Inside the NCAA's Decision to Ban Fans From March Madness

NCAA President Mark Emmert sat down for an interview with Sports Illustrated to explain his decision to hold the NCAA basketball tournaments without spectators.
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INDIANAPOLIS — Mark Emmert sat at a conference table Wednesday afternoon in NCAA headquarters, looking tired but sounding a bit relieved. At least a decision on a burgeoning issue had been made, difficult as it was.

The fans would stay home. But the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments — and all other winter sports championships — would go on. In a crisis situation, this was a triage solution.

“The one thing we have to make sure of is that these young men and women get to compete in a championship,” the NCAA president said in an exclusive sit-down interview with Sports Illustrated and The Athletic. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime for them, and many of them will only get one crack at this. So if we can do the games without fans, it’s hardly ideal. But it’s way better than not having the championship games.”

The NCAA arrived at this unprecedented decision Wednesday afternoon, announcing the news in a statement from Emmert around 4:30 p.m. EDT. It seemingly settled a stressful couple of weeks monitoring the exploding coronavirus pandemic. Over the past several days, the situation reached a tipping point that demanded a radical change of approach for the signature event sponsored by the NCAA.

“The past 48 hours, we saw some pretty drastic turns,” Emmert said.

By Tuesday, it seemed clear that America had reached a tipping point regarding how to handle large public gatherings in relation to the virus. By Wednesday afternoon, the NCAA had a plan to act.

“We didn’t sleep last night,” said NCAA chief operating officer Donald Remy.

“You see the bags under our eyes?” Emmert added. “It’s been kind of an all-hands-on-deck circumstance.”

Aside from the big decision about whether the games will go on, there were other considerations. Among them:

  • Final Four venue. Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the massive NFL stadium where the final weekend of the men’s tournament was to be played, is almost certainly out. “Mercedes-Benz, with 250 people in it, is pretty cavernous,” Emmert said. ”Even an NBA arena would be a pretty big venue for a small amount of folks.” There are a number of smaller options in the Atlanta area, with Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion (8,600) perhaps being the most ideal.
  • Reducing the number of tournament venues. Emmert said there was discussion well into Wednesday about shutting down some sites for both the men’s and women’s tourneys, especially those where the virus outbreaks have been more significant. Ultimately, though, the decision was made to stay with previously designated sites, which for the men’s tournament include the First Four (Dayton) and the first and second rounds (Spokane, Sacramento, St. Louis, Omaha, Cleveland, Tampa, Albany and Greensboro).
      • “The problem is, you wind up in sort of a whack-a-mole circumstance,” Emmert said, alluding to moving games from a troubled location to one that looks fine at the time but develops its own problems shortly thereafter.
      • The regional sites (Los Angeles, Houston, Indianapolis and New York) are expected to remain in place, but the fluidity of the situation will probably lead to some additional analysis in the coming days. Houston’s mayor declared Wednesday that all city-related events in March would be canceled or postponed. “We’ll work with them,” Emmert said, sounding unconcerned about the ability to hold the regional there.
      • What constitutes “essential staff.” That will include the number of people necessary to open and maintain a venue, run a scorer’s table and a scoreboard, medical personnel and at least a minimal level of security. But who else? Clearly, broadcast partners CBS and Turner Sports will have court-side seats to broadcast the games — and now those broadcasts will be more important than ever, since very few people will be watching games live and in person. As for other media representation, Emmert said, “We have to have media there.” But how many media members and from which outlets is still under discussion, he added.
      • What constitutes “limited family.” Emmert said this also is still being worked out. He was adamant about mothers and fathers being able to see their children compete, but quantifying the definition of “family” is a front-burner task that will be finalized by Selection Sunday, Emmert said.
      • Tickets that already have been purchased will be refunded.
      • Some conference tournaments that opened as business as usual with fans in attendance are now changing course. The Big Ten tournament, happening near the NCAA offices in downtown Indy, and the Big 12 are banning fans starting Thursday. Emmert isn’t blaming the leagues for their previous stances.
        • “I think it’s fairest to look at the decisions the conferences made with the data they had when they made it,” he said. “… We don’t start until the middle of next week. … All the conferences made the best call they could with the data they had.”

        Nothing is etched in concrete. With the fluidity of the situation — “It’s going to get worse,” Emmert said — the NCAA and its COVID-19 advisory team will continue monitoring and will make other adjustments as needed.

        “As long as college sports goes on and college athletes get to play, and we can do it by controlling the environment as effectively as possible, we feel fine if we can continue to make that work,” Emmert said. “If that changes and the environment gets considerably worse, we will adjust.”

        Already, the adjustment has been enormous. Almost literally overnight, the NCAA took its signature event and stripped away the most populous part of it. Fitting the rest of it back together around the gaping hole of fans makes dealing with Name, Image and Likeness legislation over a period of months look easy.

        “It is daunting, because of the scale of people whose lives are impacted directly,” Emmert said. “There’s casual fans and there are fans who can’t imagine not seeing their team play. But it’s also the case that we’re making a clear statement about public health. We know that we have a special responsibility … to take extra care.”