The buzzer-beaters, upsets and all the other shining moments of this year’s NCAA tournaments will be played in mostly empty arenas.
Trying to avoid spreading the new coronavirus that has become a global pandemic, the NCAA decided the men’s and women’s tournament games will be off-limits to the general public.
NCAA President Mark Emmert said Wednesday that he made the decision to conduct both tournaments, which begin next week, with only essential staff and limited family in attendance. The decision comes after the NCAA’s COVID-19 advisory panel of medical experts recommended against playing sporting events open to the general public.
Emmert told The Associated Press that canceling the tournament was considered, but the NCAA wanted to avoid what he called a “draconian” measure.
Later in the day, the NBA suspended its season after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19.
For now, the NCAA Tournament is on.
“The decision was based on a combination of the information provided by national and state officials, by the advisory team that we put together of medical experts from across the country, and looking at what was going to be in the best interest of our student-athletes, of course,” Emmert told the AP in an phone interview. “But also the public health implications of all of this. We recognize our tournaments bring people from all around the country together. They’re not just regional events. They’re big national events. It’s a very, very hard decision for all the obvious reasons.”
Emmert said the NCAA wants to move the men’s Final Four on April 4 and 6 from Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium to a smaller arena in the area. The NCAA also will consider using smaller venues for second-week regional sites currently set to be played at the Toyota Center in Houston, Madison Square Garden in New York, Staples Center in Los Angeles and Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
“We have to determine the availability of the sites, obviously, but it doesn’t make good sense to have a football stadium be empty,” Emmert said.
All sites for next week’s men’s games will remain the same unless conditions in those areas force relocation, he said.
Plans for refunding tickets purchased in advance were being worked out.
First- and second-round sites for the women’s tournament will become official next week. Those games are usually played at or near the campuses of the highly seeded teams.
“It’s really sad. Obviously it’s disappointing for all our fans,” said Louisville women’s coach Jeff Walz, whose team is ranked No. 6 in the latest AP poll. “At the same time I completely understand for the health and safety of the fans and student-athletes and everyone involved.”
Walz said the university already had sold more than 4,000 tickets for the first- and second-round sessions.
The NCAA said tickets already purchased will be refunded.
The decision applies to more than just men’s and women’s basketball. All NCAA-sponsored championships including hockey’s Frozen Four will be affected.
But the men’s basketball tournament is the crown jewel, one of the most popular events on the American sports calendar. March Madness draws hundreds of thousands of fans to arenas from coast to coast. The men’s tournament generated more than $900 million in revenue last year for the NCAA and its members, though the majority of that was from a media rights deal with CBS and Turner that pays about $800 billion per year.
“We’re like any enterprise of this size, we have business interruption insurance, and a variety of other things but we’ll sort that out in due course,” Emmert said.
Emmert said CBS and Turner plan to broadcast the games us usual. Other media members will be allowed into the arenas to cover the games, but how many is still being determined, he said.
Emmert said a protocol for the medical screening of people entering the arenas is still being worked out, too, along with what constitutes essential staff (bands? cheerleaders?) and how to define family members.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the virus.
Around the country, many colleges and universities in recent days have been shifting to virtual classes and telling students to extend their spring breaks, encouraging them to stay away from campus.
“A number of schools, including schools that their president are on our board, have indeed closed down campuses and made other accommodations and so it was part of the discussions,” Emmert said. “And people recognizing they were making those decisions for good reasons, and doesn’t that logic continue over to athletic competitions?”
The 68-team field for the men’s basketball tournament is scheduled to be announced Sunday and the 64-team women’s tournament field is to be unveiled Monday. Games begin Tuesday and Wednesday on the men’s side in Dayton, Ohio, where earlier in the day the governor said he would issue an order to restrict spectator access to indoor sporting events.
The Mid-American Conference on Tuesday announced it was closing its men’s and women’s basketball tournament games at Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, home of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and scheduled site of the men’s NCAA games, to the general public. The women’s tournament started Wednesday.
The Big West Conference announced a similar move, not allowing the general public into its basketball tournament games to be played this week at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California.
Emmert said it would be up to conference officials and their members to decide how they wanted to proceed with their ongoing tournaments for the rest of the week. One by one the power conferences playing in large venues followed the NCAA’s lead and announced they would play mostly without fans in the stands.
“One of the things we’ve heard is that it’s going to get much, much worse,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “The advice is don’t gather in large crowds.”
March Madness hits another level next week with the start of the NCAA Tournament to crown a national champion.
There are eight first- and second-round sites for the men’s tournament, scheduled to be played March 19-22. Locations include Cleveland; Spokane, Washington; Albany, New York; Sacramento, California; and Omaha, Nebraska.
The women’s tournament first- and second-round games begin March 21 and will be played at 16 sites. The second-week regionals will be played in Dallas; Greenville, South Carolina; Portland, Oregon; and Fort Wayne, Indiana. The Final Four will be held at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans where the NBA’s Pelicans play on April 3 and 5.
Emmert said because of the outbreak the situation remains fluid.
“This will be a continuing story,” he said.