SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The Summit League Basketball Championships have been a fixture in Sioux Falls since 2009, calling the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center home for the past six years.
This March, not needing to accommodate thousands of fans due to COVID-19 protocols, the league is taking its show down the road.
A year ago, nearly 50,000 fans packed the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center for the Summit League Basketball Championships.
The South Dakota women and NDSU men were the last teams standing, each earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament. COVID-19 had other plans. Before a single bracket was busted, the national tournaments were canceled.
“USD was ranked 11th in the coaches poll for the women, NDSU was really hot there at the end, we thought wow, this is great going into the tournament. Three days later, boom, everything fell through and your heart goes out to those student-athletes,” Summit League Commissioner Tom Douple said.
12 months later, the Coyotes and Bison will defend their titles in Sioux Falls, but not at the PREMIER Center.
“When they reached out to us I had to temper my excitement because I was excited to host and I know the team here is excited to host,” Sanford Sports Vice President of Operations Jesse Smith said.
This year’s champions will be crowned at the Sanford Pentagon.
“I’ve joked before that this place was built for pandemic basketball because we can do it all here under one roof,” Smith said.
“We’re able to use their practice courts, plus have a testing area all under one roof. It created sort of what we call a bubble,” Douple said.
Once a team enters the bubble, they’ll make a stop at one of four COVID-19 testing stations.
“Every team will be tested every single day that they’re here throughout the whole tournament,” Douple said. “We’re doing antigen testing, rapid testing, which is 15 minutes results. If there is a positive, we have an area we’ll isolate that particular tier-1 person, we’ll take a PCR on that and get the results back in four hours and immediately begin our contact tracing,” Douple added.
Testing wasn’t an issue during the 8-team Crossover Classic in November, but Smith says testing 16 teams – eight men, eight women – brings twice the risk.
“Every time you add people to that bubble, you’re increasing your risk. It’s another player, another coach, another member of that travel party that has to pass the protocol and pass the test, and any one of them can trip you up and put the event at risk” Smith said.
“A huge undertaking for us with 16 teams and trying to put their practice schedules together and then creating a testing window that they have to be here. We’re also testing all of our officials, all of our staff is being tested every day, so it’s a massive undertaking, obviously something different that we haven’t done at our tournament,” Douple said.
The Summit League did consider trimming the tournament field.
“We talked about maybe reducing it to a final four or a smaller bracket, but at the end of the day this is all about the student-athletes and having an opportunity to compete in our tournament,” Douple said.
They’ll play to a mostly empty arena. Tickets are not available to the general public, but the Summit League may allow each team a limited number of immediate family members.
“We have announced that we’re having no fans and that will be in place throughout the tournament. We’re working on a process where we’re going to have immediate family, up to 50, that may be able to come in. We’re working through that process, we’re pretty sure we’re heading in that direction,” Douple said.
“We feel pretty strongly that if the Summit League decides to go in that direction we’re going to be able to accommodate that, work it right into our protocols and our plans for the event and keep the athletes safe,” Smith said.
That’s two tickets per person. One concern is family members traveling from out-of-state and potentially spreading the virus. Douple says the league took a survey of teams and found that 95% of parents live outside of South Dakota.
“We’re hoping this is a one year blip, but we’re prepared now with a game plan on our testing and all the different protocols that we’ve established if this ever happens again,” Douple said.
Douple says the lack of fans at this year’s tournament will cost the Summit League hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Obviously our tournament’s been very successful, not only from a competitive standpoint and from a fan atmosphere, but financially as well,” Douple said. “That pales in what we’re trying to do in make a safe environment for our student-athletes,” Douple added.
The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments will be played in Indiana and Texas, respectively, but for the first time ever teams will punch their ticket here at Heritage Court.
“The vision for this place was Where Champions Are Crowned, right, so this is just an extension of that and it feels like a fulfillment of that vision. We now get to crown a champion for the Summit League and send that team to the national tournament, it’s a pretty cool thing,” Smith said.
The Summit League Basketball Championships start Saturday at the Sanford Pentagon. The first of four games tips off at 11:45 a.m., with three hours between start times. The championship games are Tuesday, with the women at 1:00, followed by the men at 8:00.