Going to March Madness in a pandemic

The view inside Hinkle Fieldhouse before Tech’s first round game against Loyola Chicago. All personnel and fans were masked and distanced, and no one but essential team personnel and players were even allowed close to the floor. // Photo by Jack Purdy Student Publications

I crossed off a bucket list item quite unexpectedly last week: I went to a March Madness game. March Madness has always been a thing I’m only partially interested in when it happens because I can’t avoid conversations about it. It consumes American sports for three consecutive weekends before The Masters and Opening Day. Games are all over the country, and the upsets usually happen by such small schools that only a tiny percentage of the college sports fandom gets to enjoy it. The Tournament just never hit that close to me.

Things have changed though. I am now actually in college and have a valid rooting interest that isn’t whoever will win me my bracket. Tech managed to win the ACC Championship (albeit in unorthodox fashion), and after realizing there is absolutely no guarantee that the Jackets will qualify for the NCAA Tournament again next year, it was an obvious decision that I had to go to Indianapolis to see Tech play.

We left the early morning of Tech’s first round game on March 19. The drive to Indianapolis from Atlanta is only 8 hours and the game was scheduled to tip-off at 4 p.m. Going to this game was a big landmark for me because one of my self-imposed rules was to not go to indoor sporting events that didn’t require testing. This has been why I’ve gone to Tech basketball games, since the student section is regularly tested. But, with cases continually on the decline and vaccine shots increasing in number each day, I felt okay enough going with close friends while primarily resorting to outdoor activities while there.

Tech played at Hinkle Fieldhouse on Butler University’s campus, the arena where the famous basketball movie Hoosiers was filmed. As soon as we got there, the effects of COVID-19 on a sporting event impacted us. For one, going as a media member, I was not allowed to enter the arena for a game that I wasn’t designated to cover. The Florida vs. Virginia Tech game that was played before the Tech game went into overtime, delaying when the various media people waiting outside could go into the arena.

Masks were required, and seating inside was allocated in pods of no greater than four. Hand sanitizing stations were all over the concourses and at every entrance. The entire lower section of Hinkle was empty save for cameramen and other necessary staff. The most crowded section by far was the Tech section, where as big a crowd as the NCAA would’ve allowed by the looks of it was jammed into the top corner section adjacent to Loyola Chicago’s. Seating in the media section was pretty well spaced out, but it did not seem that there was a full six feet of separation between seats.

Once the game actually started, it was a normal basketball game as you’d expect, minus the ruckus of a student section behind the baskets. The game and atmosphere had everything one could hope to have in a postseason game of any kind. Both crowds were very loud after good moments for either team. I still in the back of my head knew this wasn’t a full return to sports by any means, but it was so good for my soul to finally feel the energy only a close, high energy sporting event can provide.

Press conferences now happen over Zoom instead of in a packed press room. While I didn’t attend, the media section for the most part all stayed in place to join the Zoom call from their seats. The video board as soon as the game ended displayed a message urging fans to exit the arena so that they could get the fans in for the next game. As a whole, for an event attracting fans from all over the country, it was extremely well run and only would’ve been a safety hazard if people attending made poor decisions. Plenty of security was around though to make sure it was a safe environment for everyone attending.