When Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" last week, the entire state of Indiana came under the cross-hairs of a national debate over people's rights. Some people feel it protects the rights of people to believe what they want; others believe it enables people to cite their religious beliefs to discriminate against people who believe differently.
The controversy has led many businesses to begin cancelling events planned in the state of Indiana, and even to look elsewhere for business expansion. The NCAA has their corporate offices in Indianapolis, and this week has heard calls to move this week's Final Four from Indy. The logistics of that event make it nearly impossible to move on such short notice, but what about the future? NCAA president Mark Emmert told Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star Monday that the NCAA has a decision to make.
"We're going to have to sit down and make judgments about whether or not (the RFRA) changes the environment for us doing our work, and us holding events. We're deeply committed to the whole notion of inclusion. We have a very diverse membership. We value that very, very highly. We've got to work in and we've got to host our events in an environment that makes that possible. ...
"We don't want to, because of political activity, disrupt an event that's been in the making for so long, (and now) you've changed the experience for the student-athletes. But if we have to move events, we'll do it."
They aren't going to act rashly, which means that this won't affect the Final Four this week. But they are sending a message that this new law isn't acceptable to the NCAA, and that the NCAA is preparing to join the exodus from Indianapolis.
If that happens, certainly Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany will be close at hand, if not acting hand-in-hand. Indianapolis has hosted every Big Ten championship football game and is scheduled to host the Big Ten basketball tournaments next March. Those plans certainly are in doubt now, and you have to assume that contingency plans are probably being considered.
If the Big Ten football championship game has to move, Delany needs to first consider whether he's willing to play the game outdoors or not. The game is in December and scheduled for nighttime, which makes weather a concern. The only other domed stadiums in Big Ten territory are Detroit's Ford Field and arguably the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. Ford Field has been the home of the MAC Championship Game, held on the Friday night prior to the Big Ten game, which could present a logistical challenge. Other NFL stadiums certainly are available, though they are outdoors. I'd suggest that the Big Ten consider moving the game on campus of the higher ranked team, but the logistical issues of selling that number of tickets on a week's notice might be too difficult to accomplish.
Basketball has even greater logistical challenges, as it's a five day tournament as opposed to a single day event. Most arenas have NBA or NHL teams that would make them unavailable to the Big Ten for a week. With enough notice, the pro leagues could certainly schedule road trips, but with less than a year to plan, it may be too late to coordinate these changes for 2016. Except for Detroit's Ford Field, that would seem to eliminate most of the existing arenas in Big Ten territory except for campus facilities, such as Ohio State's Value City Arena.
Except for one: Omaha's CenturyLink Center. Omaha surprised the Big Ten last year with strong bid for a future Big Ten basketball tournament. It's comparable in size with the Banker's Life Fieldhouse in Indiana, and the Big Ten learned just how interested Omaha can be for B1G events last spring when the baseball tournament obliterated the attendance record in just the first day. The NCAA thinks enough of Omaha's CenturyLink Center that they awarded Omaha the 2017 Midwest Regional. Not the first weekend of the tournament...the Sweet Sixteen second weekend of the tournament.
Most importantly for Omaha and the Big Ten, it should be available. There are no high school basketball tournaments, professional teams or college tournaments to conflict with. UNO hockey is moving across town to a campus facility (which might be able to host the women's tournament, depending on the schedule), and Creighton will be off at the Big East tournament.
Not only would I not be surprised if the Big Ten were to say they were considering moving the basketball tournament, I would be shocked if the Big Ten hadn't already privately contacted organizers in Omaha about making sure those dates are available, should the Big Ten need to make a move. I don't think that's the Big Ten's preferred option, but they likely want to make sure they have their backup plan lined up.
Disclaimer: This topic isn't about the RFRA, but rather the effects of it. We're not discussing the right or wrong of the law, but rather, what will the effect be on sporting events.