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March Madness Will Be A TV Affair

Joe Robbins, Getty Images
Getty Images
Minnesota and Northwestern played before fans on Wednesday in the first round of the Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

March Madness is going to be very different this year. The NCAA has decided both the men's and women's Division I basketball tournaments won't be played in front of fans. The energy. The excitement. The yelling. All gone. Thanks, coronavirus.

"While I understand how disappointing this is for all fans of our sports, my decision is based on the current understanding of how COVID-19 is progressing in the United States," said NCAA president Mark Emmert. "This decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student-athletes."

Only essential staff and "limited family attendance" will be permitted at any of the March Madness games. The decision is sweeping and unprecedented. This year, 68 teams are playing in the men's tournament in 14 cities from coast-to-coast. The tournament begins on March 17 and wraps up April 6 in Atlanta, Ga. The women's tournament will have 64 teams and starts March 20 and the national championship is April 5 in New Orleans.

It's thrilling to attend a college basketball game — as much for the play on the court as for the fan craziness in the stands. Spectators help to make the game what it is with thundering cheers and a shared camaraderie. So the thought of playing in front of no one is a bit different. It's true for many athletes when they step on the court, most everything tunes out and they hear nothing. But fans add that little something to any game.

As we reported earlier this week, one of the best things about live sports is that they bring big groups of people together — close together. And as the coronavirus spreads, that appeal has become a problem.

Health experts say one of the ways coronavirus moves from person to person is when people are close together for extended periods of time. This "community spreading" has ratcheted up the number of cases in the U.S., and sports leagues are wrestling how to deal with the outbreak.

Reaction to the NCAA decision rippled across the sports world to shock and disbelief. At the Big Sky Men's Basketball Tournament, Idaho State Head Coach Ryan Looney said, "As a coach, you go to a regional or you go to the Final 4, even as a fan if your team's still not playing, they're unbelievable atmospheres. To sort of think about that not being there is — wow." Still, he understands the decision, "It'll be a unique experience for sure. But honestly you gotta think of the safety and well-being of everyone."

Similar limits will be imposed by the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Certain NBA games will also be played without fans. The Golden State Warriors announced their home game in San Francisco tomorrow against the Brooklyn Nets will be played in an empty arena. And it's possible all NBA games will follow suit. ESPN reports the league expects a decision "as soon as Thursday on next steps."

Left undecided is whether the overhead public address systems will play any music during breaks or if there will be a PA announcer. And, of course, players will be able to hear their coaches bark instructions and fans watching on TV will definitely notice all those squeaks of basketball shoes.

Tom Goldman contributed reporting from Boise, Idaho.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.