For college basketball fans the most wonderful time of the year is about to begin — the annual NCAA college basketball tournament known affectionately nationwide as March Madness is on the eve of kicking off. Brackets are being made, office betting pools are forming, trash is being talked between friends hailing from different alma maters and gear is being bought. And beyond being a fun event for the 100 million or so Americans who tune in to see the 64 best teams in college basketball take each other on in a seven-round tournament, it is also a major economic event. In 2018-2019 NCAA made $867.5 million from March Madness television and marketing rights, plus an additional $177.9 million in ticket sales, for $1.04 billion total.
And that’s just the direct revenue — not counting in the hundreds of millions and billions that are spent on travel, lodging, dining and sports betting during the annual tournament over top pf that billion-dollar baseline.
But in 2020, March Madness has a problem — the same problem that events, travel, the global supply chain and the stock market has. COVID-19 has prompted a sudden uptick of consumers strongly encouraged to avoid crowded places, like tournament games, for fear of contracting the highly contagious coronavirus. With the games set to start in about two weeks, the questions have been circulating — will the games go on? Will madness in March this year be a bunch of enraged basketball fans with no brackets to fill out?
The answer to that question, fortunately, seems to be a resounding no.
According to the NCAA, the organization is not at this point contemplating a postponement or cancellation of its lucrative marquee event.
“I think a worst-case scenario is that it’s played behind closed doors,” NCAA Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “It would be very, very difficult to cancel a championship and have it at any other time.”
He also said the “closed door” scenario (where the games are played to an empty auditorium) is unlikely at this point, noting that the association has worked out “options A through Z” to choose from. But, thus far, at least one school has chosen the closed-door option — Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University hosted the first game of the first round of the Division III men’s basketball tournament in an empty gymnasium.
Hainline noted that choice was made by the school, not the NCAA, which at this point does not yet see closed doors as a necessary choice to make. Other options the league is pushing in lieu of such things are screening players for illness, screening spectators and marketing around the simple concept that if one does feel well they ought to stay home.
But, as the WSJ report indicates, the decision about open-door games in front of an audience vs. closed-door games may not end up being the NCAA’s to make. Some schools have already stated they will decide on their own based on conditions on the ground before the game — and state public health officials have also reminded all involved that they are actually the final arbiter of what is, and is not, a safe risk.
Last week Ohio leaders barred spectators from attending the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, despite there being no cases reported in the state. The logic was that international tourists coming to the event could bring it with them. Dayton, Ohio, hosts the Division I men’s basketball tournament on March 17 and 18, and state officials have issued no word on it thus far.
So is it time for basketball fans to panic? Are the carefully constructed brackets about to be worthless? Are we about to suffer through March sanity for the first time since 1939? As we said earlier, no, almost certainly not. As the NCAA confirmed, the games will go on, whether or not the doors are open to the general public, and thus they will be broadcast.
Because, unsurprisingly, as COVID-19 anxiety has stepped up in recent weeks, sports streaming leaders have proportionally expanded their efforts.
Last week, Amazon announced that starting April 17 it will be helping people avoid being taken out to the ball game in favor of staying home and streaming it — provided a Yankees game is what they are in the mood to watch (some folks in Boston find this very hard to understand). All in, Amazon will stream 21 New York Yankees games this season to Prime subscribers, as part of its first move as a part-owner in the team’s cable network. The games featured will be high profile matchups, including three against the Boston Red Sox and two against the Houston Astros.
Streaming sports is not entirely new ground for Amazon, which entered into shoppable streaming partnership with the NFL for Thursday night games last season, and this first foray will be limited to Prime Members in certain states. But, as Marie Donoghue, Amazon’s vice president of global sports video, told Bloomberg in a conversation, big journeys start with small steps, and this is the start of the firm’s foray into local sports streaming.
“We want to bring value to Prime members and enhance their membership, and that’s our primary goal here,” Donoghue said.
And Amazon isn’t the only player looking to enter the game, as in the next few years both the NFL and NBA will see their current streaming deals expire — creating a race to see who will pick up those rights. That race includes big players like Amazon and Disney (via ESPN), but also startup services like DAZN — a streaming service currently capitalizing on the coronavirus streaming boom by pushing an international expansion into more than 200 counties and territories, including the United Kingdom, Mexico, Australia and Russia.
Boxing is its first target, but according to Joseph Markowski, executive vice president at DAZN who will be overseeing its global service, the goal is much broader.
“Launching globally, that reinforces our position as a growing and legitimate broadcaster for those rights as they become available,” he said, noting that the global coronavirus outbreak has created an unusual market in the world of sports streaming that the firm has uniquely and quietly positioned itself to fill.
“Our ability to buy rights on a global basis now is a tremendous first-mover advantage,” Markowski said.
Will the streaming explosion be enough to offset the hit sporting events are setting up to take? Truthfully, not entirely — consumers who are not going to games aren’t buying concessions, aren’t eating out afterward and aren’t taking Ubers to and from the area. But as many economists note, that “event spending” bump often seen around sporting events is often more a case of redirected spend among locals than actual new spend. One can see the ancillary sports spending simply moving as well along with streaming — consumers ordering food delivery instead of going to restaurants, for example.
What is more important, though, is that the games will go on — the fans will tune in, and perhaps, more important, start building a habit around streamed sports. And, as Amazon piloted during Thursday night games, perhaps also shopping them while they watch — as nothing is a better reminder to buy a favorite player’s jersey than watching them score gloriously.
So we suggest making your bracket for March Madness 2020 — because it is one show that seems almost certain to go on. What format it goes on in — and how it changes the future of the annual college basketball celebration — will be an interesting thing to watch play out.