NCAA limits March Madness attendance as coronavirus hits U.S. athletics

Ahiza García-Hodges

March Madness will be a little calmer this year.

The NCAA said on Wednesday it had taken the unprecedented step of limiting attendance for its upcoming national championship basketball tournaments, the biggest move yet by an athletic body to react to the coronavirus outbreak.

The crowds at the tournament games, which are set to start next week, will be limited to essential staff and family, NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a statement.

The announcement comes after sports teams and leagues around the U.S. have closed games to the public and canceled tournaments as fear grows about community spread of the coronavirus. More than 1,000 people have been infected in the U.S. and the outbreak was labeled a pandemic Wednesday by the World Health Organization.

Various other sporting events are planning to continue without fans.

The Golden State Warriors said Wednesday that the team will play Thursday night’s home game against the Brooklyn Nets at the Chase Center before an empty arena. Ticket holders will get a full refund. All events at the Chase Center through March 21 have been canceled or postponed.

The announcement came after San Francisco Mayor London Breed tweeted on Wednesday that the city would prohibit all gatherings of 1,000 people or more. The ban went into effect immediately and represents the city’s latest effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. No end date was discussed.

NBA spokesman Mike Bass said the league was “closely monitoring developments to determine the appropriate course for future Warriors home games.” The league will also “continue to work with local governments, the CDC and public health experts to protect the health of our fans, players, coaches and staff in NBA markets across the country."

Before the NCAA made its announcement about March Madness, one of the other year-end conference tournaments had already been canceled. The College Basketball Invitational, which is on the third tier of men’s collegiate basketball competitions, was canceled Wednesday over coronavirus concerns.

Other sports leagues have taken even more severe steps. The Ivy League conference said Wednesday that it was canceling all spring athletics practices and competitions through the end of the academic year. Individual members of the conference will determine whether winter teams and student-athletes will be able to participate in postseason competitions. The decision was made after several schools in the conference announced that students would not return to campus after spring break and virtual classes would be held for the rest of the semester.

The Ivy League had already canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments on Tuesday, noting that the league’s regular season champions would automatically qualify for the NCAA Tournaments.

Major League Baseball also faces some difficult decisions as its preseason spring training schedule ramps up.

The San Francisco Giants said they would not play their March 24 exhibition game at home against the Oakland A’s at Oracle Park. The team is working to find “alternative arrangements” for the game.

Since the baseball season doesn’t start until late March, there are no other immediate public gatherings planned at the ballpark.

In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee said there would be a ban in the Seattle region on events of 250 or more people. The ban lasts at least through late March.

The Seattle Mariners announced Wednesday that they would be finding “alternative plans” for home games scheduled in late March at T-Mobile Park. The team is crediting or refunding tickets.

Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders said they had postponed their home match scheduled for March 21 against FC Dallas at CenturyLink Field.

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, one of the city’s biggest yearly events, was also closed Wednesday by the city’s health department.