BY RYAN KARTJE
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS
LOS ANGELES – The NCAA Tournament will be played in empty arenas.
As member universities across the nation considered how to proceed because of the coronavirus, canceling in-person classes and on-campus events en masse, the NCAA announced the monumental decision on Wednesday to keep fans out of its annual signature event for men’s and women’s basketball.
The announcement came just as major conference tournaments kicked off at several arenas, including in Las Vegas, where the USC and UCLA men’s teams open Pac-12 tournament play on Thursday.
“While I understand how disappointing this is for all fans of our sports, my decision is based on the current understanding of how COVID-19 is progressing in the United States,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a statement. “This decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans, and most importantly our student-athletes.”
Only staff, family
Tournament sites will be limited to “only essential staff and limited family,” the NCAA said in a release. It did not define who, in particular, would be considered essential.
USC and UCLA both announced plans Tuesday to bar fans from athletic events. USC is expected to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament, while UCLA could join the field with a strong showing this week.
The UCLA women’s team will host the first two rounds at Pauley Pavilion, where fans were already barred from entry through April 10.
Before Emmert’s announcement, officials in several states scheduled to hold NCAA Tournament events had announced similar plans to limit large crowds at events.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, whose state was slated to host the men’s tournament’s opening round, issued an order restricting spectators two hours before the NCAA followed suit.
Staples Center is scheduled to host the West Regional for the men’s tournament on March 26 and 28.
First- and second-round sites for the tournament are expected to remain the same, Emmert told the Associated Press. But regional sites could still be moved to smaller venues in the same cities. Mercedez-Benz Stadium, which holds 71,000 fans, will now likely not host the Final Four, Emmert said.
The notion of March Madness unfolding inside empty arenas was an idea that several players refused to entertain earlier this week.
“That would be terrible. Terrible,” USC senior guard Jonah Mathews said. “That would kill the whole vibe of the game for sure.”
“The whole point of March Madness is having fans here,” USC forward Nick Rakocevic said.
‘Adjustments as needed’
With the threat of coronavirus ongoing and the pressure mounting on entities throughout collegiate athletics to act proactively, the NCAA made the unprecedented decision Wednesday to proceed without fans.
“We recognize the opportunity to compete in an NCAA national championship is an experience of a lifetime for the students and their families,” Emmert said. “Today we will move forward and conduct championships consistent with the current information.”
Even without the seats filled, the NCAA Tournament will, for the time being, proceed as planned. But Emmert noted in his statement that the NCAA would “continue to monitor and make adjustments as needed.”