NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments will not include fans due to coronavirus concerns
The NCAA announced Wednesday the men's and women's basketball tournaments will be held as scheduled at all venues next week, but without any fans present.
The same goes for the NCAA Wrestling Championships in Minneapolis.
NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement the decision was made after consulting with public health officials in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has infected hundreds of people across the United States over the past week. Attendance at the events will be limited essential staff and family members.
“The NCAA continues to assess the impact of COVID-19 in consultation with public health officials and our COVID-19 advisory panel," Emmert said in the statement. "Based on their advice and my discussions with the NCAA Board of Governors, 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. 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.”
The Division I men's basketball tournament, known colloquially as March Madness, is one of the premier events in college sports -- attracting hundreds of thousands of fans and generating millions of dollars in revenue for the NCAA. The 2018 iteration of the event brought in $844.3 million in television and marketing rights alone, according to The Associated Press.
Now, the 67-game tournament will be played in empty arenas at 14 sites throughout the country, beginning Tuesday night with the "First Four" in Dayton, Ohio.
There appears to be an appreciation of the unique challenges that the NCAA tournament could pose from a public health standpoint -- with fans from one part of the country traveling to another, and then convening in close quarters.
The NCAA's move follows a series of similar measures in several U.S. cities and in sports leagues around the world. In Japan, the country's premier baseball league postponed the start of its season, while one of its largest sumo wrestling events opened without fans. In Italy, the government first barred spectators from games before later moving to suspend all sporting events in the country through April 3. And in France and Spain, key soccer matches were slated to be played behind closed doors.
The NCAA had, as of Tuesday morning, indicated that there would be no changes to its NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments, even as the Ivy League cancelled its conference basketball tournaments before they began and Division III tournament games were played in empty arenas.
That thinking changed, however, as public officials began to change their stance and cautioned against large gatherings of people.
By Tuesday night, the NCAA had warned that it would be making "decisions in the coming days" based on conversations with experts, including a COVID-19 advisory panel it created earlier this month. The organization did not immediately specify the nature of those decisions, though there had been speculation that games could be played without fans or tournament sites could be consolidated.
The decision to move March Madness behind closed doors represents a new frontier of sorts for American sports, which have never seen an event of this size and scope take place without fans present. While such a step has been taken on rare occasions due to security or weather-related concerns -- including, most notably, a Baltimore Orioles game in 2015 that was played without fans following the death of Freddie Gray -- it had never been realistically considered by sports organizations en masse.
It's unclear how players, teams and TV viewers will react to the change. Will the eerie quiet of an empty arena negatively affect a TV broadcast, for example? Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College, certainly thinks so.
"It’s never as much fun to watch a game on television when you’re looking at empty seats in the stands," Zimbalist told USA TODAY Sports last week. "So it could have impacts on television ratings."
Jim Nantz, who will help broadcast NCAA tournament games on CBS, told reporters on a conference call Tuesday that he hopes the event can help viewers take their minds off the virus.
"This comes at a time where the country really needs more than ever a chance to have something that brings some joy/fun into their lives," he said. "More of an escapism, if you will."