Joyce Flinn, Iowa's Homeland Security and Emergency Management director, says things are working well with state's coronavirus response. Des Moines Register
This would typically be the cheeriest week of the year at the Reihmann house in Clive.
Five televisions would be propped up in the basement, tuned to college basketball games. Twenty to 30 friends, some flying to Iowa from as far away as Seattle, would gather to watch the first 48 games of March Madness, a communal experience that feels so foreign this year.
The sports world has been put on a forced hiatus as the real world turns its attention to a coronavirus pandemic that reached Iowa on March 8. Just about any event that would typically draw a crowd has been canceled, meaning the basketball arenas have gone dark and the baseball diamonds sit empty.
“It was disappointing because it’s been such a tradition that we’ve had,” Tyler Reihmann said Friday, the day he turned 40 and was hoping to celebrate while watching his beloved Iowa Hawkeyes play Illinois in the Big Ten Conference men’s basketball tournament.
“We’ve been talking about what we’ll do instead. I’ll probably end up doing the house projects that have been kind of sitting there. That’s not very exciting. Just for tradition, I may find some old game on TV and throw that on Thursday and Friday, just kind of have that be part of what this year’s experience is.”
Tyler and Sarah Reihmann first bonded over their shared love of college basketball when they met in 2008. They started hosting the NCAA Tournament viewing parties the next year, with two TVs in a smaller house in Urbandale before moving in 2013. They see it as the perfect occasion to reunite with old friends, good-natured banter filling the basement for four days.
The tournament was canceled Thursday, along with the rest of the college sports season. For Americans, it served as a sobering jolt that the need to curtail the spread of the coronavirus is real.
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament, a three-week extravaganza commonly called March Madness or the Big Dance, has become an American cultural staple. An average of 10.5 million viewers watched each game last year. Americans wagered $8.5 billion on the outcomes.
And yet it was no match for COVID-19.
“We won’t know what to do with ourselves,” said Tyler Reihmann, an information technology project manager at Kum & Go’s corporate office.
“But this isn’t about me, or basketball fans. All people have to do is look at it as it’s a change in our routine. It’s pretty minor.”
Loss of tournaments leaves a void
The Iowa Hawkeyes were headed to the NCAA Tournament in both men’s and women’s basketball. So were the Iowa State Cyclone women, whose appearance in the Big 12 Conference Tournament in Kansas City ended before a single game when that event was also scrapped Thursday.
Russ Richardson, a 56-year-old mortgage banking worker who lives in Urbandale, had been planning to attend, along with his wife, Donna.
Richardson is an avid sports fan, so committed to seeing some basketball that he instead went to Wells Fargo Arena on Thursday to see Norwalk star Bowen Born play against Ballard in the Class 3A semifinals of the Iowa boys' basketball state tournament. It turned out to be the last time the general public was able to attend a sporting event for the foreseeable future. Friday’s games were played in front of family only.
► 'A totally different day': What the boys' basketball finals were like inside a nearly-empty Wells Fargo Arena
On Richardson’s way to the arena, he ran into a co-worker and talked about how they would handle life without sports.
“We both kind of looked at each other like, ‘Well, what do we do now?’” Richardson said. “I think that’s the question. It’s just unprecedented.”
Richardson is preparing himself for a spring and summer devoid of ballgames.
“I guess I’m going to be reading a lot more books,” he said.
Nick Thompson was hoping to make the trek up I-35 to Minneapolis on Saturday to watch the Hawkeye wrestling team finish off a national championship a decade in the making. Iowa was the favorite in the NCAA championships being held for the first time in a stadium normally reserved for football. That, plus the proximity of U.S. Bank Stadium to Iowa, meant attendance records were sure to fall and that Hawkeye black and gold would be the most prevalent colors.
Instead, Thompson received the news that he had felt was inevitable. The Hawkeyes will have to wait at least another year to try to earn their first title since 2010.
“I understand why the cancellation had to happen,” said Thompson, 39, an anesthesiologist who lives in West Des Moines. “I’m just disappointed that this year’s team never got to prove itself.”
Thompson plans to lie low until the coronavirus has been contained. He will leave his house only to go to work and back, he said.
Sports bars, sportsbooks prepare to ride this out
That’s the prudent thing to do. And it’s also what will make the coming weeks so challenging for those who own sports bars. Not only are there no sports to occupy all of the TVs, but there are fewer people willing to mingle with the masses.
Alex Mason and two partners opened The Station on Ingersoll in Des Moines in October. Even then, they were looking ahead to March and the surge of patrons expected for tournament time.
Mason said the new bar’s DIRECTV representatives sent oversized March Madness posters with blank brackets to fill in, a prospect that once excited him. Now, Mason will try to make the most of a difficult situation. He’ll use the brackets for a different tournament of sorts, to pair off Tom Cruise or Batman movies and let his customers debate that for awhile.
