Washington (AFP) – NCAA officials closed the US national college basketball tournament to paying fans on Wednesday in an unprecedented move due to the coronavirus outbreak.
National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) president Mark Emmert said the move, made after consultations with public health officials, would allow only relatives and essential personnel at games.
“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,” Emmert said.
“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.”
Wrestling, ice hockey and other sports will also be hit by the ban, but the biggest loss for American sports fans will be the silence and squeaking shoes in empty arenas that replace the loud cheers, school band music and electric atmosphere typically associated with “March Madness” as a national champion is decided among the top future NBA prospects.
Allowances were made so family members could still enjoy what is often a once-in-a-lifetime thrill of a national title chase in the nation’s most popular indoor sport.
“We recognize the opportunity to compete in an NCAA national championship is an experience of a lifetime for the students and their families,” Emmert said.
“Today, we will move forward and conduct championships consistent with the current information and will continue to monitor and make adjustments as needed.”
The 68-team men’s tournament bracket, millions of copies of which are filled out in office pools and on-line contests each year, will be established on Sunday.
The opening games, known as the First Four, will be contested in Dayton, Ohio, next Tuesday and Wednesday. The move to ban most spectators came after Ohio governor Mike DeWine said he would order the games be played without spectators.
The Final Four, the national semi-finals and championship game, are scheduled for April 4 and 6 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, but Emmert said he is looking to move the games to a smaller venue than the 71,000-seat NFL stadium.
Empty arenas mean thousands of visitors from across the United States and many from other nations will not be making the trip to host cities of games at various stages of the event.
The economic setback will be felt by first- and second-round host cities Cleveland, St. Louis, Tampa, Greensboro, North Carolina; Spokane, Washington; Sacramento, California; Omaha, Nebraska and Albany, New York.
Third- and fourth-round matches will be played to empty venues in Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Houston and New York.
Conferences of schools are playing this week in tournaments to decide national tournament berths, with the Mid-American Conference closing its matches in Cleveland to spectators and the Big West Conference doing the same in Anaheim, California.