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USA Today Sports’ Dan Wolken and Paul Myerberg explain the financial debt college football will incur from a fall without football.

USA TODAY

Very rarely has the NCAA been accused of being a forward-thinking, risk-taking organization that gets out ahead of problems. But give NCAA president Mark Emmert some credit this week for saying out loud what has been abundantly clear over the last few months through the slow collapse of the college football season.

If college sports are going to happen next spring — and particularly the NCAA basketball tournament — we need to start planning for bubbles.

“My staff has been working hard on it and talking to all 32 commissioners and there are ways to do this,” Emmert said during a 30-minute interview posted to the NCAA’s media platforms Thursday. “I’m completely confident we can figure this out.”

The bigger immediate headline Thursday coming out of Emmert’s interview was that the NCAA’s slate of Division I fall championships would all be postponed due to COVID-19. That impacts national championships in men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer, women’s volleyball, men’s water polo and Championship Subdivision football. 

The practical effect of that decision falls on six Bowl Subdivision conferences — the SEC, ACC, Big 12, American, Conference USA and Sun Belt — who are continuing toward a season solely because the NCAA does not control the FBS postseason. 

There was no real surprise in the NCAA’s decision. All of those fall sports were already below 50% in terms of participation for the fall semester, which means you couldn’t legitimately crown a national champion anyway. It’s unclear at this point whether the other leagues might try to band together tournaments for the other sports. Also unclear is whether any of them will actually make it to kickoff.

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Through the last several weeks, though, coaches and administrators across college basketball have been watching the dysfunction around football and saying the same thing to each other: We cannot let this happen to us. 

Last March, just as conference tournaments were starting up, the NCAA made the difficult but necessary decision to call off its basketball tournament as the pandemic began to spread throughout the country. The financial impact of that decision was enormous as the NCAA collected only about $270 million in event cancellation insurance rather than the more than $1 billion television payout it would normally get. 

Losing that revenue for one year is bad enough, but the consequences of a second missed tournament would be almost too catastrophic to even try to characterize.

“Dan Gavitt has been telling us they have to play the tournament,” said one Power Five coach, referring to the NCAA’s vice president of men’s basketball and speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect conversations that were supposed to be private. 

But everyone involved in the sport sees the data. There’s absolutely no guarantee that conditions in the country will be significantly different during the window of the college basketball season, and banking on a relatively normal set of circumstances several months from now was football’s critical mistake.

So naturally, based on the success of the NBA, MLS and others, the thinking has turned to the possibility of building bubbles. Would it be as elaborate as the NBA’s? No, of course not. 

But imagine a scenario where, for example, the ACC brings all of its teams to Greensboro for the month of January with the same type of stringent testing and standard quarantining you’d need to ensure everyone involved is negative. Over three weeks, every team would play nine or 10 games. Then perhaps they’d go back to campus for a bit and come back or go to another site to finish the schedule. The same kind of thing could be replicated in smaller increments for non-conference, round robin type tournaments with five or six teams.

“We’ve discussed something like that as a league,” another Power Five coach said. 

And then in the NCAA tournament, not just for basketball but for other leagues, Emmert said you could end up with everything being played at a single site rather than having players travel all over the country as they typically would for three straight weeks during March Madness. 

“I think it’s perfectly viable in many sports,” Emmert said. “It’s harder in FCS football for example but (maybe) if you had smaller brackets. Starting with 64 teams is tough. Having 32 teams may be a manageable number, but you have to figure out those logistics. There’s doubtlessly ways to make that work.

“Joni Comstock, our senior VP for championships and Danny Gavitt who oversees basketball, they’re working on it really, really hard right now. They’re working on it with the oversight committee and championship committees, how you can manage the economics of it. It’s obviously expensive to do that, but we’re not going to hold in a championship in a way that puts students at risk. If the bubble model is the only way to do it, we’ll figure that out.”

The NCAA’s official embrace of the bubble concept is the green light for college basketball, in particular, to start thinking outside the box and inside the bubble. And frankly, it may be necessary to have any semblance of a real season. 

Months ago, when sports leagues were first coming to grips with the impact of the pandemic, there were bubble skeptics. I was one of them, but it’s clear now that if they’re done well, they have a real chance of working. 

There were also skeptics within the college community over the idea that college athletes could not be sequestered from the regular student body because it would look more like professional sports than amateurism. 

But the situation has become so desperate, college sports is prepared to deal with that problem another day and instead focus on the one right in front of them. If we knew back in April what we know now, there’s little doubt that college football officials would have been working on a plan to build a de facto bubble on campus around these teams so that a season could more easily take place. 

As ESPN analyst and NCAA critic Jay Bilas tweeted: “We need to drop the amateur distinction. It’s pro. Bubbles are not only okay, they’re necessary.” 

Even if school presidents or conferences harbor concerns over the line between amateurism and professional, embracing the bubble will be pretty easy to justify. We know athletes want to play, and we know they want to be protected. The fact that classes are going to be largely if not exclusively virtual for this school year means a lot of their academic time will be spent in front of a computer no matter what. Who cares whether that’s in a dorm room or a hotel in Indianapolis?

The good news for the near-term future of sports is that the NCAA realizes what it has to do, and schools can now go ahead and start planning for the spring and a real college basketball season. The bubble has been blessed by Emmert, so let’s not waste any more time making it happen. 

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