COVID-19 bubbles aren’t a realistic answer for college basketball

Brian Rauf | @brauf33 | 08/06/20


As the college basketball world surveys the rest of the sports landscape for ways to have a season amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing is clear – creating a “bubble,” like we’ve seen with the NBA, NHL, MLS, and TBT, has been the only effective way to accomplish that goal.

Major League Baseball is the only league that has tried to put on their season without one and…well…it’s in danger of being cancelled due to outbreaks among the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals.

So it should come as no surprise that, according to CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein, a number of power conference officials have discussed creating bubbles of their own in order to play the upcoming season (which is still slated to tip off as normal on November 10th).

In theory, that’s a great idea.

In execution, however, it’s going to be impossible to do.

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Potential bubble drawbacks

The idea for a bubble centers around completely isolating the competing teams involved from the outside world at a single site where all games would be held. There would be a bubble for the ACC, one for the Big Ten, etc., potentially held at the site of respective conference tournament or another neutral site.

There are several problems with this idea aside from the obvious likelihood of only conference games being played.

For starters, the major differences in wealth distribution across the sport would severely impact the ability of each conference to pull this off, especially considering the fact schools lost $375 million when the 2020 NCAA Tournament was cancelled and another $4.2 billion could be lost – or at least severely impacted – depending on what happens with the fast-approaching college football season.

Entire athletic departments are already in trouble and many smaller conferences simply don’t have the resources to afford the consistent testing, lodging, meals, and everything else that goes into a bubble – especially if there are no non-conference games, “buy games” against power schools, or ticket sales. Because, remember, outside fans would not be allowed to attend at all.

This would all be done to recoup TV money, which may not cover the entire cost of running the bubble in the first place. It will for the power conferences, sure, but those aren’t the ones that would be stretching themselves as thin as possible in order to make the bubble happen.

There’s also the risk of a player and/or team being infected, which would cause games to be cancelled or postponed and would threaten to cancel the bubble altogether. What would happen then, if a conference poured its remaining resources into an effort that ultimately failed and provided virtually zero return on investment? Entire athletic departments – and potentially entire conferences – would shut down and fold.

Hurdles with student-athlete participation

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that every conference is able to financially and logistically pull off a bubble. What if the players don’t want to participate unless certain demands are met, a la what many Pac-12 football players have declared?

And what would this mean for other sports? The NCAA claims to champion the student-athlete in all sports, yet college football and basketball are their big (and mostly only) money-makers. Athletes in those sports have been pushing to be compensated beyond a scholarship for years, yet the NCAA has maintained the charade of equality among all student-athletes.

Going to these extreme lengths to ensure as much college basketball is played as possible would be the NCAA finally confirming that these players are more valuable and are treated more as athletes than students. Differentiating them from other student-athletes in other non-revenue generating sports would completely shatter the NCAA’s legal defenses and core basis.

Now, I say all that to somewhat reverse course and say that bubbles can happen in some situations. Early season non-conference tournaments are set up perfectly for this as all competing teams are already set to be in a single location playing at a single venue. Conference tournaments and even the NCAA Tournament could do the same at each site as well.

But trying to replicate that for an entire season creates an entirely new set of roadblocks that makes the undertaking virtually impossible to accomplish across the sport.


Brian Rauf is a college basketball writer for HeatCheckCBB.com. His content has been featured by Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, and FanSided, among other publications. Rauf is also a current USBWA member and Rockin’ 25 voter.