Editor’s note: This story was updated Wednesday at 5:10 p.m. to reflect the news that March Madness games will be closed to the public and at 11:05 p.m. with the news that the NBA has suspended its season.
The novel coronavirus has killed thousands of people around the world and sickened more than 100,000. To stop the spread, presidential candidates have canceled rallies and colleges have sent students home. But other large gatherings of people are still being held every day — and one of the most common reasons we have to all gather in one place is to watch sports. The organizers of those sporting events are trying to rapidly adapt to the outbreak. The NBA announced on Wednesday night that it was suspending the season after a player, thought to be Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, tested positive for the virus. College basketball’s March Madness will proceed without most fans — a tactic also employed by European soccer leagues — and the men’s and women’s tennis tours called off the BNP Paribas Open set for this week in Southern California. More responses are probably on their way from the other major leagues across the U.S.
Why it only took one player with coronavirus to shutter sports
To compare what those responses have been — and to help game out where they might be going as the virus continues to hit the sports world — we spoke with experts, players and league officials and gathered news reports on how each league is handling the crisis.
How risky it is to attend a sporting event?
Dr. Wan Yang, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University: “It’s a huge unknown. If there’s no local transmission when you go, then there’s no exposure. But the problem is we don’t know how many people have been infected in each location. If there were a case in this huge gathering, then lots of people would get exposed. We saw this in South Korea, where … infection at a church gathering infected hundreds. And Zika a few years ago has been hypothesized to be introduced during a soccer game to Brazil. So we’ve seen many, many cases of this superspreading due to huge gatherings. It’s a big concern. If there’s transmission locally, people getting together will lead to transmissions.”
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Just seconds before Wednesday night’s tipoff between the Jazz and Thunder in Oklahoma City, the Thunder’s head medical staffer sprinted onto the court and huddled with the NBA referees who were set to work the game. Shortly afterward, the teams and the officials themselves left the court and retreated to their locker rooms, with the fans left in a confused holding pattern until the arena’s public address announcer said the game was being postponed.
Not long after that, the NBA released a statement saying that a Jazz player, reportedly Gobert, had tested positive for the virus, and a further statement saying the league would be suspending the season after Wednesday night’s games concluded.
Before taking the step of suspending the season, the league had considered alternatives to avoid disrupting the games. It considered moving games to cities that haven’t faced outbreaks, but it’s unclear whether the states and cities the league would move to were willing to greenlight such a plan anyway. The Golden State Warriors were set to play their games without fans for the “foreseeable future” after the city of San Francisco on Wednesday banned gatherings of more than 1,000 people. The NBA had also joined with the NHL, MLS and MLB to restrict media locker-room access as a means of limiting players’ exposure to the virus.
But between Gobert’s positive test for the virus and the league’s decision to suspend play, the natural question becomes whether the other leagues — particularly the NCAA, with March Madness around the corner — will follow suit.
On Wednesday afternoon, NCAA President Mark Emmert announced a decision to conduct the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, which start next week, with “only essential staff and limited family” in attendance. “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,” his statement said. “This decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student-athletes.”
Conference basketball tournaments are underway right now, and while a few individual conferences have called off their tournaments (the Ivy League) or have chosen to play without spectators (the Mid-American Conference and Big West), most have started as planned.
While the league hasn’t offered guidance yet on moving or postponing games, one team has been affected by a local ban on gatherings. The Seattle Mariners decided on Wednesday to play their March homes games elsewhere after Washington banned events involving large groups through at least the end of the month.
Derek Falvey, the Minnesota Twins’ chief of baseball operations, on coronavirus prep: “There have been conference calls with Major League Baseball. There has been continued education, mostly from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], some of the stuff you can find online, that they are providing to us and giving us guidance. Medical personnel are on those conference calls regularly. MLB is taking a pretty proactive role in making sure we are all educated about this. We did instruct our players more recently, with respect to fan interaction [and signing autographs] … to not take items from fans. That’s how things are transferred. Be really cautious about that and understand the less hand-to-hand interaction we can have — a little less shaking of hands and engaging at that level — is probably best for everybody in the short term while we can continue to deal with ways of handling it.”
On not allowing fans into games: “We haven’t had any of that discussion yet. I don’t think they are there yet.”
The league issued a joint statement with the NBA, MLB and MLS on Monday saying the leagues would temporarily limit locker room access to players and essential staff: “After consultation with infectious disease and public health experts, and given the issues that can be associated with close contact in pre- and post-game settings, all team locker rooms and clubhouses will be open only to players and essential employees of teams and team facilities until further notice. Media access will be maintained in designated locations outside of the locker room and clubhouse setting. … We will continue to closely monitor this situation and take any further steps necessary to maintain a safe and welcoming environment.”
Deputy NHL commissioner Bill Daly had initially said it was “unlikely” that games would be canceled or played in empty arenas. But in light of the NBA’s decision to suspend its season — and the fact that many NHL teams share locker rooms and other facilities with their NBA counterparts — the league said Wednesday night that it was consulting with experts and would have a further update Thursday morning.
An XFL game set for Sunday in Seattle will be played without spectators because of Washington’s ban on gatherings.
Jeffrey Pollack, XFL president and chief operating officer: “We are closely monitoring this evolving situation. … The health and safety of the entire XFL family is of the utmost importance. We have established a COVID-19 task force and are closely monitoring this public health issue. We are in regular contact with our Medical Advisory Board, as well as health and public safety officials on a national and local basis. Additionally, we have connected with other professional sports leagues to share information and best practices. Consideration of this input, a fact-based perspective, and our priority for safety will guide our decisions going forward.”
The league told The Athletic, “Our plans remain in place. The NFL continues to closely monitor coronavirus developments and has been in contact with the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the NFL-NFLPA’s medical experts at the Duke Infection Control Outreach Network (DICON). We will continue to monitor and share guidance as the situation warrants and as our experts recommend.”
The NFL has more leeway in planning than other sports that are currently in season, since the 2020 season doesn’t start until Sept. 10.
Major League Soccer has postponed two matches so far, both set for March 21: Sporting Kansas City at the San Jose Earthquakes and FC Dallas at the Seattle Sounders.
A statement from MLS: “Providing a safe and healthy environment for our fans, players and everyone at MLS matches is our top priority. During this rapidly changing issue, MLS remains in direct contact with the relevant governmental agencies including the CDC and [the Public Health Agency of Canada], and is also coordinating with other sporting organizations regarding COVID-19. In addition, every MLS club is in continuous dialogue with local and regional health authorities.”
The Olympics are scheduled to start in Tokyo on July 24, and as of now they are still proceeding as planned. International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound told the Associated Press in February that a decision about potentially canceling the games would have to be made by the end of May, but IOC President Thomas Bach held a conference call days later to say that the Olympics will be held as scheduled. However, no spectators will be present for the ceremonial lighting of the Olympic flame in ancient Olympia on Thursday because of coronavirus concerns.
Will the Olympics eventually be canceled? It’s happened before. The 1916, 1940 and 1944 Summer Games and the 1940 and 1944 Winter Games were called off — all because of war. But some other large sporting events have been called off or moved out of concern about infection: The 2003 Women’s World Cup was moved from China to the United States because of a SARS outbreak, and the 1919 Stanley Cup Final was canceled because of a Spanish Flu pandemic.
CORRECTION (March 12, 2020, 9:55 a.m.): A previous headline on this story said the NBA had canceled its season. The NBA announced it was suspending the season, not canceling it.