- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2020

There will be no NCAA champion, no Final Four, no March Madness at all, as the coronavirus on Thursday dealt a deadly blow to college basketball’s men’s and women’s tournaments and put the rest of American sports on life support.

Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and a slew of other leagues announced the suspensions of their seasons and the NCAA, which had planned to stage games in empty arenas, decided instead to cancel March Madness altogether.

The dominoes began falling after the National Basketball Association on Wednesday hit pause on its season when one of its player tested positive for the potentially deadly bug, COVID-19.

Fans’ hopes that March Madness would be postponed to a later date — becoming May Madness, for example — were dashed by the NCAA announcement.

“This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to spread of the pandemic, and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities,” the governing body’s statement said.

Baseball suspended spring training and said the start of the MLB season, originally slated for March 26, would be delayed at least two weeks. Major League Soccer said it will suspend operations for 30 days, while the NHL did not give an estimated timetable.

The league’s goal is to resume the current season and still hold the Stanley Cup Playoffs at some point, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.

The unprecedented shutdown of American sports came after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday. A second Jazz player, Donovan Mitchell, also tested positive Thursday.

“Following last night’s news that an NBA player has tested positive for coronavirus — and given that our leagues share so many facilities and locker rooms and it now seems likely that some member of the NHL community would test positive at some point — it is no longer appropriate to try to continue to play games at this time,” Mr. Bettman said.

In tennis, the men’s ATP Tour was suspended for the next six weeks and the women’s WTA Tour canceled its next two events.

Not everything was outright canceled or postponed.

The PGA Tour will play the rest of this weekend’s Tour Championship without fans at TPC Sawgrass in Florida, and that policy will continue at least through the Texas Open — the week before the Masters. And like the PGA Tour, NASCAR will run its next two races in Atlanta and Miami without fans present.

Georgetown University sports business professor Marty Conway said sports in North America are about a $100 billion industry, and even a small percentage of that being affected would have massive consequences.

“I think we’re going to see over the next few days and the next couple of weeks what’s the totality of incidents that are canceled and can’t be replaced,” Mr. Conway said. “You’re looking at major events, golf, tennis, whatever. Those can’t be replaced because they hold a place on the calendar and they’re annual and it’s really hard to reschedule those.”

March minus the madness

Sixteen men’s college basketball tournaments were expected to be in action when players, coaches and fans woke up Thursday morning. By mid-afternoon, the entire postseason was canceled.

The cancellations began to come in before noon. Conferences like the Big Ten and ACC made such last-minute decisions that the teams contesting their tournaments’ first games of the day had warmed up on the court before being told to head back to the locker rooms.

The Big East allowed its first game of the day, Creighton vs. St. John’s, to tip off and play the entire first half. But at halftime, the conference pulled the plug on the rest of the tournament.

Other conferences halting their tournaments included the Big 12, the SEC, the Pac-12 and the Atlantic 10. Eventually, every conference scheduled to play games Thursday had canceled them — and Duke University and the University of Kansas, two of basketball’s biggest blue bloods, announced they were suspending all athletic competitions and travel indefinitely due to the virus.

The NCAA made its announcement about March Madness at about 4:15 p.m., just a day after initially deciding that the men’s and women’s tournaments would go on as usual, but without any fans allowed to attend.

The never-before-seen situation led to some surreal scenes, like ACC commissioner John Swofford addressing teams and fans alike at the tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina — and honoring Florida State’s men’s basketball team as ACC champions for its regular-season title. The ACC and the Big Ten later announced that all of their spring sports seasons, including lacrosse and baseball, would be canceled.

The Maryland men’s basketball team had not yet flown to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament when it was canceled Thursday.

“I understand and respect the conference’s decision to cancel this year’s Big Ten Tournament,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon tweeted. “The health and safety of our student-athletes and our entire program is paramount. This is an unprecedented situation that is much bigger than basketball.”

For players, the cancellations marked an unceremonious end to their seasons — and for many, their college playing careers.

“This can’t be real at all,” Terrapins forward Jalen Smith tweeted.

A society without sports

Mr. Conway can only recall two events that felt similar to the rush of cancellations Thursday: The terrorist attacks on 9/11 and NBA star Magic Johnson’s HIV diagnosis in 1991.

He sees the coronavirus’ impact on sports as an intersection between the two — the sudden halt of 9/11 and the health questions that arose from Johnson.

The abrupt stoppage of sports will be jarring for those who rely on teams, players and events to provide comfort in their lives. Mr. Conway said sports is a “convener” for society, bringing people together.

“We’ve got a public health crisis and it’s now etched into a sort of economic fallout,” Mr. Conway said. “And sports is sitting in the middle of it. OK, what do we do? And the only appropriate action has been, you just have to stop.”

The economic impact, too, remains to be seen. According to Yahoo Finance, the NCAA Tournament generated $933 million in revenue last year, most of which comes from television rights.

The suspensions and cancellations will also affect arena workers who rely on events to earn a living.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told reporters Wednesday he was devising a program to help provide financial assistance to those out of work.

Mr. Cuban said he didn’t have any details to share, but added the cause was “important” to him.

“I reached out to the folks at the arena and our folks at the Mavs to find out what it would cost to support, financially support, people who aren’t going to be able to come to work,” Mr. Cuban said. “They get paid by the hour, and this was their source of income. So, we’ll do some things there. We may ask them to go do some volunteer work in exchange, but we’ve already started the process of having a program in place.”

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