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Cancelling 2020’s March Madness was a ‘massive hit:' Big East Commissioner

Yahoo Finance’s Alexis Christoforous and Val Ackerman, Big East Commissioner, discuss outlook for March Madness and revenue amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: College basketball is picking up the financial pieces after the coronavirus upended one of its biggest moneymakers last year, March Madness. The tournament will be played this year, in fact, in just a few weeks in a bubble in Indiana. Joining me now is the commissioner of the Big East Conference, Val Ackerman. She's joining us on the phone today.

Val, it's great to have you here. And we should mention off the top, Big East competes in all Division I sports except football. But it's really known for basketball. And before we look ahead to the upcoming March Madness, your conference was really poised to make some noise in last year's NCAA tournament.

Three of your teams in the Big East were projected to be among the top seeds. Can you tell us what the financial impact of canceling last year's tournament has been on the Big East?

VAL ACKERMAN: Well, thanks for having me. And sorry it's a phone-in only. But the answer to your question is that there was a financial impact because of the cancellation of March Madness last year.

The tournament brings in a significant amount of revenue to the NCAA, which is, in turn, distributed back out to the schools and the conferences. And so with it not being played, there was a, again, frankly, a massive hit to the distributees, including the Big East.

But the good news is we did have we did have insurance that covered the cancellation of our conference tournament, the Big East Tournament at the garden, which precedes March Madness every year, and had some reserves that our board of directors, the presidents of our schools, allowed us to access to make up for some of that shortfall.

But no question, it's a big event. And that's why, one of the reasons why, everyone is so hopeful that we can get it played this year beginning in March.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: And in fact, earlier today, the NCAA said they're going to announce early next month whether or not they're going to allow fans at the tournament, which we said will be held entirely in Indiana. What is your hope for that?

VAL ACKERMAN: I think that's hopeful. And it may well be that in the state of Indiana, there would be some permissiveness there about allowing fans to attend basketball games. My sense is it would be a restricted capacity situation at best. But I think all of us that are likely to be participants expect that it could well be a fan-free environment.

Frankly, that's what a lot of us are working through right now with the regular season games that are being played. Most of the 11 schools currently in the Big East Conference are playing without fans in their buildings. So it's something I would say our coaches and our athletes have gotten used to. It's been very tough for their families not to be able to see them play in person.

And I think probably that's one reason that the NCAA is going to do everything they can to see if they can get some people in those buildings, because there are supporters of our programs, including those families, who I know would like to see their sons and daughters play.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Absolutely. And there's nothing like being there in person, right? But Val, on the revenue side, so many of these schools rely on people attending the games. Without fan attendance, they've taken a big hit. How can schools even begin to try and make up for that lost revenue?

VAL ACKERMAN: Well, in the case of our league, there is an important revenue stream that has been largely preserved this season, and that is television revenue. So for example, in the case of the Big East, we have a major national television agreement with Fox Sports. They've got every one of our men's basketball games on their air. They've got a package of women's basketball games.

So we have been able to get those games on TV. And that will result in some level of revenue to our conference this year, which in turn, we pass along to our schools. To your point, the ticket sales revenue that schools rely on has largely evaporated this year. Sponsor money evaporates to the extent it's dependent on the ticket distribution and the fans in the building component.

But I think for our schools, importantly, college programs rely heavily on philanthropy as well. And so our schools are working hard to make sure that the people and the entities that typically support their programs from a donor perspective continue to be there this year and to support their programs in these dark times.

So those are the pieces that I think are kind of lined up here. And our schools, I think, really won't know till the end of the year how they make out on those key revenue streams that can still survive a global pandemic.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: When you look past the pandemic, Val, do you think there's anything that will change long term in the way we play sports and we watch sports?

VAL ACKERMAN: Well, I think there will be changes near term for sure, as fans get themselves comfortable to return to large gatherings and sporting events.

I mean, it may be that the days are gone, maybe gone for a while where fans are sitting shoulder to shoulder in a crowded building with, in the case of basketball, 15,000 or 18,000 seats, or in the case of a football game, 60,000, or 80,0000, or 100,000 seats, standing up, yelling, screaming, hugging each other when that last second shot gets made or a last second field goal gets kicked. I think that may be a while.

And in the meantime, our venues and our programs we'll have to adapt again to a either fan-free or restricted capacity environment, and to the extent they have, fans trying to make it as safe as they can. So that will affect everything from continuing in arena protocols, to how and if they serve food, to contactless payment methods, so that people aren't sort of close to others in terms of transactions that normally go on inside a building.

So I think you're going to see those sorts of adjustments for a while before things get back to normal. And then the health and safety, last but not least, is going to remain top of mind I'm sure until we know that the vaccine is widely distributed and it's doing what it's supposed to be doing. So I think those are the things that I would see as near term issues.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: All right, Val Ackerman, Commissioner of the Big East. Thanks so much, and best of luck in March Madness.

VAL ACKERMAN: Very good, thank you for having me.