Talk of NBA teams playing in empty arenas was just starting to bubble up Saturday when Utah State won the Mountain West Conference tournament title and secured the first automatic bid into the NCAA Men’s Basketball Division I Championship tournament. At the time, the idea that March Madness games might also be played in a vacuum far away from any fans felt far-fetched at best.
“I never even thought of that,” Aggies sophomore center Neemias Queta said.
Less than a week later, it’s a reality.
The NCAA flinched Wednesday afternoon in the face of the COVID-19 virus. In a statement, NCAA president Mark Emmert said that the NCAA Tournament would be held “with only essential staff and limited family in attendance.”
Yet considering how quickly the landscape is changing as more cases of COVID-19 are diagnosed, the question may soon be whether the tournament will be held at all.
The NCAA released its statement less than an hour after Ohio Governor Mike DeWine said First Four games in Dayton and first- and second-round games in Cleveland would be held without fans present because of an impending ban on mass gatherings in the state. It also came just hours before the NBA decided suspended play indefinitely following a positive test for the virus by Jazz center Rudy Gobert.
The NCAA had been meeting with an advisory panel made up of health care workers, team physicians and security personnel, including a conference call Wednesday. During that call, the panel recommended prohibiting fans.
A member of that panel, Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, said he believed a tournament without fans was preferable to canceling the event altogether.
“To me, it was an obvious move that was going to be taken as we got more and more data. I think we’ve been aspiring to really show that this is something that needs to be taken seriously,” he said. “We’ve got governors banning gatherings [and] rock festivals cancelled. With something that brings 10s of thousands of people together, we needed to make it as safe as possible. Putting restrictions on fans was the best way to do that.”
The doctor warned, however, that more extreme measures may become necessary.
“We’re going to have to do things differently because of this pandemic,” he said. “Until we get handle on this, that is going to be a matter of course.”
“I think we will get through this, but I think it is going to take a concerted effort to flatten the curve.”
As of Wednesday, more than 900 cases of COVID-19 had been diagnosed in 38 states and the District of Columbia and 29 people have died. Many people experience mild symptoms of coughing and shortness of breath similar to the flu. Yet the extremely contagious virus can be especially deadly to people over age 60 or who have underlying health conditions, and epidemiologists have said slowing its spread is critical to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed and keep the death count low.
No Utah colleges or universities have announced restricted travel nor altered the schedules of their athletic teams because of the coronavirus.
The Pac-12 announced Wednesday evening that it would close its men’s conference basketball tournament in Las Vegas to the public beginning with Thursday’s games. Entry will be limited to just the participating teams, officials and essential personnel for the final three days of the tourney. Utah lost to Oregon State, 71-69, in the Pac-12 Tournament opener Wednesday in an arena full of fans.
In a statement, the conference said: "While we understand the disruption this will cause to our many fans, we have made this decision in an effort to do our part in helping to limit the spread of the virus and in the interest of the health and safety of our student-athletes, campus communities, working and volunteer event personnel and all those who attend Pac-12 events.”
The presence of a Coronavirus threat at the Pac-12 tourney was clearly evident.
One, there were a handful of fans of both Utah and Oregon State, sitting on the sideline across from the team benches wearing latex gloves as precaution. Two, in the bowels of the arena, there were Purell stations every 100 feet or so. One event operations employee at T-Mobile Arena told The Salt Lake Tribune that the number of sanitizing units around the ground level of the building was more than normally present.
Earlier in the day, the Big Ten made a similar move with its conference tournament in Indianapolis. The Mid-American and Big West conferences decided Tuesday to play their tournaments sans fans, and the NCAA took a similar route for its D-III tournament games this week. In addition, the Ivy League canceled its conference tournaments this week, declaring regular-season champions Yale and Princeton, respectively, would represent the league at the NCAA Tournament.
The College Basketball Invitational became the first major tournament to pull the plug altogether. The tournament, which takes the top teams not selected for the NCAA Tournament nor the NIT, made its announcement Wednesday morning.
According to a press release, “As colleges and universities are making difficult and complex health and risk management decisions about conducting sporting events, it became apparent to us that this was the most prudent course of action.”
Spreading beyond basketball
Pro sports organizations like the NHL, MLB and Major League Soccer took their first steps in confronting the spread of the virus by limiting media access to players in the locker rooms. MLS announced Wednesday afternoon it has begun taking additional measures as well. Games in San Jose and Seattle on March 21 have been postponed. In stadiums around the league, according to a statement, steps are being taken “to ensure the safety of fans and communities by increasing cleaning staff, disinfecting high-traffic areas, sanitizing the facilities before and after each match, and making hand sanitizer available throughout venues.”
Additionally, the pregame procession during which professional and youth players walk on the field together has been suspended, fan experiences have been limited during team warmups, and autograph sessions and player appearances have been postponed.
MLS is also requiring that all teams travel to road games via charter flights.
March Madness in flux
The men’s NCAA Tournament is scheduled to begin first-round play on March 19, with First Four games happening Tuesday and Wednesday. The women’s NCAA Tournament begins March 20 at home sites, which will not be known until Monday’s selection show.
The men’s selection show is Sunday at 4 p.m. MT. Both USU and BYU will be seeded into the tournament.
“That would be really odd,” USU star Sam Merrill, a senior guard, said Saturday about playing in an empty arena. “I don’t know, that’s all I can say. Will there be TV?”
The most likely answer is yes, but as with most things regarding the novel coronavirus, no one knows for sure.
Aggies coach Craig Smith said in a school-issued statement Wednesday that the team is “disappointed” it won’t be able to play in front of its fans in the NCAA Tournament. Still, he added, the team is happy it will get a chance to play at all.
“Our guys are pumped to compete in the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “We have a group of men that have dreamed of playing in this tournament since the time they were young kids. They have dreamed of winning games at the Big Dance for the majority of their lives. One Shining Moment isn’t just a song to them. They have earned their way into the Big Dance, and now want to make their dreams reality.”
San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher, whose team will likely receive a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament despite losing to Utah State in the MWC Tournament final, tried to infuse some humor into the situation. He said in jest that his opinion of shutting out fans changes in direct correlation to how close to their fan base the Aztecs will play.
“Well, if they send us out east, I hope that rule goes through,” Dutcher said Saturday of keeping fans away. “And if we stay west, I hope they let the fans come. So it all depends on where we get sent. So if we get sent east, no fans. If we get sent west, everyone can come.”
Tribune reporters Sean P. Means, Alex Vejar and Josh Newman contributed to this story.