N.C.A.A. Basketball Tournaments Canceled Amid Coronavirus Outbreak
In Indianapolis, where the Big Ten opened its men’s tournament on Wednesday, Brandon Johns Jr., a sophomore at Michigan, led the Wolverines into a largely empty Bankers Life Fieldhouse and jokingly acknowledged the crowd that was not there. Moments later, the players from Michigan and its opponent, Rutgers, were ushered off the floor, their game and the rest of the tournament canceled.
“I don’t want to have any regrets,” Kevin Warren, the Big Ten commissioner, said afterward. “I want to make sure as a conference we do the right things because if something had gone awry here, I don’t want to be in a position looking back saying, ‘If only we would have canceled this tournament.’”
In an interview on Thursday afternoon, Greg Sankey, the Southeastern Conference commissioner, expressed a similar perspective after canceling the league’s championship events: “We viewed stopping now, given the information, as being the proactive step.” Someday, he said, he hoped the decision would be judged a well-intentioned overreaction.
The sudden ends of the conference basketball competitions — from the mighty Atlantic Coast Conference, home to many of the men’s national champions over the last decade, to smaller leagues like the Southland and the Sun Belt — made the cancellations of the national tournaments only a matter of time. The eventual outcome became even clearer as some of the national basketball powers, like Duke and Kansas, signaled that they would not travel for any athletic events.
The N.C.A.A.’s sweeping cancellations came as a surprise to many people, even those who had believed the basketball tournaments were all but certain to be called off.
For a few hours on Wednesday, some sports executives believed that the basketball tournaments would go on in sparsely populated arenas from Sacramento to Atlanta, which was scheduled to host the men’s Final Four in April. Mark Emmert, the N.C.A.A.’s president, said in an interview on Wednesday evening that he was “very confident that we’re at the right place,” even as he declined to rule out the possibility of cancellation.
Then came the N.B.A.’s move, which college sports officials said had far-reaching ripples because it alarmed players who looked to the professional league as something of a guidepost. As Thursday wore on, the grim realities of cancellations set in among basketball coaches and players.
Coach Greg McDermott of Creighton, whose game ended at halftime when the Big East men’s tournament was canceled, said the N.B.A.’s move had “fast-tracked everything and set all this into motion.”
“I understand it,” McDermott said. “The safety of our fans, of our student-athletes, has to become paramount, and I’m sure that’s why this decision was made.”
Whether the N.C.A.A., or the media companies that were scheduled to televise the basketball tournaments, will absorb a big financial hit from the cancellation remains to be seen. Certain insurance policies could reduce the losses.
The N.C.A.A. earned over $1.1 billion in revenue the last fiscal year, almost 80 percent of it from the television and marketing rights for the Division I men’s tournament. The association’s contracts with CBS and Turner Sports to televise the tournament almost assuredly have provisions for how to handle a loss of games, said Chris Bevilacqua, a sports media rights consultant who has advised a number of teams and leagues on their media rights agreements.
The contents of these clauses, which detail how to handle unforeseen events, can vary. Sometimes they consist of simple mathematical formulas that spell out reductions, while other times they involve “tolling” provisions that automatically add time to the end of previously negotiated contracts.
“They are very customary, but I wouldn’t describe it as a cookie-cutter one size fits all,” said Bevilacqua, who was not familiar with the N.C.A.A.’s specific agreements.
Before the full cancellation of the national tournaments, Emmert said the N.C.A.A. had already accepted that it would miss out on tens of millions of dollars in ticket revenues because of its decision to bar fans.
And with calculations of the costs still to come, a sense of sadness swept through college sports on Thursday.
“This is a difficult time with so many conflicting emotions,” said Dawn Staley, the women’s basketball coach at South Carolina, whose team is ranked No. 1 in the country. “First and foremost, we have to recognize how important it is to do the right thing for our community. Sports is a big part of our lives, but just one part of how we are connected to each other. We need to step back and think about the larger good served by canceling events that put people at risk.”
She and others were particularly regretful that some athletes would not play another college game.
“For our seniors and the others throughout the country, who will not have the chance to finish their careers the way they expected to, that’s a tougher, more emotional thing to process,” Staley said. “Again, we have to lean on that this is the right thing for everyone’s health and safety.”
Reporting was contributed by Jeff Arnold from Indianapolis, Kevin Draper and Ben Shpigel from New York and Billy Witz from Las Vegas.
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