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Des Moines leaders exploring development of college basketball 'bubble' at Wells Fargo Arena


Randy Peterson   | Des Moines Register

Des Moines leaders are talking about the possibility of inviting college basketball teams to play early-season games at Wells Fargo Arena.

“We think it’d be great for everybody, and yes, we are in the process of discussing it,” Greg Edwards, CEO of the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the Des Moines Register on Thursday morning. “We can make it work.”

The structure of what an NCAA basketball season would look like for 2020-21 is uncertain, other than an official start date on Nov. 25 has been established. The “bubble” format, which has been working well with the National Basketball Association's restart and postseason, has been widely discussed.

The NCAA has had recent experience with Des Moines, as the city successfully hosted first- and second-round games for the 2016 and 2019 men's Division I tournaments.

“We’re 100 percent interested in hosting a bubble. We have the facility, the space," said Chris Connolly, general manager of the Iowa Events Center, which includes Wells Fargo Arena. "There are many hotels in downtown Des Moines. We would be all about that."

Drake athletics director Brian Hardin said a "bubble" could include an equal number of high-major programs and mid-major programs. That format could give the mid-majors an opportunity to face the high-major opponents needed for NCAA Tournament resume purposes. A balanced bubble also would mean high-majors playing without having to pay guarantees to non-conference opponents.

“Right now, it’s unknown as to what it could look like,” said Hardin, who mentioned a scenario like this unfolding over two weeks in mid-December. “It depends on what interest would be appealing. It's about unique options in a very unique year."

All people involved know there are potential arena scheduling conflicts that might have to be worked out. 

"I think there’s still a lot of things that need to be sorted out, but in terms of raising our hands and throwing our hat in the ring — we would," Connolly said.

Generally, an NCAA basketball “bubble” would allow teams to stay in hotels, and practice and play games in one facility.

“Our halls are big,” Connolly said of the Iowa Events Center property. “We could take one of the halls for a couple weeks and put two (basketball) courts down. We have the space to do it. It depends on details and timing.”

The Division I Council not only pushed the normal start date back a couple weeks, it also changed the maximum number of games a team can play and the minimum number of games it will take to be considered for the NCAA Tournament.

The maximum number of games was reduced by four; teams can play 24 or 25 games, plus one multiple-team event. The minimum number of games was cut in half — to 13. Both the men's and women's basketball committees recommended playing a minimum of four nonconference games.

The ball is now in the court of individual conferences to figure out scheduling formats. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told the Register on Thursday that Big 12 Conference schedules would continue to be the 18-game, round-robin format. Details beyond that are still being determined, including the "bubble" concept.

"I imagine Des Moines is as well prepared as the (other) sites that are talking about such events," he said.

Meanwhile, the Wells Fargo Arena discussion will go on. Officials are expected to talk again on Friday.

“We would be interested, and there have been some very informal discussions,” Polk County supervisor Tom Hockensmith told The Register. “But, not knowing the (American Hockey League's) Iowa Wild schedule or the (NBA G-League) Iowa Wolves schedule — no dates have been looked at that might be available.”

Iowa State columnist Randy Peterson has been writing for the Des Moines Register for parts of six decades. Reach him at rpeterson@dmreg.com, 515-284-8132, and on Twitter at @RandyPete. No one covers the Cyclones like the Register. Your subscription makes work like this possible. Subscribe today at DesMoinesRegister.com/Deal