On March 12, 2020, Texas Tech Basketball was set to open the Big 12 Tournament Quarterfinals against the Texas Longhorns. The Red Raiders were quickly interrupted during their warm-up to be told there was no longer a Big 12 tournament. Later that day, the NCAA would also cancel it’s annual March Madness tournament.
Today, nearly six months after the tournament’s cancellation, there are still plenty of questions facing the feasibility of the upcoming college basketball season. Luckily, the NCAA has used the time to their advantage.
In late August, the NCAA filed an application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark office to trademark the phrase “Battle in the Bubble”. The ‘bubble’ the NCAA is referring to is the campus-style environment that leagues like the NBA and WNBA have implemented to play their seasons in.
The NBA’s bubble has been a massive success. There has not been a single player who tested positive since the league began testing in early July. To ensure the league would be able to finish the season safely, they implemented strict regulations.
NBA players are not allowed to leave the campus aside from family emergencies, and a quarantine period is required if they return. The players also must be tested every single day. Family members of the players were recently permitted to come onto the campus, nearly two months after NBA teams entered the bubble.
With the NBA having access to many resources and generating billions of dollars in revenue each year, it’s clear how they were able to pull off such a technical process. But the NCAA has many more moving parts to manage before a bubble can be implemented.
The most obvious obstacle to college basketball being able to create a bubble environment is with students and their classes. Many universities, including Texas Tech, are still having in-person classes. Student athletes would simply be unable to leave their campuses to stay in a bubble environment for up to multiple weeks.
The NCAA also has to consider how much setting up bubbles would cost. Providing living spaces, food and the playing venue itself is not cheap. The NBA’s bubble reportedly cost an upwards of $150 million.
The NCAA is still feeling the effects of not being able to play a tournament last March, an event that generated $933 million in 2019. The 600 employees who work in the NCAA’s Indianapolis headquarters are currently furloughed for an upwards of eight weeks.
The NBA had responsibility to accommodate for only 22 teams, while there are 357 Division I Basketball programs. The NCAA would likely have to provide multiple miniature bubbles, hosting only a dozen or so schools at a time.
This would mean schools would likely be placed in bubbles with their conference opponents. Texas — home of four of the Big 12’s 10 members — seems like it would be a potential location. But a conference-only bubble removes a critical part of the season: non-conference games.
Non-conference opponents are not always competitive, but they give teams critical amounts of sample size before conference play begins. This part of the schedule allows coaches to try different rotations, gauge a players health and experiment with their playbook. Sending programs directly into conference play would likely mean much more oddities and upsets.
In a year full of unknowns, the NCAA will pull out all the stops to make sure it can have a tournament. The organization cannot afford another March Madness size hit to it’s earnings.
With over two months until the season tips off, Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports is reporting that the plans for a bubble are still “tentative at best right now”. There are many logistics the NCAA must continue evaluating if they want to give programs their best chance at playing a full season, whether that’s in a bubble or not.
If push comes to shove, don’t expect the NCAA to shy away from a bubble situation. Texas Tech’s own head coach Chris Beard touched on the possibility in late August during a virtual panel.
“I remain very optimistic, I think there is going to be college basketball,” Beard said. “I think there will be some type of bubble system.”