'So many ramifications' — What will be the fallout of an NCAA tournament without fans?

Pete Thamel
·6 min read

Robert Morris University won the Northeast Conference tournament on Tuesday night, with thousands of fans spilling onto the floor to celebrate a 77-67 victory over St. Francis. It was the exact type of scene that plays out all over the country each March – giddy students, a bandbox gymnasium rocking like a two-hour last call and a small school relishing its shining moment.

But as coaches and officials at Robert Morris woke up to the reality of participating in the 2020 NCAA tournament on Wednesday, they had to embrace the notion that it could be a drastically different experience.

When Robert Morris last made the NCAA tournament in 2015, a rollicking crew of students took the four-hour ride from the Pittsburgh-area campus to Dayton to watch their opening-round game.

“There were three or four bus loads,” Toole told Yahoo Sports by phone on Wednesday. “It’s part of the college experience that some people may miss this year.”

The NCAA confirmed the inevitable on Wednesday afternoon when it ruled the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments would play on without the public being allowed to attend. The NCAA said in a statement that “only essential staff” and “limited family attendance” would be allowed.

It opened up the possibility for a drastically different tournament with a whole new set of issues and problems.

How will the lack of fans impact a tournament engineered for neutral crowds to root on underdog stories? What will March Madness look and feel like without fans? What will the economic impact be on the 14 cities slated to host sub-regionals, regionals and the Final Four? How will schools determine who is considered family and essential staff?

The NCAA March Madness logo on the floor during the men's basketball tournament in 2019. (Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
The NCAA March Madness logo on the floor during the men's basketball tournament in 2019. (Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

(An NCAA spokesman told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday that the games will be televised, but the organization is “still working through” a decision on whether non-television partner media will be allowed at the NCAA tournament.)

Earlier in the day, Utah State athletic director John Hartwell pondered the on-floor impact of a tournament with no fans. The Aggies clinched an automatic bid on Saturday in one of the season’s most dramatic moments – a 3-point shot by Sam Merrill with 2.6 seconds left to upset top-seeded San Diego State in the Mountain West Conference tournament.

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Utah State projects around a No. 10 seed, the kind of team that could become a darling for a neutral crowd.

“Obviously, one of the huge draws of the NCAA tournament is the opportunity for the underdogs to win,” Hartwell said in a phone interview with Yahoo Sports. “When you take the atmosphere out of there, does that help you? Does it hinder you? A lot of times you’re in an arena where you have seven or eight teams’ worth of fans in there.

“And when the underdog goes on a run, seven of the eight fan bases are all cheering. How does not having that impact things? There’s so many ramifications.”

The prospect of an NCAA tournament without fans evolved from a possibility to an expectation early on Wednesday. The most florescent sign of this came when Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine stated that sites in Dayton and Cleveland next week would go on without fans. “I will not let Ohio become another Italy,” he said in remarks to reporters.

The NCAA is historically a reactionary and risk-averse organization. That means it was obvious that they’d unequivocally follow the lead of local government in Ohio for the sites in that state. And that meant the next logical step was Wednesday’s decision.

“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,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said. “This decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student-athletes.”

The conflicting messages of how different entities in the sports world were handling the coronavirus continued on Wednesday afternoon. The ACC, Atlantic 10, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC tournaments played on with fans in attendance on Wednesday. Following the NCAA’s statement, the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 announced that fans wouldn’t be allowed to attend their conference tournaments starting on Thursday. There were varying rules for locker room access, traveling band and cheerleader members and other ancillary parts of the game. But big arenas filled with thousands of fans across the country were hosting postseason basketball games on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the MAC and Big West men’s basketball tournaments in Ohio and Southern California are slated to kick off on Wednesday with the general public barred from the event.

The leagues appear split on allowing families into the games. The MAC release said that “student-athlete family members” are allowed. The Big West, according to the Pasadena Star-News, isn’t allowing family members.

Either approach creates a thorny situation of either having to define family members for the athletes and coaches or simply shutting out everyone.

“You think about parents and siblings who’ve been chasing a dream of the NCAA tournament for 15 years, all those hours in the car and buses and trains and AAU trips just for the opportunity to play Division I,” Toole said. “Now to be relegated to the sideline when they want to be in those arenas and that environment? It would be unbelievable.”

One Power Five athletic director pointed out the uncomfortable decisions coming to schools. “How do you define families in this day and age?” the athletic director asked. The other notion will be whether all the schools are allowed the same size party for families and support staff. Everything will be scrutinized.

After watching Hofstra clinch a bid by winning the Colonial Athletic Conference tournament on Tuesday night, commissioner Joe D’Antonio summed up the mood.

“I don’t think any of us know what tomorrow holds right now,” D’Antonio said. “Certainly, I feel badly for the student athletes, coaches and administrators that work so hard, to think we could be facing some very unfortunate situations. It’s really sad. This should be a joyous and exciting time of year. This is not what we should be dealing with right now.”

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