Fans arrive to the Alamodome.
Fans arrive at the Alamodome during the 2018 NCAA men's Final Four. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The entirety of the NCAA’s 2021 women’s basketball tournament will take place in San Antonio, Austin, and San Marcos in March and early April, but no decision has been made yet about whether fans will be allowed to attend.

To limit travel and simplify logistics amid the coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA chose to confine the 2021 men’s and women’s tournaments to one geographic area. The men’s tournament will be played in and around Indianapolis, while San Antonio will be the hub for the women’s games.

“This is a historic moment for women’s basketball and for San Antonio,” said Lynn Holzman, NCAA vice president of women’s basketball, at a press conference Friday.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the the tournament will be “built on a foundation of public health and safety.”

The tournament, which begins March 21 and ends with the April 4 championship game, will position hotels and restaurants downtown for a windfall of tourism money from participating teams, at a time when the area has been battered by pandemic-related losses.

“The impact is immeasurable,” Nirenberg said.

Team travel parties alone are expected to result in at least 35,000 room nights in downtown hotels, the mayor said. Previous finals games held in San Antonio have brought in tens of millions of dollars in tourism spending.

Richard Oliver, a spokesman for Visit San Antonio, said that estimates are hard to come by for the tournament’s economic impact.

“This is unprecedented when you have a 64-team tournament in one place,” he said. “We’re excited to get out our calculators.”

He said it will be the city’s biggest event since the pandemic began. According to Visit San Antonio’s estimates, the pandemic has cost the city roughly $395 million in economic impact from missed meetings, conferences, and events, he said. A total of 263 events contracted with Visit San Antonio have been canceled, which would have otherwise brought 685,000 visitors to the city.

In normal years, first-round and second-round NCAA tournament games are hosted by 16 teams across the country, whose winners then feed into regional matches. San Antonio had already been selected to host the Final Four at the Alamodome on April 2-4.

Now six championship rounds featuring 63 games will be played using five venues and six courts in San Antonio, Austin, and San Marcos.

Though the schedule is subject to change, first-round play is set for March 21-22 at the the Alamodome, Bill Greehey Arena on the campus of St. Mary’s University, the Frank Erwin Center at the University of Texas at Austin, the University Events Center at Texas State University in San Marcos, and the University of Texas at San Antonio Convocation Center.

Second-round play will take place entirely within San Antonio. From March 23-24, teams will play at the Alamodome, the Bill Greehey Arena, and the UTSA Convocation Center.

The remaining rounds will all be played at the Alamodome, with the round-of-16 games played March 27-28 and round-of-eight games held March 29-30.

ESPN plans to nationally televise all 63 games of the women’s tournament for the first time ever, a spokeswoman for the network confirmed.

Holzman praised San Antonio Sports, the organization leading talks with the NCAA since at least November, as well as the hotels and universities coordinating with the effort.

“We have been greeted with open arms and a can-do attitude,” she said, later adding that this was a contributing factor to the organization’s decision to select San Antonio.

“We’re fortunate to work with San Antonio, which has one of the most experienced local organization committees in the country,” said Nina King, senior deputy athletics director and chief of staff at Duke University and chair of the Division I Women’s Basketball Committee.

San Antonio previously hosted the women’s Final Four in 2010 and in 2002. The 2002 event set the record for the highest attendance for an NCAA’s women’s basketball game, with nearly 30,000 in the Alamodome crowd. The city also hosted the 2018 men’s Final Four.

This year might set the record for the lowest attendance.

Following models established by previous large-scale tournaments, the entire event will take place in a “bubble,” as officials described it.

Players will not be allowed to have exposure to anyone outside their normal social “pod,” Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger said.  Although players’ families will be in attendance, it is yet to be determined if fans will be allowed. And if they are, attendance will be subject to local ordinances, officials stressed.

The presence of fans at regular-season NCAA basketball games this season has been determined by state regulations or the schools themselves.

Tournament participants will be subject to daily coronavirus tests paid for by the NCAA and will be required to show seven negative test results prior to arriving in San Antonio on private transport.

Last year the pandemic prompted organizers to cancel the women’s tournament for the first time since its creation in 1982. The 2020 men’s tournament was also canceled, which auditors said cost the NCAA more than $800 million, including ticket sales.

The decision to host the tournament capped off weeks of speculation, though the final result was all but an open secret.

In December, Jenny Carnes, vice president of San Antonio Sports, who led talks with the NCAA, said she had a “great deal of confidence” that the entire tournament would take place in the area. Officials with San Antonio Sports had originally pushed for the entirety of the tournament to take place within San Antonio city limits.

Organizers at the press conference Friday said that Austin and San Marcos venues were included because of the number of venues needed to keep on track with the tournament schedule. Not enough venues in San Antonio met certain NCAA standards.

Still, the bulk of the tournament takes place in San Antonio, with players traveling by bus to the nearby cities.

“San Antonio is prepared to host the best event possible,” Carnes said. “Bring on March Madness.”

Waylon Cunningham covered business and technology for the San Antonio Report.