NCAA's March Madness basketball tournament will take place without spectators in the arenas due to the global coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA said Wednesday in a remarkable announcement that may cost the association hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and carry uncertain economic implications for cities that host college basketball’s biggest event.
The NCAA’s decision to bar thousands of fans from stadiums puts the NCAA in line with growing ranks of health officials and sports organizations that have urged the public to avoid large crowds during the ongoing outbreak.
“I have made the decision to conduct our upcoming championship events, including the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, with only essential staff and limited family attendance,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a statement.
“While I understand how disappointing this is for all fans of our sports, my decision is based on the current understanding of how COVID-19 is progressing in the United States. This decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student-athletes," Emmert said.
An NCAA medical advisory panel had previously said it needed to understand more about novel coronavirus, known as Covid-19. But on Wednesday, the group said it recognized the fluidity of the disease, its rapid spread in the United States and its impact on hosting public events.
“Given these considerations, coupled with a more unfavorable outcome of COVID-19 in older adults — especially those with underlying chronic medical conditions— we recommend against sporting events open to the public,” the panel said in its own statement. “We do believe sport events can take place with only essential personnel and limited family attendance, and this protects our players, employees, and fans.”
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a House Oversight panel that the outbreak would worsen, and that big gatherings should be nixed.
“We would recommend that there not be large crowds,” Fauci said Wednesday. “If that means not having any people in the audience when the NBA plays, so be it. But as a public health official, anything that has large crowds is something that would give a risk to spread.”
NCAA officials had to confront a growing number of related disruptions when making a decision. The Golden State Warriors became the first NBA team to announce it would play without fans, as San Francisco halted major gatherings in Northern California’s entertainment and tourism capital. Later on Wednesday, the NBA indefinitely postponed its season after a player, Utah’s Rudy Gobert, tested positive for the virus.
And while many colleges have canceled in-person classes to respond to the outbreak, athletics programs had already begun to adjust public events even before the NCAA announced plans to dramatically scale back its championships. In the hours following the NCAA’s announcement, other major college conferences said they too would close their postseason basketball tournaments to fans.
The coronavirus scare prompted Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Tuesday to ask that sporting events in his state be played without fans this week, with the University of Dayton scheduled to host the “First Four” March Madness games at the UD Arena next week and Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse set to stage more contests starting March 20.
The Ivy League Conference scrapped its championship basketball tournaments on Tuesday. The Mid-American Conference said it would close its tournaments in Cleveland to the general public, while the Big West Conference said its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments would be played without fans.
One big-time college conference first planned to slather hospital-grade disinfectant on basketballs and stock Lysol in locker rooms during postseason play this week. A Division III school started its campaign for a national title inside an empty gym.
Ivy League officials decided to not only cancel this year’s basketball tournaments, but also all spring athletics practices and competitions for the rest of the academic year.
“We understand and share the disappointment with student-athletes, coaches and fans who will not be able to participate in these tournaments,” Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris said in a statement. “Regrettably, the information and recommendations presented to us from public health authorities and medical professionals have convinced us that this is the most prudent decision.”
College sports’ powerful Southeastern Conference didn’t immediately close off its men’s basketball tournament that began Wednesday, but it will distribute globs of hand sanitizer.
The conference initially said it would also use “hospital grade disinfectant” to sanitize basketballs and locker rooms between games and practices. Team benches and cheerleader seating areas were to get similar treatment, while disinfectant wipes and Lysol spray would be distributed in locker rooms. The SEC later announced it would close the men’s basketball tournament to most fans starting Thursday.
Iona College players were at the MAAC Conference tournament in Atlantic City on Tuesday as the National Guard deployed to enforce a “containment area” throughout part of their campus hometown of New Rochelle, N.Y. The conference had already announced it would take disinfecting measures similar to the SEC, but also include a ban on pre- and post-game handshakes.
UCLA officials announced its home athletics events would be “largely spectator free” through April 10, as classes and final exams were moved online.
Pac-12 conference officials said its basketball tournament in Las Vegas would only occur with essential staff, media members and families in attendance starting Thursday.
The Big East men’s conference basketball tournament will now take place in a largely empty Madison Square Garden. Tournaments for the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 conferences will take similar measures.