Bradley Beal had to think about what it would be like to play a game of basketball with no fans in attendance. The only examples he recalled from his playing days were those early 8 a.m. AAU games as a child where the gym was practically empty. Even then, Beal noted how parents were still there with their voices loud enough to hear.
“I’ve had my fair share of only my parents in the gym,” the Washington Wizards guard said, “yelling.”
Across American sports, the rapidly-spreading virus has prompted officials and teams to imagine the once-unthinkable: games in front of limited crowds, or in empty arenas altogether devoid of paying customers, or in worst-case scenarios, the wholesale cancellation of entire slates of events.
After four major leagues stripped locker room access for nonessential personnel like reporters as a precautionary measure, the Ivy League went a step further Tuesday by announcing the cancellation of its men and women’s college basketball tournaments due to coronavirus. That is now the second major domestic sporting event to be canceled, after organizers of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, postponed the tournament some call tennis’ fifth major.
With just over two weeks until opening day, Major League Baseball says there are no changes planned for the start of the season — but Texas Rangers catcher Robinson Chirinos told the Associated Press he’s “a little bit” concerned about traveling to Seattle, where the Mariners are set to host the Rangers on March 26. Washington state is ground zero for one of the worst outbreaks in the U.S.
Players, coaches and league officials in all sports are struggling to find the right response to the health crisis.
“We all want to be safe,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “Not just the players, but everybody. We’re all in this together and we gotta figure it out together and let a lot of the smarter people advise us and guide us and get us through all of this.”
The coronavirus has killed more than 4,000 people worldwide, and more than 800 cases are active in the U.S., many in Washington state and California. Other states, like Maryland, New York and New Jersey, are also under a state of emergency due to the virus.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced a “recommendation” Tuesday for indoor sporting events to go on with only essential personnel in the building — no spectators.
“It’s not something that anyone enjoys talking about,” DeWine said. “I certainly don’t enjoy saying it, nor envisioning sports events without spectators.”
After the governor’s remarks, the Mid-American Conference announced this week’s men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in Cleveland would be held with a restricted attendance policy.
Stronger than DeWine’s recommendation was this week’s “legally-binding” order in California’s Santa Clara County that barred all gatherings of 1,000 or more people for the rest of the month.
The NHL said it will abide by the rule, but hasn’t yet determined what that means for the three upcoming San Jose Sharks games that would be impacted.
Abroad, drastic measures have been taken as Italy has suspended all sporting events until April. The German and Austrian hockey leagues also announced Tuesday they were ending their seasons due to current coronavirus concerns.
Those cancellations have prompted questions of whether a stoppage for U.S. sports is coming. The sports calendar is about to enter arguably its busiest time of the year with the NCAA basketball tournament, MLB opening day and the NBA and NHL playoffs all approaching.
The NCAA, which last week formed a “COVID-19 advisory panel,” released a statement Tuesday saying that as of now, there are to changes planned for upcoming events.
“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,” the statement reads in part. “In the event circumstances change, we will make decisions accordingly.”
DeWine’s comments could up the pressure on the NCAA. The First Four games of “March Madness” are scheduled for March 17 and 18 in Dayton, Ohio, followed by first and second round games in Cleveland on March 20 and 22.
In the meantime, teams have taken preventative measures to avoid an outbreak. Hand sanitizer stations can now be found in Capital One Arena. In San Francisco, the Golden State Warriors have posted signs urging fans not to attend games if they have shown any symptoms of coronavirus within the last two weeks.
The Santa Clara County ban is likely to have an impact on Stanford University. Based on the current standings, Stanford’s women’s basketball team is a likely host for first- and second-round games of the NCAA Tournament later this month.
The University of Maryland, with its fourth-ranked women’s team, is also in line to host tournament games at the Xfinity Center in College Park — games that could be affected if the NCAA announces a ban on fans attending, or something more extreme than that.
A Maryland athletics spokesperson told The Washington Times that “anything to do with the NCAA Tournament is going to go through the NCAA.”
If games go on without fans, it will be a jarring setup for athletes used to competing while thousands of fans cheer in the background.
Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, the NBA’s most prominent athlete, initially suggested he wouldn’t play if fans weren’t allowed to be in attendance, but walked back that assertion when he met with reporters on Tuesday.
“I’d be disappointed in (no fans),” James said, “but at the same time, you gotta listen to the people that’s keeping track of what’s going on. And if they feel like it’s best for the safety of the players, the safety of the franchise and the safety of the league to mandate that, then we’ll all listen to it.”
The atmosphere, though, would be vastly different.
“It may happen. If it does, we’re pros,” Beal said. “We gotta go out there and do it at the end of the day. It probably will feel like a scrimmage more than a game.”
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