The NCAA basketball tournaments are on — for now — though the buzzer-beaters, upsets and all the other shining moments will take place in mostly empty arenas.
Trying to avoid spreading the new coronavirus that has become a global pandemic, the NCAA on Wednesday decided the men’s and women’s Division I tournament games will be off-limits to the general public. The major college conferences followed the NCAA's lead, one by one announcing their league tournaments would go on the rest of the week with restricted fan access.
“I think the right answer is we considered every option available to us,” NCAA President Mark Emmert told The Associated Press. "The notion of cancellation, however, is one that is pretty draconian because we’re dealing with student-athletes for whom participating in a national championship is a life long dream.
“We debated every option available to us, but that's the one nobody wanted to pursue.”
A few hours later, the NBA suspended its season after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, and re-opened questions about whether the NCAA had gone far enough.
The NCAA did not immediately return a request for comment following the NBA's announcement.
The NCAA's plan is to conduct both tournaments, which begin next week, with only essential staff and limited family in attendance.
“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. Or worse.
The NCAA said tickets already purchased will be refunded.
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.”
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 member schools, though the majority of that was from a media rights deal with CBS and Turner that pays about $800 million 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.
Wednesday's conference tournament games in places such as Kansas City, Missouri; Nashville, Tennessee; and Las Vegas will be the last of this season college basketball season played in front of large crowds. Many fans were not happy about that.
“We were going to be here for the whole tournament. Now it’s trying to find a flight home, go back to hotel and cancel, see if they let us cancel the rest of it,” said Maryland fan Tim White, 44, from Baltimore, who made the trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament.
“This is a bit overblown, I believe. I’m definitely disappointed. You take the fans out of it, you might as well not have the tournament. With the NCAA Tournament, that’s what makes the excitement when a 14th (seeded) team beats a three. Fans get behind that team where there is no support, it changes outcomes, unfortunately.”
The National Association of Basketball Coaches canceled its convention Wednesday night, which was scheduled to be held in Atlanta during Final Four weekend.
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.
AP Sports Writers Tom Withers in Cleveland; Mike Marot in Indianapolis; and AP Basketball Writers Doug Feinberg in New York contributed to this report.