NEW YORK – The NCAA is examining all options for the upcoming 68-team men’s basketball tournament, including the possibility of holding games without fans, as the coronavirus continues to spread across the U.S.
“If you can think of it, it’s something that we’ve gone through an analysis around,” NCAA Chief Operating Officer Donald Remy said in an interview. “We’ve contingency planned for all circumstances.”
The massive tournament — slated to start in two weeks, with games in 14 U.S. cities —- accounts for more than 80 percent of the NCAA’s annual revenue. Over the weekend, an advocacy group for college athletes suggested holding the event without an audience present, and as the virus fears mount, some have openly wondered if March Madness games will be held at all.
As it considers its options, the NCAA is speaking daily with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and has formed a medical advisory group that includes former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and NCAA Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline. Should the worst-case scenario occur — and the Indianapolis-based organization suffers severe monetary damages as a result of the virus — Remy said the NCAA has reserves and a business-interruption insurance policy that it believes would partially cover losses.
As for timing, NCAA leaders spoke on a couple of conference calls Monday about the deadline for making a firm decision on the tournament.
“We haven’t arrived at the decision date,” said Hainline, who is a neurologist. “But while everything is fluid, we’re going to have to make some decisions and not have it wait until the last couple of days.”
The virus, which originated in China, has now spread all over the world. As of Monday, there were over 90,000 reported cases worldwide, with more than 3,000 deaths related to the disease. In the United States, the virus as been found in a handful of cities, with the first American deaths reported in Washington state. One of the sites for the tournament’s first two rounds is Spokane, the state’s second-largest city.
While the NCAA executives wouldn’t go into detail about the contingency plans, sports events all over the globe have been canceled, postponed or held without fans as a result of the virus. They include Summer Olympics qualifiers, major European soccer games, marathons and half-marathons.
The NCAA’s concern goes well beyond men’s basketball. There’s a women’s basketball tournament with a similar national footprint that happens simultaneously, plus a number of other championships and countless on-campus competitions scheduled in the next few months.
That said, the men’s basketball tournament is of unique importance to the governing body, which neither owns nor operates the College Football Playoff. The NCAA had $1.1 billion of revenue in 2018 and the vast majority of that — more than four-fifths — came from media contracts and licensing specifically related to the men’s tournament. Remy said the NCAA has spoken with all of its media partners and the major U.S. leagues to discuss its options.
The NCAA also redistributes almost all of that money to its members via a variety of different funds. The biggest, called the Basketball Fund, pays out to conferences in direct correlation to their schools’ success in the men’s basketball tournament.
The NCAA tournament is scheduled to tip off in Dayton, Ohio, on March 17. The Final Four, in Atlanta, is April 4-6.
The NCAA says it is aware a decision on the games might eventually be made by someone else. Last week, Switzerland banned all public gatherings of more than 1,000 people. The following day, France did the same for events with more than 5,000 people.
For now, Hainline said the NCAA has received no instructions from the CDC or the U.S. government requiring changes to be made. While the organization won’t go against the CDC if a directive like that comes, both Hainline and Remy said they might choose a firmer response than the government mandates.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of these student-athletes,” Remy said. “As we’re thinking about these circumstance, we’re thinking about how to preserve that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and at the same time how to make sure that any decision we make is grounded in medical science.”