March Madness Will Go Ahead - But Without Fans - As NCAA Recognizes Coronavirus Risks

NCAA president Mark Emmert says 2020 tournament will include only "essential personnel and limited family attendance" to protect players, families and employees from Coronavirus risks.
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The NCAA said Wednesday that its signature March Madness basketball tournament, set to begin next week, will take place without fan attendance amid the growing coronavirus pandemic.

NCAA president Mark Emmert made the decision shortly after the World Health Organization deemed the coronavirus, which has infected some 121,000 people worldwide, to be an official global pandemic. 

"COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in the United States, and behavioral risk mitigation strategies are the best option for slowing the spread of this disease," the NCAA said. "This is especially important because mildly symptomatic individuals can transmit COVID-19. Given these considerations, coupled with a more unfavorable outcome of COVID-19 in older adults – especially those with underlying chronic medical conditions – we recommend against sporting events open to the public." 

"We do believe sport events can take place with only essential personnel and limited family attendance, and this protects our players, employees, and fans," the statement added.

The three-week jamboree, which is slated to tip-off early next week with play-in games in Dayton, Ohio, generates as much as $10 billion in betting activity, according to the American Gaming Association, and remains one of the most lucrative sporting events for Las Vegas-based casinos. Sports apparel companies like Nike NKE and Adidas ADDYY, as well as broadcasters such as CBS VIACA and AT&T T-owned Turner, also rely on the NCAA's signature tournament to generate advertising revenues, which reached nearly $800 million last year.

Last year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the body that governs all U.S. college sports, earned $933 million in revenues from television rights, ticket sales and corporate sponsorships from the tournament's 67 games, which drew a collective audience of more than 100 million viewers. 

This year's event, however, faced the very real prospect of either postponement or outright cancellation amid the global coronavirus outbreak, which has accelerated quickly in the United States from just handful of infections three weeks ago to just over 1,000 nationwide.

Some of the country's biggest universities -- including Harvard, Georgetown, Duke and Vanderbilt -- have said they will hold online-only classes over the spring semester and the Ivy League cancelled its post-season tournament late Tuesday evening.

"The decision has been made in accordance with the guidance of public health and medical professionals to discourage and limit large gatherings on campuses in light of the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation," officials said in a statement.

An increasing number of other basketball conference tournaments, including the Big West and the Mid-American, known as the MAC, announced "restrictive attendance policies" that will mean games are played behind closed doors.

The so-called "First Four" games in Dayton, as well as subsequent contests in Cleveland, will take place without fans after after Ohio Governor Mike DeWine put restrictions on public gatherings in place Wednesday.

"The order will be that there cannot be spectators there," DeWine said. "There certainly will be people ... there will be TV people, there can be radio people there, there can be sports writers, certainly can be the media there."

"But we're not going to have the large crowd," he added.

The National Basketball Association's board of governors, meanwhile, will hold a conference call with commissioner Adam Silver later today amid reports that near-term games could be moved to cities that have yet to be affected by the virus, or postponed until later in the season.

The upheaval has weighed heavily on gaming stocks, which are already suffering from revenue losses due to travel restrictions and casino closures in China-controlled Macu.

Wynn Resorts Ltd. WYNN, which generates around 70% of its earnings from Macau gaming and also relies on March Madness traffic in Las Vega, was marked 10% lower Wednesday at $81.14 each, a move that would extend its one-month decline past 40%.

Rival Las Vegas Sands Corp. LVS, with around 60% Macau earnings exposure, was seen 7% lower at $49.62 while MGM Resorts International MGM, was marked 14.4% lower at $17.81 each after the chain confirmed a guest from New York at its Las Vegas hotel had test positive for the coronavirus.

Nike shares were trading 4.7% lower at $84.20 while its European rival, Adidas slumped 9.1% in Germany after warning the coronavirus would hit China sales by around $1 billion.

ViacomCBS shares fell 3.2% to $19.88 each while AT&T was marked 3.6% lower at $34.58 each amid a broader sell-off on Wall Street that pushed the Dow Jones Industrial Average 1,200 points, or 4.85%, lower in early Wednesday trading.

In Europe, a host of sporting events will be played behind closed doors, or delayed and cancelled entirely, as the coronavirus spreads accelerates at a faster pace than in China, where the disease was first identified late last year and has caused some 85,000 infections.

In Italy, all sporting events have been cancelled until at least April 3 amid an unprecedented lockdown on social activity in the region's third-largest economy, while Champions League matches between Paris St. Germain and Borussia Dormund today, as well as ties next week between Barcelona and Napoli and Bayern Munich and Chelsea, will take place in empty stadiums from Germany to the Spain.