THE LAST WORD: Could coronavirus fears affect NCAA tourney?

Kerry Hubartt

An Associated Press story last week began with the following words: “Imagine an NCAA Tournament with no fans in the arenas.”

That seemingly ridiculous possibility has been posited as a result of the coronavirus that has afflicted more than 92,000 people and killed 3,300 worldwide, mostly in China. As of last week 12 deaths had been linked to the virus in the U.S., most in the Seattle area. But of the 210 confirmed cases in at least 18 states across the country, most have been mild.

So as I read the AP story in which the executive director of the National College Players Association urged the NCAA and schools to seriously consider holding competitions without audiences present, my immediate reaction was that the growing hysteria over the coronavirus is getting out of hand.

If we’re going to keep fans from going to NCAA basketball tournament games, what about conference tournaments that begin across the country next week? And what about other collegiate sports? How about the remainder of the IHSAA boys basketball tournament? What about Komets hockey games at the Memorial Coliseum?


The fact is, however, that events have been canceled or contested with no spectators allowed in stadiums or arenas in other countries. And in the U.S., Tuesday, Stanford announced the limiting of attendees at its competitions, and Chicago State University announced cancellations of basketball games, believed to be the first by a major sport in the U.S. due to the virus.

The player’s association’s Ramogi Huma says that to protect athletes, the NCAA and its schools “must act now, there is no time to waste. Precautions should include canceling all auxiliary events that put players in contact with crowds such as meet and greets, and press events,” he said in a statement. “In regard to the NCAA’s March Madness Tournament and other athletic events, there should also be a serious discussion about holding competitions without an audience present.”

Can you imagine the impact if the huge gatherings of fans in arenas across the country should be prohibited?

Attendance at last year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament was 688,753, AP reported, an average of 19,132 per game. The Final Four at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis had 72,711 at the semifinals and 72,062 at the championship game.

AP says the NCAA generates nearly $1 billion a year, most of it from the men’s basketball tournament through media rights fees, corporate sponsorships and ticket sales.

Do you really think the NCAA will make fans stay home and watch the action on TV?

“We’ve contingency planned for all circumstances,” NCAA Chief Operating Officer Donald Remy told Bloomberg News last week. “The NCAA is committed to conducting its championships and events in a safe and responsible manner. Today we are planning to conduct our championships as planned; however, we are evaluating the COVID-19 situation daily and will make decisions accordingly.”

So the NCAA announced it has authorized its chief medical officer, Dr. Brian Hainline, to lead an advisory panel of medical, public health and epidemiology experts and NCAA schools to discuss the COVID-19 virus. Hainline said the group will make recommendations on competition based on evolving medical protocols established by the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health and state and local authorities.

While you can’t compare the current coronavirus spread to the 1918 flu pandemic that killed millions, there are comparisons to the more recent coronavirus outbreaks in 2002 (SARS) and 2012 (MERS). Both were coronaviruses and originated from bats, like COVID-19.

During the SARS outbreak, there were 8,098 reported cases and 774 deaths. Most infections were through person-to-person contact. No known cases of SARS have been reported since 2004, according to the CDC.

Since 2012, there have been 2,494 cases of MERS reported, and 858 deaths. Most of those infections also occurred from person-to-person contact, according to the World Health Organization.

The new coronavirus is apparently less deadly than SARS, which killed about 10% of people who became infected. The SARS outbreak was contained in about six months.

Approximately 35% of reported patients with MERS died, but there were many fewer cases during that outbreak than either SARS or COVID-19.

So is an empty arena for the men’s NCAA title game possible? I guess we have to wait and see. In the meantime, officials are going to prepare for worst-case scenarios, and we all need to be sensible in taking normal precautions against being exposed to or spreading viruses. And at this point, that doesn’t have to mean avoiding crowds.

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.


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