How The NCAA Tournament Will Be Different, And The Same

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(CBS Chicago) — The NCAA Tournament field is set. The entire regular season as well as the conference tournaments were all building up to this. After the cancellation in 2020 and the subsequent year of COVID restrictions, March Madness is back on. But it will be a little different.

All of this year’s March Madness will take place in Indiana rather than at venues spread out across the country. In fact, 55 of those 67 games will be played in Indianapolis. The coverage will span four networks — CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV — with all games also streamed via NCAA March Madness Live. Games that air on CBS will also be available for streaming on Paramount+. Staging 67 games at a variety of locations for a variety of viewing outlets is a logistical challenge in normal times. The ongoing pandemic adds additional layers of difficulty.

Games are scheduled to be played on a pair of courts at Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts, as well as at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the Indiana Pacers. Hinkle Fieldhouse, where the Butler Bulldogs play their home games, and Indiana Farmers Coliseum are the other two venues hosting games in Indianapolis. Mackey Arena in West Lafayette and Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington will also see tournament action.

To cover all of those games, CBS and Turner will rely on the services of 10 different announcing teams. Headlining the list is the team of Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery and reporter Tracy Wolfson, who will be calling this year’s NCAA Final Four National Semifinals and National Championship on CBS. All of the announcing teams will be onsite in Indiana and available to fill in should that become necessary.

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Studio coverage will take place offsite in New York and Atlanta. Greg Gumbel will host from the CBS Broadcast Center in New York, where Clark Kellogg, Seth Davis, Wally Szczerbiak, and Adam Zucker will join him. Ernie Johnson will host from Turner Studios in Atlanta, joined by Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Candace Parker, and Andy Katz.

Arenas will allow attendance up to 25 percent capacity, but that also includes teams and team staff, event staff and TV crews. So the stands won’t even be a quarter full. Everyone will be required to wear face coverings and physically distance.

Fewer fans, and few people in general, means an increased role for technology. And that will create a better viewing experience at home. “We are definitely leaning into technology,” according to said Harold Bryant, Executive Producer and Executive Vice President of Production for CBS Sports. “We are going to use robotics at all of our venues. Our midcourt camera, which used to be manned by a person standing there shooting, it’s going to be a robotic called a Pan Bar camera. So that’s a type of robotic camera that we’re using.”

As Craig Barry, Executive Vice President and Chief Content Officer for Turner Sports, put it, “disruption breeds innovation and creativity, and this is no different. Some of the technology is by design and others is by necessity. And we feel really confident that we have a great mix of technology and innovation. What we’re trying to do is create as much access as possible, access to the game, to the court. Get the fan as close as possible. With all the social distancing, we wanted to make sure that priority stayed intact.”

While this is the first March Madness of the COVID pandemic, there have been plenty of other major sporting events. The Super Bowl is only the most recent on a list that also includes includes the NFL and NBA seasons and weekly PGA Tour events, among others. CBS Sports and Turner Sports will have to draw on that experience.

To that end, “We’ll have virtual audio in every building,” Barry notes. “We’ve made significant investment. Our experience with our events in the past have led us to believe that it’s just an overall better fan experience with virtual audio.”

In fact, most technology in each of the arenas will be be similar. “Across the board, we’ve made every venue equal to the next venue,” Bryant points out. “To the point, a crew can work at Hinkle, and then go over to Lucas. It’s the same camera setup, the same camera numbering. We’ve tried to make it equal across the board. So it’s easy for a crew to work in any venue.”

The need for proper social distancing is another reason for the increased role of technology. As Barry explained, “it’s broken down to tiers. Essentially tier one are the teams, the players and then the team staff. Tier two is most of the NCAA officials and then necessary employees that need to be within 12 feet of the court. And then tier three essentially makes up the entire broadcast team. That’s an additional 25 feet from that 12 feet. So you’re talking about 37 feet from the players when they’re on the court. So the people in the bubble should be masked, socially distant in tier three they will be interacting.”

That creates potential issues for reporters, who are used to being close to the action. “I’m in a little area, off the court,” said CBS Sports lead sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson. “It’ll be different for every arena. The challenging part is finding an area for us that works the best. And so when we’re working Hinkle on Friday, it’s going to be a lot different than where I was working at Lucas Oil this past weekend.”

“The challenge is you’re not going to be able to do what we love to do during the tournament,” Wolfson continued. “And one of those things is listening in to those hurdles and really getting those interviews face to face with coaches and finding out the X’s and O’s and strategies down the stretch of games. So that will be a little more difficult. As it goes, we’ll figure that out, and how to best accomplish that.”

COVID has created plenty of additional logistical issues, and it doesn’t necessarily make for the best experience behind the scenes. As CBS Sports lead announcer Jim Nantz explained, “I understand my job is not about how much fun I have dropping into a city and maybe catching up with old friends or having a great dinner, or even having dinners with my own colleagues. But the short of it is, we don’t go out. So it’s been a lot of time of isolation. I think you can go anywhere online and read stories about how people dealt with the isolation, it’s not easy.”

“It’s a challenging time,” Barry confirmed. “Just working in this landscape and in this climate, has proven to be more difficult than working in a traditional sense. But we’ve done a great job of adapting and taking lessons learned and keeping safety as the priority. Is it different than the last time you saw the tournament? Yeah, it’s going to be different. We’re paddling like ducks underneath, so the viewer will have a smooth experience on top.”

And at the end of the day, the first NCAA Tournament in two years will be worth it. “I’ve always thought that March Madness was a ray of sunshine for the American psyche,” said Nantz. “Kids are playing their hearts out. We see it on the floor. There’s so much excitement, and we missed it. I think we missed it as a sports nation. And I really believe it’s going to make this year’s edition different than ever before. Just the appreciation of having it back again.”

CBS will have coverage of the Final Four and National Championship games on Saturday April 3 and Monday April 5. Games can also be seen via NCAA March Madness Live and streamed through Paramount+.

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