March Madness just got a lot smaller. And a lot quieter, too.
Reacting to the coronavirus global pandemic, NCAA President Mark Emmert announced Wednesday that upcoming championships will go on without fans, including the colossal spectacle of the men’s basketball tournament, and what was expected to be a supersized NCAA Wrestling Championships next week in Minneapolis.
The wrestling event is still scheduled for March 19-21 at U.S. Bank Stadium, which would mark the first time it’s been held in an NFL stadium. Organizers had hoped to shatter its attendance records, with 45,000 seats available for all six sessions. Instead, the big stadium will be mostly empty, except for wrestlers, coaches, family members and other essential personnel.
A year ago, that stadium was being prepped to hold the grand finale of the men’s basketball tournament: the 2019 Final Four. Nearly a million fans attended men’s and women’s basketball tournament games last year. This year, the new plan is to allow “essential staff and limited family attendance.”
The NCAA’s decision also applies to other winter sports, such as men’s and women’s hockey, which now will be played in front of no spectators. The same goes for Saturday’s Division III men’s basketball Sweet 16 showdown between No. 2 St. John’s and St. Thomas, in Collegeville.
The University of Minnesota followed suit later Wednesday, releasing a statement saying no fans can attend Gophers home games or events until further notice. Family and “essential” staff will be allowed.
“While I understand how disappointing this is for fans of all sports, my decision is based on the current understanding of how COVID-19 is progressing in the United States,” Emmert’s statement read. “This decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student-athletes.”
Emmert said he acted on the advice of public health officials and the NCAA’s COVID-19 advisory panel. His decision came on a day during which reactions in the sports world came fast and furious, including the Ivy League canceling all sports through the spring semester.
Emmert also told the Associated Press that the NCAA is considering moving the men’s basketball Final Four from Mercedes-Benz Stadium to a smaller venue in Atlanta. First-round sites will remain in place, while the NCAA could move regionals from their currently scheduled arenas to smaller venues in the same cities.
The NCAA also announced that those who have ordered tickets from an official NCAA Championship vendor online or over the phone will receive refunds.
Next week’s wrestling championships — the first in Minnesota since 1996 — were in line to be a showcase for the state and a big stage for Gable Steveson, a Gophers sophomore from Apple Valley who is the nation’s top-ranked heavyweight.
“It’s crazy and won’t be the same” without fans, he said, but his goal remains. “I don’t care if there’s no one in the stands; I want to win.”
The expectation was the event at the Vikings’ stadium would obliterate the three-day attendance record of 113,743 set two years ago in Cleveland.
“Sports Minneapolis is deeply disappointed that Minneapolis will not have the opportunity to host this major event for fans as originally anticipated,” said Melvin Tennant, Sports Minneapolis Executive Director. “… As with any sudden news, there are many unanswered questions at this time. We will provide more information as it becomes available.”
The tournament promised to be a big draw for Minneapolis’ hotels, bars and restaurants, especially since the University of Iowa, with the nation’s top-ranked team and tournament favorite, is only a 300-mile drive away. Kevin Collins, an assistant athletic director at Iowa, gave a conservative estimate that 5,000 Hawkeyes fans would have made the trip north as their team chased its 24th NCAA championship.
“Usually at the NCAA wrestling, the Iowa contingent is one of the larger, louder contingents. That’s going to be amplified even more this year,” Collins said Tuesday, before Wednesday’s news.
John Drum, interim general manager for ASM, the global company that operates U.S. Bank Stadium, was stunned.
“We’re still trying to sift through what it means for an event of this magnitude,” Drum said. “Nobody in their wildest dreams would have thought that something like this would have happened.”
Also unclear is whether the NCAA might consider moving the tournament to a smaller venue. The reconfiguration inside the stadium for wrestling will begin later this week with details about the operation in flux.
Wednesday’s news hit college basketball hard, with the NCAA’s signature event no longer being a destination for fans this year. Attendance for all men’s tournament games last year was 688,753, and another 274,873 attended women’s tournament games. The men’s Final Four at U.S. Bank Stadium drew crowds of 72,711 for the semifinals and 72,062 for the final.
“I get it when the World Health Organization comes out and calls it a pandemic and governors are responding in a way that they’re concerned with human safety,” Big Ten Network analyst Stephen Bardo said. “But I hurt for these kids, because I know how special my NCAA tournament experience was [at Illinois].”
The Big Ten announced that beginning Thursday, attendance at the conference tournament will be limited like the NCAA events. Those restrictions also will apply to all further Big Ten winter and spring sports events.
The impact on men’s hockey is particularly acute in Minnesota.
The Gophers women are slated to face Ohio State on Saturday in an NCAA quarterfinal at Ridder Arena. Now it’ll be in front of a limited crowd. On the men’s side, the Gophers travel to Penn State for a Big Ten tournament semifinal on Saturday, and that, too, will be played in front of a limited number of essential personnel.
North Dakota, Minnesota State and two-time defending national champion Minnesota Duluth are in line to be No. 1 regional seeds in the men’s hockey tournament, while Bemidji State has a strong chance to make the 16-team NCAA tournament field. No fans will be allowed at NCHC quarterfinals this weekend.
As Bardo said about the sound of silence coming to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, “Hopefully, this won’t last too long, and we can get past it. But we’ve got to sacrifice right now for the greater good.”
Staff writers Rochelle Olson and Marcus Fuller contributed to this report.