What the Coronavirus Could Mean for March Madness

A discussion about the NCAA banning fans from its premier basketball tournaments—or canceling them—because of the outbreak.

Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish, and Tre Jones looking sad, hanging their heads, in their Duke uniforms
Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish, and Tre Jones of Duke after their team’s 68–67 loss to Michigan State during the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Capital One Arena on March 31, 2019, in D.C. Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Update, March 11, 6:10 p.m.: On Wednesday afternoon, E.W. Scripps reported that the NCAA has banned fans from both the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, after receiving recommendation to do so from its COVID-19 advisory panel. NCAA president Mark Emmert released a statement that read in part, “This decision is in the best interest in public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and most importantly, our student-athletes.”

March Madness is scheduled to begin next week. Last year, 963,626 fans attended games at the men’s and women’s college basketball tournaments, but as this year’s novel coronavirus outbreak grows, the NCAA has not ruled out barring fans from the contests, as major professional leagues across Europe have done. Yahoo Sports reported Tuesday that the Mid-American and Big West conferences announced that they’ll take that step for their conference tournaments, and the Ivy League canceled its men’s and women’s tournaments entirely. On Wednesday, a top U.S. health official called on the NBA to ban fans from attending its games.

With speculation rampant about whether the college tournaments should be held without spectators—and whether they should be held at all—the panelists on Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen discussed what should be done, how the NCAA might come to its decision, and how the choice about what to do could affect March Madness for all involved. You can read a transcript of their conversation below, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Josh Levin: Joel, I think the question for the NCAA now, as March Madness comes in, is: Do we cancel games? Do we play them, but not in front of a crowd? How do you feel about just this phenomenon of playing games with no fans in the arena?

Joel Anderson: Yeah. At this point in American history, games are largely a TV product. It’s not something that you tend to experience in person at the stadium. So, maybe this is a look at what the future is, because we’ve heard some of the ideas that stadiums and arenas are going to be smaller in the future, and that maybe athletes will be playing on a soundstage. And it’ll be a largely television product that we’ll see that way. So maybe this is sort of a glimpse into that future. Maybe we have an opportunity to see what it might look like if only 100 essential staff are there and they’re putting on a TV show, essentially.

Stefan Fatsis: Yeah. The reality is that this has happened before in Europe and on very rare occasions in the United States. It’s happened in Europe largely because of fan violence and racism and punishment of four teams to deprive them of revenue and deprive fans of the opportunity to watch games. And in the United States, it’s happened on very rare occasions, usually because of natural disasters. And in the one case, in Baltimore a Major League Baseball game a few years ago was canceled, because of rioting in the city.

So I think what’s going to happen, Ben, if it hasn’t already, is that players in every sport are going to be getting a memo from management, from their team presidents, and from leagues explaining the severity of the situation, and what they, as spokesmen for the league, need to do. And when it comes to the NCAAs, there’s a second layer of concern here, and that’s travel. Universities are clamping down on what its employees are going to be allowed to do, attending conferences, doing anything formal on campus. So, will universities allow teams to travel to play in league tournaments or in the NCAAs in the coming weeks?

Ben Cohen: I think that’s a fascinating question. I was at MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference over the weekend, and it went off without a hitch with 3,500 people there, hours after MIT banned gatherings of more than 150 people. So all of this is happening very quickly and in real time. My colleague at the [Wall Street] Journal, Louise Radnofsky, talked to Brian Hainline, the chief medical officer of the NCAA over the weekend. He said that he thinks a worst-case scenario is that it’s played behind closed doors. So it sounds for now, as of Monday morning, that the NCAA is not planning to cancel the tournament entirely, which might be great for us if we are stuck at home watching TV in a few days and have an excuse to watch Thursday and Friday of the NCAA Tournament.

But one of the curious things I think about the tournament that makes it a little bit different from the NBA is that the tournament is played at neutral sites, right? They’re not home crowds. The NBA playoffs—the whole point of the regular season is to try to get home court advantage for the playoffs, and to get a Game 7 at home. And if there are no fans there, that takes away the edge of home court.

[Ultimately] these are trivial matters, right? It’s worth pointing that out, that whether or not the Los Angeles Lakers have a home game in the Western Conference Semifinals in two months is not what anyone is really spending their time thinking about. But it does sort of cut to the core of sports. It’s not quite an existential issue, but it’s a really tricky problem that I think smart people are going to have to spend a lot of time thinking about.

Levin: I was interested to learn that the NCAA has a chief medical officer, so, that was news to me. I think it was also Brian Burke, the ESPN analytics guy, on Twitter saying—and understanding that this was kind of glib—that it’ll be interesting laboratory if there are no fans in stands. It’ll be a test of home-field advantage and how it actually is derived. Because I think the best research shows that the reason home-field advantage exists to the extent that it does is the influence that it has on referees or umpires from the home crowd. And so, would refs and umpires still know where they are geographically and feel compelled to give the home team good calls, even if fans aren’t yelling at them? Also, if Bill Raftery yells onions in an empty arena, will anyone cry? These are the questions that try men’s souls. But Joel, for the NCAA and its chief medical officer, this is a test of how much the NCAA actually cares about student welfare, we’ll say.

Anderson: Yeah, it’s really interesting, because I mean, I live right around the corner from Stanford, and Stanford has canceled classes on campus through the end of this quarter, which amounts to essentially another two weeks. But at least within the institutions of higher education, they’re already thinking about the health of their students and what the risks are, in terms of putting them in a situation where there may be a potential for infection. And meanwhile, for the athletes, we’re saying, “Well, hey man, we’ve just got to figure out a way to get you guys to play.” How can we make this happen instead of what might be best for them as athletes? And some of that is: They don’t have a union; they don’t have anybody necessarily advocating for their best interests. But I guess, to your point, Ben—you made a good point that, man, in March Madness, nobody gives a damn about the fans. You watch those games—and I covered a regional here last year—and there’s hardly anybody in those arenas. So at least on that level, you won’t notice anything if you’re watching the games on TV, because there’s barely anybody in those stands up for most of the time anyway.

Cohen: Yeah. The neutral site games are played in NBA arenas, essentially. But the thing that’s really interesting to think about is, will they play the Final Four in a football stadium in Atlanta—which already is problematic, right? We’ve seen that playing in a dome that seats 100,000 people does not always lead to the prettiest basketball. Now what if you do that in a dome for 100,000 people, in which the 100,000 people are not allowed to show up? Would they just shift the Final Four in Atlanta to the Hawks arena? Like, what exactly would they do here? I do think you’re right; there are not a ton of fans. However, we’re getting to a point where bringing 20,000 people together is not the greatest idea from a medical standpoint. And so, I do think there are really hard decisions for the NCAA. So it’s a good thing that the NCAA has a great history of making really hard decisions.

Fatsis: One final note: [Division III school] Johns Hopkins lost to Penn State–Harrisburg in the empty gym, Hopkins’ home gym, 104 to 96 in double overtime. First piece of data.

Levin: All right. Good to know.

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