HomeCoronavirus Leads N.C.A.A. to Bar Fans From National Basketball TournamentsTechCoronavirus Leads N.C.A.A. to Bar Fans From National Basketball Tournaments

Coronavirus Leads N.C.A.A. to Bar Fans From National Basketball Tournaments

ATLANTA — The grandest annual exhibition in college sports — the N.C.A.A. men’s and women’s Division I basketball tournaments — will be played without spectators in the arenas as the United States grapples with the spread of the coronavirus.

The move was announced on Wednesday as the number of cases in the U.S. surpassed 1,150 and as government officials offered increasingly dire warnings against mass gatherings. The decision was intended to allow the games to go on, satisfying fans who plan to watch on television and upholding the network broadcast contracts that provide most of the N.C.A.A.’s revenue.

But the tournaments will unfold with a dramatically different tenor, the playing atmosphere drained of thousands of fans in cities from Spokane, Wash., to Atlanta, the site of the Final Four for this year’s men’s tournament.

“It was us looking at this and saying we have a responsibility first and foremost to our students and to the coaches and staffs and to the public at large that is the promoting of the public health as we can,” Mark Emmert, the N.C.A.A. president, said in an interview on Wednesday. “We’re trying to find the right balance between our responsibilities in public health and providing young men and women the opportunity to play in the tournament of their life.”

The N.C.A.A. said some relatives of participants would be allowed to attend the national tournament games, which are to start next week.

Emmert announced his decision hours after Ohio’s governor, Mike DeWine, said the state would bar spectators from indoor sporting events. DeWine’s decision was a crucial influence on the N.C.A.A., because some of next week’s men’s tournament games are to be held in Dayton and Cleveland. The federal government’s top expert on infectious diseases, Anthony Fauci, also warned on Wednesday against public gatherings for sports.

But even before then, college sports executives had endured mounting pressure from public health officials and university leaders.

This season, the men’s tournament is scheduled to take place in 14 cities, including Indianapolis, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Omaha and Tampa, Fla. The women’s tournament, planned to run through cities like Dallas and Portland, Ore., is even more complicated because the venues for its first- and second-round games are not set until the top 16 seeds are selected. (The National Invitation Tournament will also be played without fans.)

Emmert said that he expected the N.C.A.A. to lose tens of millions of dollars in ticket-sales revenue and that while the games would probably remain in the scheduled cities, they might be moved to smaller venues.

The men’s tournament will still be televised by CBS and AT&T’s WarnerMedia, with the Final Four and national championship games shown on TBS. ESPN will carry the women’s tournament.

In a joint statement, CBS and Turner Sports, a division of WarnerMedia, said they supported the association’s decision and would “continue with our plans to fully produce and cover the entire event.” ESPN said it was “in the process of determining what adjustments are needed” to its coverage.

Executives at CBS and WarnerMedia said ahead of the decision about spectators that such a move would have little effect on their plans.

“Obviously, it would be a different atmosphere, and we wouldn’t be focusing as we usually do, on the excitement of the fans,” Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports, said on Tuesday on a conference call. “But the overall production of the basketball game is still going to be produced as it would be if there were fans in the stands.”

Jeff Zucker, the chairman of WarnerMedia News and Sports, suggested that the restrictions at the arenas, and on the general public as it copes with the outbreak, could increase interest in broadcasts from the tournament.

“You would probably be in a situation where much of the country would be looking to watch the games, would be home, would be looking for that outlet and that relief,” he said on the conference call.

Until Wednesday evening, the N.C.A.A. had largely insisted that the tournaments would proceed as planned. Its public stance began to soften on Tuesday, after the Ivy League canceled its basketball tournaments and the Big West and Mid-American Conferences closed the doors of theirs to the public. Colleges and universities were also effectively closing their campuses, leaving the N.C.A.A. to grapple with the thorny question of whether it would ask students to play before fans when attending classes had been deemed too risky.

College sports officials, who were sometimes meeting hourly and consulting with doctors, had a menu of options: playing the games as usual but with plenty of hand sanitizer available; consolidating sites; holding competitions without fans present; and cancellation.

“It’s a judgment call at the end of the day,” Vivek H. Murthy, a former U.S. surgeon general who is a member of the N.C.A.A.’s top governing body, said in an interview on Saturday. “There is no tried and true protocol here for how to handle this kind of outbreak.”

On Wednesday, Emmert said N.C.A.A. officials were still crafting an array of contingency plans for the tournaments, including what would happen if a player contracted the illness. He would not rule out further changes to the tournaments but said he was “very confident that we’re at the right place.”

The N.C.A.A.’s decision did not apply to conference tournaments, which some of the nation’s leading leagues had already begun playing, with fans in attendance. But within hours of the N.C.A.A. announcement, conferences including the Atlantic Coast, the Big Ten, the Southeastern, the Big 12 and the Pac-12 quickly followed suit, announcing they would curtail spectator access to their basketball tournaments.

At Madison Square Garden in New York, things started out with business as usual for the Big East on Wednesday night as the men’s conference tournament began. But before the second game was over, the league announced that it, too, would tightly restrict attendance, allowing only essential personnel and certain family members to come to the arena for the remaining three days of the competition.

And so the sport had braced for a tournament season unlike any other.

Greg McDermott, the Creighton men’s coach, has an idea of what to expect because he once worked at Nebraska’s Wayne State, a Division II program that regularly played in front of sparse audiences.

“My understanding is there’s still going to be a little family there, so there’ll be a few people clapping hands every once in a while, but without a question it’s going to be an interesting experience,” he said. “We’ll sell it to our guys like, ‘Hey, it’s never happened in our history, and I hope it never happens again in our history, so it’s going to be something that you’re going to be able to look back on that you were part of something that was really, really unique.’”

Alan Blinder reported from Atlanta, and Kevin Draper and Ben Shpigel from New York. Billy Witz contributed reporting from Las Vegas, and Adam Zagoria from New York.

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