FILE - In this Aug. 26, 2019, file photo, the Golden State Warriors championship banners hang above the seating and basketball court at the Chase Center in San Francisco. The Warriors will play the Brooklyn Nets at home Thursday night, March 12, 2020, in the first NBA game without fans since the outbreak of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

Virus nixes fans from March Madness, some NHL, NBA games

March 11, 2020 - 8:07 pm

College basketball's March Madness became the highest-profile sporting event to forego fans during the coronavirus pandemic, joining some NBA and NHL teams that have decided to play in largely empty arenas in an effort to slow the disease's spread.

NCAA President Mark Emmert said Wednesday only essential staff and limited family will be allowed to attend the tournaments, draining the signature school spirit from one of the biggest events on the sports calendar.

The NBA game between the Warriors and Nets in San Francisco on Thursday night will also be played without fans, as will upcoming NHL games scheduled for Columbus, Ohio, and San Jose, California.

NBA owners met via teleconference Wednesday and discussed all teams temporarily playing without fans, according to a person with direct knowledge of the talks. More talks are scheduled for Thursday, the person told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because no details had been made public.

Conference tournament games for the Big Ten, Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conference will also be without fans starting Thursday. Boston College said all sports on campus would be played without fans; the Big3 basketball league said six weeks of its season would be moved to an “intimate, controlled Los Angeles venue.”

The list is expected to grow.

Also Wednesday, the Mariners said they will move all of their home games in March out of Seattle, the U.S. city hardest-hit by the outbreak; the team and Major League Baseball have not decided whether the games will be played at the opponent's ballpark or a neutral site.

And the Italian soccer club Juventus said defender Daniele Rugani has COVID-19 — the first player in the country's top division to test positive. The team said Rugani and "those who have had contact with him” have been isolated.

The pinnacle of the college basketball season, the NCAA Tournament is a month-long festival of pep bands and face-painting and a cash cow that, along with football, helps fund non-revenue sports at schools throughout the country. The decision to play in fanless arenas will cost millions in ticket sales but preserve billions in TV rights fees.

The 68-team men's tournament is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio, where Gov. Mike DeWine has announced plans to ban “mass gatherings” to combat the spread of COVID-19, which was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization on Wednesday.

“You dream of this situation where you’re playing for the highest stakes on the biggest stage, and it’s hard to imagine that if nobody is around to see it,” said Bill Self, the coach of the top-ranked Kansas Jayhawks. “But I told the guys: ‘Why did we all start loving this game and playing it? Did we do it because we need people to watch us, or did we do it because we loved it?’

“It will have a different feel but it will still be highly competitive, and the kids will still play like there's no tomorrow,” he said. “They'll make the most of it. We'll make the most of it.”

Elsewhere, the Ivy League canceled all spring sports, as many American schools told students not to return from spring break and prepare for classes to be taught online. The conference had already canceled its men's and women's basketball tournaments.

Other college basketball leagues went ahead with their postseason tournaments Wednesday with fans in attendance, although the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC announced there would be no fans starting Thursday. The group that owns the Washington Wizards and Capitals said their games will go on — with fans — despite a D.C. Department of Health recommendation that "non-essential mass gatherings" be postponed or canceled because of the coronavirus.

Also bucking the trend toward caution: The major auto racing circuits also said they plan to race as scheduled this weekend, including a season-opening IndyCar event that is the centerpiece of a three-day street festival expected to draw about 130,000 people to St. Petersburg, Florida. There will be additional hand-washing and sanitizing stations.

NASCAR will race at Atlanta Motor Speedway as scheduled. Reporters will observe a six-foot buffer when interviewing drivers.

More than 1,000 people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the United States, with 32 deaths; those rates are expected to continue to rise.

Most people quickly recover from the virus after experiencing only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

According to WHO, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and more than 58,000 have so far recovered.

NBA

Shortly after San Francisco Mayor London Breed banned all gatherings of 1,000 or more people for at least two weeks, the Warriors announced they would go ahead with their next game, but with no fans in the building.

“There’s a little shock, for sure,” Warriors star Stephen Curry said. “I’ve been in this league for a very long time and never had to deal with anything like this. It’ll be different, it will be weird.”

Along with the Warriors' next game, a Post Malone concert and three other events that had been scheduled at Chase Center, which seats more than 18,000, have been postponed or canceled through March 21.

“We don't know what happens after that," Warriors President Rick Welts said. “San Francisco has really been the first domino to fall here."

MLB

The Mariners and Major League Baseball have not announced where they will play the team's first two series: against the Texas Rangers from March 26-29 and the Minnesota Twins from March 30 through April 1.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee prohibited gatherings of more than 250 people in Seattle, which has experienced the most COVID-19 deaths in the U.S.

“While we hope to be back to playing baseball in Seattle as soon as possible, the health and safety of our community is the most important consideration,” the Mariners said.

ITALY

The governing body of European soccer said the games between Sevilla and Roma in Spain, and Inter Milan and Getafe in Italy “will not take place as scheduled.”

Italian soccer club Roma had said earlier Wednesday it would not make its trip to Seville because “the plane from Italy was not authorized to land in Spain.” Getafe President Ángel Torres had said his team would not travel to Italy because he did not want to risk his players' health by going to an area struggling to contain the spread of the virus.

The Italian soccer federation ordered Italy's women's team to return home before the end of the Algarve Cup tournament in Portugal fearing it would not be able to get a flight back. On Wednesday, the Portuguese soccer federation canceled the final between Italy and Germany.

Italy had already suspended all sporting events until April 3.

SKATING

The World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal next week were canceled. The top skating competition for a non-Olympic year was scheduled to bring nearly 200 skaters from more than 50 countries to Montreal.

SKIING

Less than 24 hours before the first race, the International Ski Federation canceled the women's Alpine skiing World Cup in Are, Sweden, handing Federica Brignone of Italy the overall title and denying Mikaela Shiffrin a return to racing this season.

Shiffrin, the defending overall champion, had announced earlier Wednesday that she would compete at the event after taking a six-week break from the sport following the death of her father. The absence cost her the lead in the overall standings.

FED CUP POSTPONED

The Fed Cup Finals in Hungary were postponed after the local government said it was prohibiting public indoor gatherings of more than 100 people. The International Tennis Federation said it would try to find another suitable date for the women's tennis competition.

FRENCH LEAGUE CUP FINAL

The French League Cup final between Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon, scheduled for April 4, was postponed. A new date has yet to be announced.

RUSSIAN CROWDS

Russian league games in Moscow will be limited to 5,000 people in the stadium under new health regulations in the capital. Besides fans, that includes players, team staff, stadium employees and security.

GYMNASTICS

The International Gymnastics Federation said it was postponing two World Cup events due to start next week. One is an all-around competition in Stuttgart, Germany, and the other is an apparatus event in Doha, Qatar. They double as Olympic qualifiers. The federation said it was also postponing a rhythmic gymnastics World Cup event and a trampoline World Cup event. Both were due to be held in Italy next month.

ESPORTS

A global esports league with teams in North America, Europe and Asia is canceling all matches through March and April. The Overwatch League had already postponed all events in China and South Korea due to the outbreak.

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AP Sports Writers Tim Reynolds in Miami, Daniella Matar in Milan, Italy, Mattias Karen in London, Tales Azzoni in Madrid, Janie McCauley in San Francisco, Jenna Fryer in Charlotte, North Carolina, Tom Withers in Cleveland and David Skretta in Kansas City, Missouri, contributed to this report.

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