Last month the NCAA revealed that it would hold the entire 2021 men’s basketball tournament — otherwise known, of course, as March Madness — in one location. Though not set in stone yet, that location is widely expected to be Indianapolis, home of the organization’s headquarters and already the planned site of the 2021 Final Four.
After the NCAA was forced to cancel March Madness in 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s understandable that they’re going to take every step possible to ensure the tournament is played this time around.
Whether the games will be played in front of fans remains to be seen, but the fact that Colts games at Lucas Oil Stadium during the 2020 NFL season have been played to limited capacities probably bodes well for at least some fans being admitted.
So it stands to reason that traveling to watch March Madness games in 2021 won’t be impossible, and might be fairly doable as far as traveling during a pandemic will allow.
While we wait for the NCAA to iron out the details — if anything, the last 10 months have shown us that even the best-laid plans can change at a moment’s notice — we can at least begin looking at the lay of the land in Indianapolis.
You already know that Circle City is the home of a football stadium with plenty of history hosting basketball — Lucas Oil Stadium has hosted the Final Four twice already — as well as an NBA arena, the Indiana Pacers’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
But it’s the other, lesser-known gyms around Indy that will make it an ideal spot for a huge tournament, and there are more potential sites on the outskirts of town as well. But would you have expected any less from a locale that considers itself the cradle of basketball?
Let’s explore where NCAA tournament games can be held during a 2021 March Madness event in Indianapolis. For more on visiting the city, you can also check out our Indianapolis sports travel guide.
Lucas Oil Stadium
If you’re a regular March Madness viewer, you already know the setup for the Final Four — place the basketball court in the center of a giant stadium and let it fill up with people, creating environments where upwards of 70,000-80,000 people are watching a basketball game.
Whatever you think of the spectating experience, you have to admit it makes for a unique environment.
In 2021, under these unique circumstances, Lucas Oil Stadium figures to present a few advantages for this March Madness. First, instead of just the Final Four, it’s likely that the stadium will be the site of games from the first round on. And it’s centrally located, right on the edge of downtown near most of the area’s hotels and attractions.
Not only that, even a quarter-full Lucas Oil Stadium could fit a comparable number of fans as a sold-out arena.
So expect the marquee teams of March Madness in 2021 — not only the Dukes and Kansases of the bracket but also top-ranked teams like Gonzaga, Baylor and so on — to get the big stage at Lucas Oil Stadium from the beginning of the tourney.
Bankers Life Fieldhouse
The home of the Indiana Pacers, Bankers Life Fieldhouse is centrally located as well — just on the other side of downtown’s Wholesale District, it’s also within easy walking distance from most of Indy’s downtown hotels.
The building’s availability is somewhat up in the air, as it stands to reason that the Pacers will need it for a good chunk of the two-week window needed to host games in the regional rounds. (The schedule for the second half of the NBA season, which would cover mid to late March, has yet to be released.)
The Pacers are hoping to have a limited number of fans — likely no more than 5,000 — attend their games this season, starting no earlier than January. If that turns out to be the case, it’s possible the NCAA will have the same allotment for games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Indiana Farmers Coliseum
The 6,600-seat arena located on the Indiana State Fairgrounds, five miles north of downtown, hosts games for the Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI) men’s basketball team.
It figures to get strong consideration as a secondary site for March Madness in 2021, perhaps hosting first- and second-round games.
IUPUI’s basketball program moved into the historic building in 2014 after an extensive renovation, and it served as the home of the Pacers during their time in the American Basketball Association in the early 1970s.
The arena also hosts a minor-league hockey team, the Indy Fuel of the ECHL.
If used for NCAA tournament games, Indiana Farmers Coliseum could be part of a northern cluster of venues, so to speak, along with another historic venue.
All around the Midwest but particularly in Indiana, the term “fieldhouse” has a special meaning, as an old-timey basketball gym. Often these buildings have arced or triangular roofs, brick exteriors and a historic feel, as though they’ve been around since the peach basket days.
It’s no accident that Lucas Oil Stadium has a triangular roof, unusual for a building of its size, or that Bankers Life Fieldhouse has that name as opposed to “Bankers Life Arena.” The design of the former and the name of the latter are both meant as homages to the basketball culture in Indiana.
All that being said, there’s perhaps no truer representation of this culture than Hinkle Fieldhouse, home of the Butler Bulldogs. Opened in 1928, it was once the largest basketball arena in the country and is now a National Historic Landmark.
The building has gained more national exposure thanks to the rise of its home program, which made back-to-back NCAA national championship games in 2010 and ’11. But its largest claim to fame might be its use as a major setting in the movie “Hoosiers,” which shined a light on Indiana’s rich basketball heritage.
It seems likely that the NCAA would want to spotlight Hinkle Fieldhouse during March Madness, so expect it to be used during first- and second-round games at least. It has a capacity of 9,100, so attendance at tournament games would likely be limited to a couple thousand at most.
Hinkle Fieldhouse is located on the Butler campus about six miles north of downtown, and together with Indiana Farmers Coliseum, it can be used as part of a northern cluster of venues.
Potential sites outside Indianapolis
The following sites are good candidates for March Madness games in 2021, but whether they get used will depend on how far away from downtown Indianapolis the NCAA is willing to stage games.
Officially known as Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, the 17,000-seat arena is home to the Indiana Hoosiers. It’s on the IU campus in Bloomington, located about 50 miles south of downtown Indianapolis.
Purdue’s home basketball arena is located on the campus in West Lafayette, about 65 miles northwest of downtown Indy. It seats about 14,000.
University of Dayton Arena
The traditional home of the NCAA tournament’s First Four, the arena on the University of Dayton campus is some 120 miles east of Indy. Though this will clearly be an unusual tournament, the NCAA might opt to keep some traditions intact and keep the First Four there, especially since Dayton is just a couple hours’ drive down the road.
* * *
There will certainly be a few logistical hurdles that the NCAA must solve before committing fully to a 2021 March Madness tournament in the Indianapolis area. But they don’t seem too massive to overcome.
And whatever plan they come up with it, I’m also hopeful that it will involve fans in some capacity. As long as it’s done safely, I really want to see fans in the stands for tourney games. It’s just hard to imagine March Madness without it.