The world’s sports schedule cratered at warp speed Thursday, with one of the biggest events on the United States calendar, the fun-filled and colorful college basketball tournament known as March Madness, becoming the first mega-event to be scrubbed due to fear of the spread of the coronavirus.
Leaders at all levels of sports, including the NCAA, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, tennis and soccer, decided the risk of playing games with the threat of the virus hanging over them was too great despite the billions of dollars — to say nothing of the trophies, pride and once-in-a-lifetime experiences — hanging in the balance.
By late in the afternoon of an extraordinary, headline-a-minute day across a pandemic-rattled globe, the NCAA, which regulates March Madness and virtually all major US college sports, basically had no choice. With conferences and individual teams calling off their basketball seasons at breakneck pace, the NCAA followed suit. They scrapped all college winter and spring championships, the highlight of which is the men’s basketball tournament — a three-week extravaganza that stands as the biggest event this side of the Super Bowl on the US sports calendar.
The cancellation leaves a massive hole in American sports — from campuses across the country, to a growing passel of sports-betting businesses that rely on college hoops money, to say nothing of the hearts of players who were poised to get their first, or last, or only chance to shine on the big stage.
All of it was to be covered by CBS and its partners; about 80 percent of the NCAA's $1.05 billion annual budget is bankrolled by the money the networks pay to present the 68-team tournament over the air, on cable and online.
“This is bigger than a sport or championship,” said Kansas University coach Bill Self, whose team would've been the likely favorite to win it all.
Hours earlier, Kansas and Duke had each taken matters into their own hands, announcing they wouldn't be sending any of their teams to games, no matter the stakes.
It wasn't even the most jaw-dropping moment of the morning. That came, fittingly, at one of the world's most renowned sports venues — Madison Square Garden — where at halftime of a Big East Conference tournament game, the PA announcer came on and said the tournament had been called.
By then, every major conference, and virtually all of the minor ones, had done the same thing. They were prompted in part by the NCAA's decision a day earlier to hold all its tournament games — which had been scheduled to start next week in nine cities and close April 6 at a 71,000-seat stadium in Atlanta — in front of friends and family and limited “essential” personnel.
Only 24 hours later, with the stock market tanking, mixed messages coming out of Washington and no promise of quick relief being offered by world health experts, it became even more clear that gatherings involving thousands of people were hard to justify. Also clear: The NCAA would have trouble assembling an equitable bracket for its tournament, given that most games designed to suss out the most-deserving teams and automatic qualifiers had already been scrubbed.
“I’m not a researcher in immunology or infectious disease, but those who are engaged at the NCAA level provided some stark information yesterday,” said Greg Sankey, the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference.