The NCAA called off its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments on Thursday, as part of a complete cancellation of all remaining spring and winter championships stemming from concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s what we know about the cancellations, and the questions that still need to be answered:
What events did the NCAA cancel on Thursday?
The NCAA on Thursday announced the cancellation of not just the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, but also the rest of the championship calendar through the spring — arguably the busiest time on the college sports calendar.
Here is a look at the events that were affected by Thursday’s announcement:
March 13-14: Men’s and women’s indoor track and field championships
March 19-21: Wrestling championships
March 20-21: Hockey/Women’s Frozen Four
March 18-21 Women’s swimming and diving
March 25-28: Men’s swimming and diving
April 17-18: NCAA women’s gymnastics championships
April 9-11: Hockey/Frozen Four
May 1-3: Women’s beach volleyball championship
May 14-23: Men’s and women’s tennis championships
May 22-27: Women’s golf championships
May 22-24: Women’s lacrosse championships
May 23-25: Men’s lacrosse championships
May 28-June 3: Women’s College World Series
May 29-31: Men’s and women’s rowing championships
May 29-June 3: Men’s golf championships
June 13-24: College World Series
— Graham Hays
Why did the NCAA cancel its championships rather than explore postponements, particularly in men’s and women’s basketball?
The NCAA was believed to be exploring options for postponement throughout the day on Thursday, but several logistical hurdles prevented this from being a viable option.
A growing number of universities around the country are closing for the foreseeable future due to this worldwide pandemic, so the lack of a defined timetable to return to campus would put the NCAA in a bind. It’s hard to send an entire campus home for a month, bring students back, have the teams practice for a week or two and then hope to start an NCAA tournament. And that’s not even accounting for the ability to secure arenas, secure travel and identify television programming windows for men’s and women’s basketball in particular. It’s a great idea in theory, but not great in practice.
There’s simply a calendar issue, too. In men’s and women’s basketball in particular, many players without remaining eligibility would be pursuing their professional options or attempting to start their post-basketball careers. The NBA is able to delay things for a few weeks and reassess, because it’s able to extend its season into the middle of the summer with no issue. It’s likely impossible to do that in any college sport, particularly one expected to end in March or early April.
— Jeff Borzello
Are all spring sports canceled?
Not officially, at least not yet. The NCAA announced the cancellation of all spring championships, including the College World Series and Women’s College Series, but it did not address regular-season competition. As of Thursday evening, the following conferences had publicly announced the suspension of spring athletic competition: ACC, American, Atlantic Sun, Big 12, Big South, Big West, Conference USA, Colonial, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, NEC, Southland, Summit, Sun Belt, SWAC, WAC. Most of the suspensions were either for the equivalent of “until further notice,” as the Pac-12 phrased its action, or through at least the end of March. Additionally, America East, Big East, Big Ten, Ivy League, MAAC, MEAC, the Patriot League and Stanford, independent of the rest of the Pac-12, announced the complete cancellation of all spring seasons.
On Friday, the NCAA announced it’s suspending on- and off-campus recruiting for all Division I sports through April 15.
In the wake of the coronavirus threat, the NCAA has taken measures to mitigate any and all risks associated with the virus and that now includes recruiting. The NCAA recently cancelled remaining winter and spring championships, while some conferences have made decisions to cancel events further than championships.
That includes the Big Ten, which has suspended further athletic competition for the remainder of the 2019-2020 season.
— Graham Hays and Tom VanHaaren
Will 2019-20 NCAA champions be crowned in college basketball and other sports whose championships were canceled?
The NCAA hasn’t provided a definitive answer on this, but it’s difficult to envision anything beside a simple “no.” College football crowned a champion based on polls for a number of years, so Kansas and South Carolina would win titles in men’s and women’s basketball if the NCAA decided to do it that way — but that seems unlikely. In all likelihood, there’s going to be a blank line in the college sports annals next to 2019-20.
— Jeff Borzello
What will this mean for future player eligibility for affected players in college basketball and other winter sports that had yet to complete their championships? What about spring sports that had begun their regular seasons?
The NCAA is expected to grant eligibility relief for all student-athletes who participate in spring sports after the Division I Council Committee made that recommendation. For this to happen, the NCAA will have to amend its rules related to scholarship and roster limits, but due to the uniqueness of this situation, those hurdles should be easy to clear. For winter sports, it’s trickier. Some teams had already finished their seasons when the NCAA canceled the remaining games, while others were just about ready to begin postseason play. The Council Committee will discuss the possibility for relief for winter student-athletes, however it’s too early to say how that could be structured.
— Kyle Bonagura
What will the revenue impact of cancellations be on NCAA member schools and conferences?
The NCAA tournament uses a “units” system to reward conferences based on the number of the teams from a particular league that qualify for its postseason tournament and advance. Last year, eight Big Ten teams qualified for the men’s NCAA tournament and Michigan State made a run to the Final Four.
After winning 13 games, the Big Ten earned 21 units, which warranted a $35 million payout. Overall, the Big Ten reportedly distributed $759 million to its member schools last year. The Big Ten and other Power 5 leagues won’t take a substantial hit, if the cancellations mean the schools and leagues don’t get paid under these unique circumstances, but the non-Power 5 schools could be dramatically affected by this.
Think about a league like the Missouri Valley Conference. In 2018, Loyola Chicago made $8.45 million (paid out over a six-year stretch) for its league (the units stop once a team reaches the Final Four). That’s an average of $845,000 overall for each of the 10 schools in the Missouri Valley Conference. Take a school such as Illinois State. That $845,000 represents about 10% of Illinois State’s $9 million budget for men’s athletics, per Department of Education data. That money can change these programs.
What these non-Power 5 schools miss with this year’s cancellation is the potential to make hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional revenue for their respective budgets if one of their member schools gets hot in March. They don’t have Power 5 TV revenue streams. They don’t have major sponsorship deals. It’s more significant for those schools and their leagues than for the major programs in the field.
We might be having a different conversation if this had unfolded during the college football season. The money that member schools and leagues make off the NCAA tournament is dwarfed by the TV revenue obtained during the college football and college basketball regular seasons for those same conferences.
— Myron Medcalf
Will the cancellations have an impact on CBS and Turner’s multibillion-dollar TV contract for the men’s basketball tournament?
In 2016, CBS and Turner Sports agreed to an eight-year, $8.8 billion extension for the rights to air the NCAA tournament. That extension trumped the initial, 14-year, $10.8 billion deal the two sides agreed to in 2010 and expanded the annual rights contract for the NCAA tournament to an average of more than $1 billion per year, beginning in 2025. Why does this matter? The bulk of the NCAA’s annual revenue comes from this deal. “Television and marketing rights fees, primarily from the Division I men’s basketball championship, generate the majority of our revenue,” according to the NCAA’s website. So the NCAA essentially gets its money up front, while CBS and Turner are charged with attracting the advertising dollars attached to the NCAA tournament. But that’s in a typical year. And this year is anything but typical.
Per the NCAA website, a part of the extended deal, which commences in 2025 and ends in 2032, demands an annual $66 million “pre-term” payment to be held in escrow, which also includes a $9 million advance to the NCAA.
“As the Pre-Term Payments represent an advance on future contract years and are refundable to CBS and Turner should certain events occur, the Pre-Term Payments will be recognized as revenue in years 2025 through 2032 when no longer considered refundable in accordance with the terms of the contract,” according to an external audit of the NCAA’s finances which is posted on its website. Does the cancellation qualify as “should certain events occur” and how does that affect the current deal and the $66 million lump sum? What about the rest of the cash? The same audit also states that the terms of the agreement with the NCAA are “guaranteed” by Time Warner Inc., the parent company of CBS and Turner.
More than 19 million people tuned in to CBS to watch last year’s Virginia-Texas Tech national title game.
“There are very few premium sports properties that are available that can deliver for advertisers and for consumers,” said David Levy, former president of Turner, after the extension was announced.
The cancellation of the NCAA tournament would seem to disrupt that revenue stream for CBS and Turner in 2020, although it’s unclear what safeguards the deal might contain. CBS and Turner did release a statement, however, backing the NCAA’s decision to cancel its postseason tournament:
“We are fully supportive of the NCAA’s decision to cancel this year’s NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. We’ll continue to work closely with the NCAA and all of our partners as we prioritize the health and well-being of everyone involved.”
ESPN, which has rights to the NCAA women’s tournament along with the majority of the other NCAA championships that were affected, addressed the cancellations: “This is an unprecedented situation,” the network said in a statement. “We have great relationships with our league partners and are confident we can address all issues constructively going forward. Our immediate focus is on everyone’s safety and well-being.”
— Myron Medcalf and Kyle Bonagura
Will coaches who had NCAA tournament incentives in contracts see those provisions honored?
As one industry source privy to these discussions said, “There are going to be issues.” For the conferences that already finished their league tournaments, the automatic-bid recipient should be eligible for the bonus. But it could ultimately be up to each individual school to honor bonuses and extensions that get triggered.
Now, what does that mean for coaches who expected to get one and then didn’t due to the cancellation of the tournament? One source said there are absolutely going to be contract disputes over this issue — and it could eventually lead to coaches leaving their current jobs a little earlier than expected.
“There are going to be difficult conversations,” one industry source said.
“A lot of money was lost,” another said.
— Jeff Borzello
How do the cancellations of the basketball tournaments and most spring sports impact coaching employment decisions?
It’s too soon to tell, but the men’s basketball coaching carousel should be much lighter than normal. Unless there’s an obvious need for a dismissal, athletic directors and university boards likely will be cautious about making changes after such an abrupt and unusual end to the season. Also, they have many more things to worry about with their entire athletic programs essentially shut down for the spring.
“Has to be slower than expected,” a coaching agent said. “Really bad look [to make a move now]. There could be a late cycle once things calm on the virus front.”
So far, no power conference programs have made changes. Eleven schools have fired their coaches and two — Evansville (Todd Lickliter) and Idaho (Zac Claus) — already have hired replacements. What does Texas do with Shaka Smart? Texas had been seen as the trigger school for the 2020 coaching cycle, but few would be shocked if athletic director Chris Del Conte tables this decision for another year.
— Adam Rittenberg