While the spread of coronavirus had already brought sweeping changes to the sports world in places like Italy and Japan, live sports events in the United States had mostly avoided making major adjustments—until this week.
Now the virus is upending plans for the NCAA basketball tournament in Ohio and the Golden State Warriors in California.
On Sunday, organizers of the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament, better known as Indian Wells, canceled this year’s event after Riverside County in California declared a public health emergency. Indian Wells was the first major sports event to get outright canceled due to the virus.
On Monday, Santa Clara County instituted a ban on large public gatherings, which affects two local teams, the San Jose Sharks (NHL) and San Jose Earthquakes (MLS). On the prior Thursday, the Sharks held a home game despite the county’s wishes, and fans attended. The Sharks do not have another home game until March 17, and the Earthquakes do not have one until March 21. Both teams are now mulling their options, but the likeliest outcome is playing their games in closed arenas.
Still, cancelations (or closed-arena games) had not yet hit the Big Three leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB) or the NCAA March Madness tournament, until the situation accelerated on Wednesday.
On Wednesday, San Francisco Mayor London Breed placed a ban on all large public gatherings, which includes Golden State Warriors games at the team’s new Chase Center.
The team had publicly hesitated to go the closed-arena route, but will now have to hold its March 12 game against the Brooklyn Nets in an empty Chase Center, with no fans, the first NBA game hit by coronavirus, but unlikely to be the last.
On the other hand, despite the Washington DC Department of Health recommending that the area cancel all public gatherings, the Washington Wizards (NBA) and Washington Capitals (NHL) said their games will “go on as scheduled and be open to spectators” for the time being.
As for the NCAA, the March Madness basketball tournament starts on March 17, and the NCAA publicly reiterated on Tuesday that it had not yet decided to cancel any of those games or hold them in closed arenas, but that “NCAA member schools and conferences make their own decisions regarding regular season and conference tournament play,” meaning that the individual conferences could go the closed-arena route for their conference tournaments, which are underway right now.
That is what the MAC (Mid-American Conference) and Big West Conference did, announcing on Tuesday that the remainder of their conference tournament games would be closed to fans.
And on Wednesday afternoon, the closures hit the actual March Madness tournament for the first time: Ohio Governor Mike DeWine followed a small number of other mayors and governors in calling for a ban on public gatherings in Ohio, and confirmed that this will apply to the “First Four,” the four play-in games on March 17 and March 18 in Dayton, Ohio, which will be played in empty arenas. Those four games are considered the official start of March Madness.
DeWine said, according to Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post, “The reason we’re doing the things we’re doing is we have the potential of becoming Italy.” In Italy, multiple Serie A soccer games were held in closed arenas before, last week, the country halted all its sports events.
Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance who closely covers sports business. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.
Read more from Yahoo Finance about coronavirus and sports:
All the ways coronavirus is hitting the sports world
Coronavirus is stoking fears of Tokyo Olympics customer cancellations
Coronavirus update: Nerves surround Tokyo Olympics
Nike warns coronavirus will have ‘material impact’ on its China business
HSBC downgrades Nike on coronavirus fears
Under Armour warns of coronavirus impact in China, analyst says it has ‘peaked’ in America