Update, 4:36 p.m. ET: The NCAA announced on Thursday afternoon that it was canceling all remaining winter and spring championships, including the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
The strangest sporting event I ever attended was a basketball game without fans. In 2017, the Brooklyn Nets bought a team in the G League, but the stadium where the mini Nets were supposed to play in Long Island was still under renovation. Instead of finding a temporary venue where fans could pay to watch minor league hoops, the new G League team spent its first year playing behind closed doors in the Barclays Center a few hours before the big-league Nets played. This way, Nets executives could watch both teams in the same day. I asked the G League team’s media rep whether I could check out a game, and on a snowy Wednesday afternoon I walked into an 18,000-seat stadium with 72 people inside of it. (That included the players, coaches, refs, trainers, team employees, and, uh, me—I counted.)
For some reason, the Nets ran with their typical game ops even though no one was in attendance. The Barclays Center Jumbotron showed replays to all of the nonexistent fans in the upper deck. A booming voice celebrated every THREEEEEEEE-POINTERRRRRRRRR by YOUR Long Island Nets!—but it was unclear whose Nets they were. Who was the public address announcer addressing when there was no public to address?
Hey, here’s a video I took at a Nets G-League game in 2017. It was the G-League team’s first year and they hadn’t figured out a stadium situation yet so they played in the afternoon before NBA Nets night games in an empty stadium so Nets execs could watch in person. pic.twitter.com/gifmAqFvxC— Rodger Sherman (@rodger) March 11, 2020
This was a question fans began to wonder about Wednesday when the NCAA announced that it would play its upcoming men’s and women’s basketball tournaments without fans in attendance due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Considering the disease’s high transmission rate and growing mortality rate, large nonessential public gatherings are now out of the question. The World Health Organization has declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, and the number of diagnosed cases in the United States has surpassed 1,200.
The NCAA tournament is a particularly dangerous mass gathering in this type of circumstance—if you’ve ever attended a tournament session, you know it’s a communal event that attracts fan bases from all across the country. How could any organization justify bringing together people from different regions during a pandemic? Preventing fans from going to tournament games seemed like a proactive choice by the NCAA. And after the NCAA announced its decision, virtually every conference tournament followed suit. We prepared for a March Madness with everything except the memes of crying fans.
However, on Wednesday night it became abundantly clear the fans aren’t the only ones at risk in these events. Before a game between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder tipped off, doctors tested Utah center Rudy Gobert for COVID-19. The result came back positive, and although Gobert wasn’t in the arena, the game was promptly postponed. Soon, the NBA had suspended its entire season. After all, Gobert’s test means that much of the league could be at risk. First, there are his Jazz teammates, as Donovan Mitchell has already tested positive for the virus. And since the start of March, Gobert has played at least 30 minutes in games against the Cavaliers, Knicks, Celtics, Pistons, and Raptors. Those teams then went on to play other teams. The coronavirus can be spread by a handshake or a cough; 30 minutes of man-to-man defense seems like a surefire way to spread it.
Other sports organizations, like MLS, have also suspended their seasons. And on Thursday, basically every conference canceled the remainder of their tournaments—except the Big East, which as of this writing is pitting St. John’s against Creighton in the only prominent basketball game happening in America. (The St. John’s–Creighton game was canceled at halftime.) The SEC announced that Kentucky will receive the league’s automatic bid in the NCAA tournament, implying that March Madness is currently scheduled to proceed without fans.
The association is reportedly looking for smaller venues to host its Final Four games—normally, those are played in massive football stadiums, but accommodating 70,000 people won’t be necessary this time around. For the NCAA, this is a compromise without much sacrifice. During the 2018-19 fiscal year, the organization made $1.18 billion. About three quarters of that total, $857 million, came from the NCAA’s contract with CBS and Turner Sports to broadcast March Madness. Attendance also generates millions of dollars in revenue, but that’s just a nice bonus for the NCAA on top of its TV deals. Playing behind closed doors would still allow the NCAA to fulfill its end of its most lucrative moneymaker.
This would also be reckless. While the NCAA can argue that none of its players have tested positive for COVID-19 so far, that may have a lot to do with the limited availability of coronavirus testing in the United States. And although several conference tournaments have been canceled, the main event has yet to be called off.
Playing a basketball tournament without fans is a great measure to stop the spread of the illness, but it still puts the players, coaches, support staff, and arena workers at risk. Colleges are canceling classes or switching to remote study. How could it possibly be safe for these athletes to play sports but not attend class when they return to campus? And while student-athletes may be young and healthy, they could spread the disease to people who are not.
Having watched a basketball game in an empty stadium before, I know exactly how strange it is. Fanless games are supposed to make clear that spectators are an inessential part of sports—we’re there to watch, not to participate. But when you hear the voice of a PA announcer echo through an arena that was supposed to be full, or when you see cheerleaders lead absolutely nobody in cheers, you realize just how many of the trappings of sports are designed for someone to be there watching the action. Fans aren’t an inessential part of sports—sports are inessential activities that were designed for the presence of spectators.
Taking fans out of harm’s way is an important measure, one designed to mitigate risk while theoretically preserving the essential part of a marquee event. But it’s not enough. If the NCAA tournament is played as scheduled, it will be a sign that the bottom line was prioritized over the safety of those that sports organizations should protect the most—the athletes themselves.
This piece was updated on Thursday with additional information.