What to expect from a fanless tournament

On Wednesday the NCAA announced that the entire men’s and women’s basketball tournaments will be played in arenas closed to the public due to the spread of the coronavirus. The World Health Organization categorized coronavirus as a pandemic on Wednesday.

NCAA President Mark Emmert said only “essential staff and limited family” will be permitted in the facilities.

Initially, only tournament games in the state of Ohio (First Four in Dayton and the first- and second-round games in Cleveland) were going to be played sans fans. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced that mass gatherings will be prohibited in the state. This prohibition is also affecting the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets.

However, later in the day Emmert announced that it will affect the entire tournament.

The Big 12 has now followed suit. Big 12 Commissioner Bill Bowlsby announced that, beginning with the quarterfinals on Thursday, the Big 12 tournament will have extremely limited access to the public. Each team will have 150 tickets to disperse and cheerleaders and bands will not be permitted.

  • What does this mean for WVU fans?

Mountaineers fans have watched their last 2020 West Virginia basketball game in person.

There were two first- and second-round venues that were within reasonable driving distance for Mountaineers fans to attend – Cleveland and Greensboro, N.C. There is a decent chance that WVU will play in one of those cities. With how well Mountaineer Nation travels, it could have brought a slice of home-court advantage for West Virginia to the tournament. Now those voices won’t be heard.

  • Who will be permitted to attend tournament games?

Emmert didn’t define who qualified as “essential staff and limited family” and who does not. Anecdotally, here are conversations I had with two people who could fit into this category.

The first is an athletic director of a men’s team that has already qualified for the tournament. The second is a father of a women’s Division I basketball player whose team is in the conference tournament finals. Here are their responses to the question, “Are you allowed to attend the tournament?”

The AD: “Yes, I am essential.”

The father: “I have no idea.”

When asked how much of his staff he was permitted to bring to the arena, the athletic director responded, “very little.”

It appears that only players, coaches, trainers and high-ranking athletic department personnel will be permitted to attend. And even the players parents don’t know if they can attend their children’s games.

  • Will any of the games be moved?

As of now, it appears that the venues that are scheduled to host the tournament will still do so. The two states that have been the most aggressive in restricting mass gatherings (more than 1,000 people) have been Ohio and California. Ohio is the site of the First Four in Dayton and the first- and second-round games in Cleveland.

California is home to first- and second-round games in Sacramento and the West Regional semifinals and finals in Los Angeles.

Thus far, both states have only banned spectators from sporting events, not the events themselves. With this being a fluid situation, that could change. But as of now it hasn’t.

While it hasn’t been announced yet, expect these two changes in venues. The Midwest Regional semifinals and finals are scheduled to be played in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Lucas Oil Stadium is a dome football stadium that is the home of the Indianapolis Colts. It makes no sense for the NCAA to keep the games there without fans.

Look for the Midwest Regional site to switch to either Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the home of the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, or Hinkle Fieldhouse, home of Butler University. The Pacers don’t host games on either March 26 nor March 28, the dates of the Midwest semifinals and finals.

Both would be far cheaper to operate the games than Lucas Oil Stadium.

Likewise, expect a switch in the arena, but not the city, of this year’s Final Four. The national semifinals and championship game are scheduled to be played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Mercedes-Benz Stadium is a dome football stadium and the home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. Like Indianapolis, it makes no sense to play these games in a huge dome football stadium if there aren’t any fans.

Expect this year’s Final Four to be played either at State Farm Arena, home of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, or McCamish Pavilion on the campus of Georgia Tech. The Hawks don’t host games on either April 4 or April 6, the dates of the national semifinals and finals.

There is precedent for moving a basketball tournament from an Atlanta dome football stadium to the Georgia Tech campus. In 2008, a tornado hit the city during the SEC basketball tournament. Because of damage to the Georgia Dome, the final quarterfinal game and the semifinals and finals were played in McCamish (then called Alexander Memorial Coliseum).

There’s no damage to the dome stadium this time, but expense and logistics make playing the Final Four in Mercedes-Benz Stadium seem pointless.

There are obviously far more serious issues with coronavirus than how it affects basketball games. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is unfortunate – for players and fans alike – that the jewel of college basketball will be played in silence.