In normal times, Thursday would have kicked off one of the busiest sports stretches of the year in the United States.
Hundreds of thousands of fans would have packed into arenas around the country for the first and second rounds of the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in the next few days.
Another 100,000 or so might have been inside U.S. Bank Stadium for three days of the NCAA Division I wrestling championships. Combined with fans at NHL and NBA arenas, MLS fields and MLB spring training sites, total attendance easily would have topped 1 million in only a few days’ time.
That doesn’t account for everyone jamming into bars, restaurants and Las Vegas sportsbooks to get a glimpse of the college basketball action — a men’s basketball tournament television audience that averaged 10 million people per game last year.
With that as a backdrop, it’s plain to see why sporting events have been put on hold or canceled altogether as a precaution to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.
The very things that make sports this time of year so much fun — with March Madness leading the way — are the same things that make them so dangerous during a worldwide pandemic.
When dealing with a contagious virus that can have deadly consequences — particularly for vulnerable members of the population — controlling the things we can control is key. The oft-repeated phrase “social distancing” is particularly apt and was described well by University of California-San Francisco epidemiologist Jeff Martin.
“We’re not at a stage to modify the first two factors — the biologic behavior of the virus or the susceptibility of individuals,” Martin recently said in an interview posted on the school’s website. “But each of us can decrease the number and duration of our contacts with others.”
If the goal of social distancing is to remain six feet or more away from other people — particularly for a length of time like 10 minutes — that’s impossible even at a somewhat well-attended sporting event that takes two or three hours and has seats jammed next to each other.
A more specific breakdown of all the fans who normally would have been attending games between Thursday and Sunday in only three indoor leagues/events — the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, NBA and NHL — shows just how important it was to not hold those events.
• NCAA men’s basketball: Full attendance at the tournament last year — with the Final Four in Minneapolis — was close to 700,000. With 32 games (16 sessions) scheduled at eight sites in the first two rounds this year, there likely would have been at least 300,000 fans watching men’s college hoops live over four days under normal circumstances.
• NBA: There were a total of 28 NBA games scheduled from Thursday through Sunday. The average NBA team draws about 18,000 fans per game — meaning half a million fans were kept away from each other in those four days.
• NHL: The league had a whopping 33 games slated for that four-day span. The average NHL team also draws around 18,000 fans per game, so that’s another nearly 600,000 fans staying home.
Add those three things up and you have 1.4 million fans only from Thursday-Sunday. Now expand out to the full calendar of the upcoming weeks and months, add in MLS, MLB, the women’s NCAA tournament, the Masters and virtually every major international league as well.
We’re probably talking about hundreds of millions of interactions in the midst of a pandemic that were delayed or avoided altogether.
That’s not much fun at all, and in normal times it would sound terrible. But as the last week has shown us all, these are anything but normal times.