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Only essential staff, limited family to be permitted at NCAA basketball tournament games

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Mark Emmert

College basketball’s March Madness will be played in largely empty arenas in an effort to slow the coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA announced Wednesday, a move that threatens to drain the signature school spirit from one of the biggest events on the sports calendar.

NCAA President Mark Emmert said only essential staff and limited family will be allowed to attend the men’s and women’s tournaments, which begin next week. The NBA game between the Warriors and Nets in San Francisco on Thursday night will also be played without fans, and the Mariners said they will move their games out of Seattle for all of March because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“You dream of this situation where you’re playing for the highest stakes on the biggest stage, and it’s hard to imagine that if nobody is around to see it,” said Bill Self, the coach of the top-ranked Kansas Jayhawks. “But I told the guys: ‘Why did we all start loving this game and playing it? Did we do it because we need people to watch us, or did we do it because we loved it?’

“It will have a different feel but it will still be highly competitive, and the kids will still play like there’s no tomorrow,” he said. “They’ll make the most of it. We’ll make the most of it.”

The pinnacle of the college basketball season, the NCAA Tournament is a month-long festival of pep bands and face-painting and a cash cow that, along with football, helps fund non-revenue sports at schools throughout the country. The decision to play in fanless arenas will cost those programs millions in ticket sales but preserve billions in TV rights fees.

The 68-team men’s tournament is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio, where Gov. Mike DeWine has announced plans to ban “mass gatherings” to combat the spread of COVID-19, which was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization on Wednesday. First- and second-round games are scheduled for Cleveland on March 20-22.

Shortly after San Francisco Mayor London Breed banned all gatherings of 1,000 or more people for at least two weeks, the Warriors announced they would go ahead with their next game, but with no fans in the building.

“There’s a little shock, for sure,” Warriors star Stephen Curry said. “I’ve been in this league for a very long time and never had to deal with anything like this. It’ll be different, it will be weird.”

Along with the Warriors’ next game, a Post Malone concert and three other events that had been scheduled at Chase Center, which seats more than 18,000, have been postponed or canceled through March 21.

“We don’t know what happens after that,” Warriors President Rick Welts said. “San Francisco has really been the first domino to fall here.”

The Mariners and Major League Baseball have not announced where they will play the team’s first two series: against the Texas Rangers from March 26-29 and the Minnesota Twins from March 30 through April 1.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee prohibited gatherings of more than 250 people in Seattle, which has experienced the most COVID-19 deaths in the U.S.

“While we hope to be back to playing baseball in Seattle as soon as possible, the health and safety of our community is the most important consideration,” the Mariners said.

Elsewhere, the Ivy League canceled all spring sports, as many American schools told students not to return from spring break and prepare for classes to be taught online. The conference had already canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

Other college basketball leagues, including the Big Ten, Pac-12, Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference, went ahead with their postseason tournaments on Wednesday. The Big Ten and the Big 12 have announced that starting Thursday the general public will not be allowed into its tournament games.

The group that owns the Washington Wizards and Capitals said their games will go on despite a D.C. Department of Health recommendation that “non-essential mass gatherings” be postponed or canceled because of the coronavirus.

The major auto racing circuits also said they plan to race as scheduled this weekend, including a season-opening IndyCar event that is the centerpiece of a three-day street festival expected to draw about 130,000 people to St. Petersburg, Florida. There will be additional hand-washing and sanitizing stations.

NASCAR will race at Atlanta Motor Speedway as scheduled. Reporters will observe a six-foot buffer when interviewing drivers.

The disease: More than 1,000 people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the United States, with 32 deaths; those rates are expected to continue to rise.

Most people quickly recover from the virus after experiencing 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.

According to WHO, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and more than 58,000 have so far recovered.

Italy: The governing body of European soccer said the games between Sevilla and Roma in Spain, and Inter Milan and Getafe in Italy “will not take place as scheduled.”

Italian soccer club Roma had said earlier Wednesday it would not make its trip to Seville because “the plane from Italy was not authorized to land in Spain.” Getafe President Ángel Torres had said his team would not travel to Italy because he did not want to risk his players’ health by going to an area struggling to contain the spread of the virus.

The Italian soccer federation ordered Italy’s women’s team to return home before the end of the Algarve Cup tournament in Portugal fearing it would not be able to get a flight back. On Wednesday, the Portuguese soccer federation canceled the final between Italy and Germany.

Italy had already suspended all sporting events until April 3.

Skiing: Less than 24 hours before the first race, the International Ski Federation canceled the women’s Alpine skiing World Cup in Are, Sweden, handing Federica Brignone of Italy the overall title and denying Mikaela Shiffrin a return to racing this season.

Shiffrin, the defending overall champion, had announced earlier Wednesday that she would compete at the event after taking a six-week break from the sport following the death of her father. The absence cost her the lead in the overall standings.

Fed Cup postponed: The Fed Cup Finals in Hungary were postponed after the local government said it was prohibiting public indoor gatherings of more than 100 people. The International Tennis Federation said it would try to find another suitable date for the women’s tennis competition.

Skating: The World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal next week were canceled. The top skating competition for a non-Olympic year was scheduled to bring nearly 200 skaters from more than 50 countries to Montreal.

Esports: A global esports league with teams in North America, Europe and Asia is canceling all matches through March and April. The Overwatch League had already postponed all events in China and South Korea due to the outbreak.

French League Cup final: The French League Cup final between Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon, scheduled for April 4, was postponed. A new date has yet to be announced.

Russian crowds: Russian league games in Moscow will be limited to 5,000 people in the stadium under new health regulations in the capital. Besides fans, that includes players, team staff, stadium employees and security.

Gymnastics: The International Gymnastics Federation said it was postponing two World Cup events due to start next week. One is an all-around competition in Stuttgart, Germany, and the other is an apparatus event in Doha, Qatar. They double as Olympic qualifiers. The federation said it was also postponing a rhythmic gymnastics World Cup event and a trampoline World Cup event. Both were due to be held in Italy next month.