduling philosophies. The Pac-12 vote, anticipated for Thursday, is also slowing the process.
“Relevant to that, it feels like every coaches call that happens, the resounding thing out of that is: can we get all our MTEs figured out first and then league schedules and then nonleague,” Starsiak said.
That brings us to Indianapolis, a city synonymous with big-time NCAA events and potentially the most robust bubble-type situation college basketball could see this season. Intersport won’t go it alone. It is teaming up with well-known MTE organizer Russ Potts and Indiana Sports Corp to put on a significant nonconference event with multiple windows that would in theory include teams from major and mid-major conferences. Indiana Sports Corp is dealing with conferences, while Starsiak and Potts are in discussions with dozens of teams, having reached out to nearly 70 already.
“We’ve received serious interest,” Starsiak said. “We are very motivated to do basketball successfully in Indianapolis.”
The radius for Indianapolis is rich: there are approximately 60 Division I programs within 350 miles (or: a five-hour drive). Not getting on a plane is a selling point. So is the fact that Indianapolis has no relocation situation with the primary host company. Indiana Sports Corp is based there, has access and relationships with most of all the proper people and industries to pull off college basketball games and knows how to handle this from and on-the-ground level.
“Everything’s a scramble, events are falling apart left and right,” Starsiak said of the past few days with MTEs. “My attitude through all this is, we should be galvanizing as a sport to help.”
Right below here, their pitch. The agreement in place to use the Indiana Convention Center is big. In part, the sales deck reads: The single-site concept is designed to be flexible and could be used for MTE’s, neutral site games, and/or conference play.
With Indianapolis, there are multiple windows, including ones that go deep into conference season, allowing leagues to bring their games to Indy if it’s feasible. What this triumvirate is promising is the safest, most practical environment possible — with games being held in the Convention Center.
“We will run a first-class event, unquestioned, no matter where or when it may be,” Starsiak said.
For Vegas the vision is even bigger right now in terms of conference collaboration.
“We’re planning to potentially have 100-plus teams in December in Las Vegas,” Downing said, referring to men’s and women’s programs. “We’ve been talking to five leagues — the WAC, Big West, Big SKY, WCC, Mountain West. Plus now Pac-12 and Big 12 schools that could come to Las Vegas in different waves within our bubble.”
Some have called the approach “running the border,” as in: getting so many schools from California, Oregon and Washington down to Las Vegas in order to best afford them chances to get games in. There are contingencies and potential offshoots — Salt Lake City, for one — but Vegas is the clear destination.
Behind the scenes in college basketball, there is a lot of chaos, all sorts of uncertainty but also some real optimism and enthusiasm because of plans like this with the pitches you see above. This is how the season could in part be preserved. In a normal year, this kind of scheduling competition with competing MTE organizers emerges right after the Final Four, and then by mid-May water finds its level. Downing said the past few days have felt a lot like April, only what normally takes almost two months is now going to be determined in about three weeks’ time.
Big West commissioner Dan Butterly and Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill confirmed the Las Vegas plans with CBS Sports, stating they will likely need their teams to play in Sin City in order to get in sufficient nonconference game quotas.
“Our hope is Vegas needs us and you get three or four different arenas there, arenas tied to the hotels who are bidding for this,” Wistrcill said. “I might have schools on the West Coast who might not be able to play at all in November. But I’ve got these mountain states that, by and large, are in pretty good shape and would be able to play then. My hope is we come together as a conference and say, ‘Your noncon schedule will be blown up.'”
From there, Vegas opportunities open up and the mid-major leagues get their games in as a sort of co-op.
Butterly said a good schedule template for his league would be five games over a 10-day period in December, ideally once players have finished taking finals. Butterly is equipped to help make this happen; he built MTEs for years when he was running point in the Mountain West for basketball. Arranging schedules for a Vegas bubble-type environment is a bear, but the most obvious way to do it with the least amount of hassle is determining pool play and putting “like competition” in the same pods. Metrics from previous seasons will be used as a compass, taking the best and worst teams and then they’ll work toward the middle.
It is not cheap. Your average November MTE event runs in the neighborhood of $500,000. Add coronavirus testing and the costs spike. But these events are attractive to schools because of the benefit of testing not falling inside athletic-department budget ledgers.
“It is the major priority of all of these events,” Downing said. “If it’s not, you’re going to lose teams.”
There’s still a lot to work out, most specifically when the NCAA is going to put out word on official testing protocols and whether that will be a Division I-wide rule or a conference-by-conference determination. Word could come down as soon as Friday.
At bdG, the expectation is rapid antigen testing upon arrival and then every other day during the stay. Downing said there will be a “dashboard” where test results will be monitored and nurses stations will be set up to do the testing. At the MGM Grand, the amount of protocols that had to be established to even open again over the summer were so strict, Downing said they will meet any NCAA health-and-safety regulations.
“None of us in this college space have the NBA dollars to create a completely airtight bubble, but given what Las Vegas and MGM owns, we can probably get as close to that as anybody,” Downing said.
What must come next are COVID-19 protocols. What thresholds must be cleared? Then organizers will know precisely how to stage the events and schools can make their decisions. Some conferences, like the Big 12, already have fairly tough standards that their opponents will have to meet in order to play a game in 2020-21. But these MTE organizers will carry the burden of providing all testing. To get an idea of how much it could be, consider that multiple sources told CBS Sports that current weekly projections to test just two basketball teams runs close to $5,000.
“If we have to provide daily testing or every other day, we’ll be ready for that,” Starsiak said of the Indianapolis plan. “We want to be as inclusive as possible. From a local standpoint, we are targeting everyone from IUPUI to Indiana.”
Mid-October is the fuzzy deadline on when decisions need to be final and contracts have to start getting signed. But most teams will be agreeing to events before then. They want to lock in as soon as possible. When conferences release their slates, November and December’s blanks should fill in quickly thereafter, at least when it comes to the big events. Get ready, because those events in unusual locations will probably wind up providing college basketball its most intriguing start to a season in the sport’s history.