ESPN’s College Basketball Bubble Tournaments In Orlando Will No Longer Happen

The college basketball season is set to begin in just over a month, but a number of the opening tournaments that were expected to be played in Orlando — but had yet to be finalized — will not be taking place.

Seth Davis of The Athletic brought word on Monday that ESPN was no longer pursuing their planned bubble tipoff tournaments in Orlando as ESPN Events and the various schools were unable to agree on health and safety protocols for the tournaments. The 10 events, which featured more than two dozen programs, will no longer work towards being finalized to allow the teams to seek new scheduling options with a month to go before the season.

According to Clint Overby, the VP of ESPN Events, the issues arose from a few key sticking points in negotiations about testing protocols, namely ESPN’s insistence on following CDC guidelines while the schools wanted to go by their conference guidelines, which in some cases were more relaxed, as he told Davis.

“We’ve decided to redirect our efforts to be sure the teams have enough time to make other plans,” Clint Overby, vice president of ESPN Events, told The Athletic. “At the end of the day our bias was toward safety and making sure that what we pulled off was in the best interests of the sport. In the absence of those things, we decided we’re better off letting schools do their own thing.”

The plans broke down mainly because ESPN was trying to abide by guidelines handed down by the Centers for Disease Control and the NCAA, which are more restrictive than the protocols many conferences are planning to implement. The biggest point of contention was ESPN’s desire to stick by the guideline stating that anyone who has tested positive for coronavirus must be re-tested after that person has been clear for 90 days. Several schools balked at the idea of retesting players that soon. “The 90-day testing protocol became the key sticking point,” Overby said. “Once we laid that out there were individual schools who couldn’t agree because their conference rules are more open-ended with respect to when you test someone again who has contracted the virus.”

There were also issues of how they would proceed with contact tracing after a positive test, but what became clear was they would not be able to find common ground to play the tournaments with all of the teams and, as such, they felt it was best to leave the schools to their own devices to tipoff the season. The difference in the NCAA and CDC protocols and those of each conference also show how there are already cracks in the plan to begin the college hoops season, with each conference creating its own guidelines and trying to navigate playing an indoor sports season for the first time.

We have already seen numerous postponements and cancellations of games in college football due to internal outbreaks on teams, and college basketball will surely face similar hurdles. What remains to be seen is how they handle tracing and testing given the exposure risk for an indoor sport is even greater than an outdoor sport, especially given the consistent proximity and contact of players on the basketball court — even moreso than in football. That ESPN wasn’t comfortable running events in Orlando with the guidelines some conferences have in place isn’t a ringing endorsement, given ESPN has plenty of financial incentive to run these tipoff tournaments and pit the best teams against each other. But they also recognized the liability in running events without following CDC protocols, particularly with amateur athletes, and decided to pass, and now we’ll see what schools come up with for their own season-opening games and events.

Per Davis, ESPN does still hope to put on the Champions Classic and Jimmy V Classic at other locations, but those discussions are ongoing. Michigan State, Kansas, Gonzaga, Duke, Kentucky, Baylor, Rutgers, and Tennessee are the teams still potentially playing in those two events, but other major programs like Texas Tech and Virginia are now among those in need of a new plan to open their season.

Jon Rothstein has indicated Indianapolis may serve as the new host site for those two tournaments.

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