The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments will be played in nearly empty arenas because of concerns about the coronavirus, one of the most momentous public actions taken to date in the face of the outbreak in the United States and an overhaul to one of the country’s communal sporting traditions.
Amid swelling recommendations and orders from public health and government officials, NCAA President Mark Emmert announced Wednesday afternoon the games, which begin Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio, will be played “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,” Emmert said in a statement. “This decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student-athletes. We recognize the opportunity to compete in an NCAA national championship is an experience of a lifetime for the students and their families. Today, we will move forward and conduct championships consistent with the current information and will continue to monitor and make adjustments as needed.”
The decision came after a day in which National Institutes of Health official Anthony Fauci told a congressional hearing that large gatherings should be prohibited and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said his state, which will host multiple tournament sites, would turn a strong recommendation not to hold indoor sporting events with spectators into an order.
The NCAA last week formed an advisory panel of experts and epidemiologists, and Wednesday it recommended playing tournament games without spectators. The NCAA’s outlook evolved rapidly. In an interview Saturday on CBS, NCAA Senior Vice President for Basketball Dan Gavitt said the NCAA is “definitively planning on running the tournament at all 14 sites with fans from the First Four in Dayton to the Final Four in Atlanta.” On Monday, one member of the panel told The Post they agreed with Gavitt’s assessment.
Three days later, it dramatically altered its most lucrative and marquee event.
As the NCAA made its announcement, some conferences moved ahead with tournaments as scheduled. The Atlantic Coast Conference held a game with a crowded arena in Greensboro, North Carolina. as Emmert’s announcement came out, and later said it would play two games Wednesday night with fans in attendance but would evaluate the remainder of the tournament later. The Southeastern Conference announced its tournament in Nashville would continue Wednesday night with spectators as scheduled, but that it would reevaluate Thursday.
The NCAA is scheduled to hold the men’s tournament’s First Four in Dayton, Ohio next Tuesday. The first and second rounds of the women’s tournament will be hosted in 16 on-campus venues starting March 20.
DeWine issued a strong recommendation Tuesday for indoor sporting events to be played in empty arenas “other than the athletes, parents, and others essential to the game.” He said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon that recommendation will become an order.
“The reason we’re doing the things we’re doing is we have the potential of becoming Italy,” DeWine said. “What we want to do is take action now to avoid that.”
Italy’s government placed the entire country on lockdown Monday. Eleven days prior, it had fewer confirmed cases of coronavirus than the U.S. has now.
The Mid-American Conference closed its men’s and women’s tournaments, which started Wednesday in Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, the same arena scheduled to host next week’s NCAA tournament games, to the public after DeWine’s recommendation. DeWine suggested legal reasons made the order an imperative for other leagues.
“Different organizations need an order from the government,” DeWine said. “It’s better for us to make their life easier.”
One likely consideration was insurance contracts. Most contracts include a “force majeure” clause that protect against unforeseeable events out of the insured’s control. But it is legally murky whether a government recommendation would trigger the clause, while an order certainly would. Leagues, teams and the NCAA will lose money regardless, but they could have lost more by following recommendations rather than orders.