A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

March sadness: NCAA Div I basketball tournaments to be played without fans due to COVID-19 concerns


By Mark Hansel
KyForward managing editor

The NCAA has made the decision to seriously limit attendance at events, including the upcoming men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

The restriction means almost no fans will be able to attend the games.

NCAA President Mark Emmert

“The NCAA continues to assess the impact of COVID-19 in consultation with public health officials and our COVID-19 advisory panel,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said.

Based on their advice and my discussions with the NCAA Board of Governors, I have made the decision to conduct our upcoming championship events, including the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, with only essential staff and limited family attendance.”

THE NCAA COVID Advisory Panel released the following statement Wednesday afternoon:

The NCAA COVID-19 Advisory Panel recognizes the fluidity of COVID-19 and its impact on hosting events in a public space. COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in the United States, and behavioral risk mitigation strategies are the best option for slowing the spread of this disease. This is especially important because mildly symptomatic individuals can transmit COVID-19. Given these considerations, coupled with a more unfavorable outcome of COVID-19 in older adults – especially those with underlying chronic medical conditions – we recommend against sporting events open to the public. We do believe sport events can take place with only essential personnel and limited family attendance, and this protects the players, employees, and fans.

“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,” Emmert said. “This decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student-athletes. We recognize the opportunity to compete in an NCAA national championship is an experience of a lifetime for the students and their families. 

“Today, we will move forward and conduct championships consistent with the current information and will continue to monitor and make adjustments as needed.”

NCAA coronavirus advisory panel

On March 3, the NCAA established a COVID-19 advisory panel of leading medical, public health and epidemiology experts from their respective fields of study and NCAA member schools to guide its response to the outbreak of the coronavirus disease.

NCAA Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Hainline leads the group.

A group of college athlete liaisons will also provide their perspective to the advisory panel.

“We are actively monitoring COVID-19 in the United States and will make recommendations on competition based on the evolving medical protocols established by the CDC, NIH and state and local authorities,” said Hainline. “We are in daily contact with the CDC and are advising leadership on the Association’s response to this outbreak.”

“The NCAA is committed to conducting its championships and events in a safe and responsible manner,” said Donald Remy, NCAA chief operating officer. “Today we are planning to conduct our championships as planned, however, we are evaluating the COVID-19 situation daily and will make decisions accordingly.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low for the general public right now. However, the potential for a future public health threat is very high within the U.S. and globally, the CDC says.

“Given the fluid situation, the advisory panel will meet regularly and provide valuable insight and expertise as the Association navigates this complicated public health challenge,” Hainline said.

NKU repeated as Horizon League Tournament champions with a 71-62 win over Illinois-Chicago on Tuesday night, but only essential staff and limited family members will be able to attend their NCAA Tournament games (Photo by Jeff McCurry).

“The NCAA will make decisions that are first and foremost reflective of medical best practices and keeps the health and safety of student-athletes, administrators and fans as the number one priority,” Remy said.

The region is expected to be well-represented in the NCAA tournament and many of its fan bases traditionally will travel to support their teams.

The University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville are virtual locks to receive a bid, regardless of the outcome of their respective tournaments.

Northern Kentucky University received a bid to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament by virtue of its win in the Horizon League Tournament Championship game Tuesday.

The University of Cincinnati and Xavier University, in Ohio, are both believed to be on the tournament “bubble” and need a strong showing and possibly a tournament championship to secure a spot in the field.

Sites for the tournament have already been set, but the full field, seedings and the locations where individual teams will play, will be announced Sunday evening.


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