Skip to main content
Publish date:

Could the Coronavirus shut down March Madness?

COVID-19 has yet to affect college sports in a major way, but with each passing hour it feels like that becomes a "when" and not an "if." Japan's version of Major League Baseball has postponed the beginning of its regular season. Dublin, Ireland, canceled its St. Patrick's Day parade. A major tennis tournament has now been canceled in California. Italy has suspended all sporting events in the country through April 3rd.

"We are very disappointed that the tournament will not take place, but the health and safety of the local community, fans, players, volunteers, sponsors, employees, vendors, and everyone involved with the event is of paramount importance," BNP Paribas Open tournament director Tommy Haas said. "We are prepared to hold the tournament on another date and will explore options."

As corporations, schools and other entities move limit non-essential travel and person-to-person contact as much as possible, the NCAA is days away from staging the biggest event of its calendar, three weeks of nothing but cross-country travel and person-to-person contact for hundreds of thousands of players, coaches, families, cheerleaders, fans, et cetera. Though the men's event garners the lion's share of the attention and earns almost all the money, the NCAA's decision-makers must keep in mind it is but one of the six basketball tournaments -- Divisions I, II and III, men and women -- the organization will stage this month.

“We’re playing out every possible scenario, ranging from ‘OK, we’re full-go’ to modified-go to ‘Are we playing a game and we’re certain that everyone in the arena is clean and there won’t be any public?’” NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline told the New York Times on Saturday.

Is it really responsible, for example, for the NCAA to send thousands of people for first- and second-round games two weekends from now in Sacramento when northern California's largest school district shut down for the week?

Yes, the NCAA could easily cancel on Sacramento and move to any number of cities with relative ease, but here's the crucial question -- what's stopping those cities from experiencing their own outbreaks today, tomorrow, two weeks from now? The answer is nothing. Nothing is stopping that.

Austin canceled South by Southwest this month, and the festival will not recoup its losses because cancellation was not covered by its insurance policy.

“We’ve had to show our insurance policy to all kinds of people, and nobody ever said, ‘Hey, there’s a big hole here,’” CEO Roland Swenson told the Wall Street Journal. “We did not anticipate a pandemic. We’d always taken the attitude of, ‘Well, we’ll never cancel, so that’s not going to be an issue.’”

This begs the question: Does the NCAA have insurance in the event of a cancellation? What happens if that answer is no? South by Southwest says it will look to find additional sources of revenue to pay its 175 employees or it will run out of money by this summer. How would the NCAA and its member schools manage potential losses of March Madness money?

In 2019, the NCAA "pulled in $933 million in revenue from media rights fees, ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, and a proliferation of television ads anchored around the three-week-long tournament."

For what it's worth, Hainline said it was "hard to imagine" the tournament being cancelled.

Is that any harder to imagine than Dublin going dark on St. Patrick's Day?

Tuesday update>

Earlier Tuesday Mark Emmert released a statement in which he said "Neither the NCAA COVID-19 advisory panel, made up of leading public health and infectious disease experts in America, nor the CDC or local health officials have advised against holding sporting events...."

Welp, now the NCAA has released a follow on statement (this one was not directly attributed to Mark Emmert) saying, "We are consulting with public health officials and our COVID-19 advisory board, who are leading experts in epidemiology and public health, and will make decisions in the coming days."

Thursday update: The NCAA has canceled the tournament along with all winter and spring championships.