- Running list of Iowa schools closing or canceling classes due to the coronavirus
- What's been closed, canceled or postponed around Iowa as a result of the spreading coronavirus
- All spring sports suspended by Iowa High School Athletic Association, Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union
- Prairie Meadows to suspend casino, hotel, racetrack operations
“Without the tourney, along with every other sport, we will lose a lot of traffic,” Mason said. “But we just have to focus on what we can control, and that’s food and drink and providing that in the best way possible. … That’s making sure 110% that we can keep The Station completely clean and sanitized.”
These are uncertain times for Iowa’s new sports betting establishments as well. At the Elite Sportsbook tucked inside the Riverside Casino & Golf Resort on Friday evening, a would-be bettor stood at one of the kiosks tapping away, trying to find something that piqued his interest. The only things available were some UFC bouts and a lone soccer match in Mexico.
“It’s pretty bleak,” a casino attendant told him as he walked away.
This was to be the first time Iowans could legally partake in gambling on March Madness without leaving the state. The law allowing sports betting in Iowa was signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds in May. The first sportsbooks opened Aug. 15. By the end of the year, they’d seen $212 million in bets placed.
An estimated 50 million Americans wager on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, making it second only to the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl in gambling interest. It’s a demand with no supply this month.
At Pointsbet Sportsbook at the Catfish Bend Casino in Burlington on Friday, Victoria Alvarado looked out and saw empty seats. With no live sports of consequence to bet on, she said the only sportsbook activity was to provide cash refunds to gamblers who had placed previous wagers on games that will never be played.
Alvarado was working Thursday when one college basketball conference after another started pulling the plug on their tournaments, 13 in all. She said gamblers were upset but understanding.
Alvarado, who began working at Pointsbet when it opened in August, said the sportsbook is looking at adjusting its hours to close earlier than its usual midnight or 1 a.m. On weekends, it had been teeming with bettors. But nothing is certain after America just spent a weekend free of sports.
“Things are just kind of up in the air. We’re holding out through the weekend because after the weekend everyone should have their (unused) tickets back,” said Alvarado, who is not worried about the long-term viability of the sportsbook.
“It’ll take its course.”
Sports talk radio host is happy to pivot to fresh topics
No one knows how long the sports world will be silenced. The NBA and NHL both are holding out hope that their seasons are merely postponed and that champions will eventually be crowned. Staples of the spring, like the Masters golf tournament and the Kentucky Derby, also could become summer or fall events for one year only.
None of this means that those who talk about sports for a living will be silenced. They can’t be. It’s their job.
Ross Peterson, a co-host of KXnO’s “Sports Fanatics” in Des Moines, said he was actually looking forward to talking about sports in a new way. Peterson and his radio partner, Chris Williams, chatted Thursday about using their show to help sports fans navigate this sudden life without games.
Among the options: advice on what documentaries listeners should watch.
“This could be a good side effect of this, is that we kind of get our priorities straight again,” Peterson said. “I’m excited about the idea that we get to go on air and talk about life and all that other stuff that’s happening, rather than box scores and what we think is going to happen the next time the ball is in the air. I’ve tried to tell everybody that I work with how elated I am for the opportunity that’s before us.”
Peterson said it helps that his show, along with others on the station, often veered away from sports already. But he understands that this can go on for only so long.
“We are going to be many months down the road before we’re back to any sort of normalcy,” Peterson said. “In weeks, things are going to seem like the new normal. So I can’t imagine what that feeling is going to be like in six weeks.”
No opening day, no way to know what's coming
The opening day of baseball season has always been the surest sign that spring is here for sports fans. Not this year. Major League Baseball is postponing the start of its season by at least two weeks, and likely more.
That won’t be easy for Logan Pierce of West Des Moines. The 23-year-old who works at a startup company has a tradition with some buddies from his days at the University of Northern Iowa. On every opening day of the baseball season, Pierce and Co. will bring their televisions to a friend’s apartment in Cedar Falls. They turn on as many games as possible, fire up the grill and enjoy America’s pastime. Knowing that won’t happen as planned this year was tough for Pierce to grasp.
“It’s just kind of fun with all of us,” he said. “It’s going to be kind of weird not having that feeling, because whenever we have that, we know that baseball is here.”
Minor-league baseball games are also on hold. And that includes the Iowa Cubs, who drew 489,173 fans last season to Principal Park, which offers a perfect view of the Capitol while watching the highest level of professional baseball available in Iowa.
It’s also a place where fans have easy access to the players, who are typically willing to sign autographs before games.
Pierce has been collecting signatures since 2012 and is a familiar sight around the Des Moines ballpark. He’ll often show up as early as 12:30 p.m. to get autographs from players arriving for a game that evening. Pierce once stayed until 12:30 a.m. waiting out then-Iowa Cubs outfielder Jae-Hoon Ha to secure a memento.
It’s a serious undertaking.
So Pierce was concerned this spring when some major-league teams barred their players from signing or offered only pre-signed items.
“Fan interaction is definitely what makes the I-Cubs,” Pierce said.
It’s hard to imagine that will remain the case whenever the games resume.
The coronavirus has put a pause on sports as we knew them.
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