Editor’s note: This story was updated at 5:10 p.m. to reflect the news that March Madness games will be closed to the public.
The novel coronavirus has killed thousands of people around the world and sickened more than 100,000. To stop the spread, presidential candidates have canceled rallies and colleges have sent students home. But other large gatherings of people are still being held every day — and one of the most common reasons we have to all gather in one place is to watch sports. College basketball’s March Madness will proceed without most fans — a tactic also employed by European soccer leagues — and the men’s and women’s tennis tours called off the BNP Paribas Open set for this week in Southern California. But the biggest sports leagues in the United States haven’t put major security measures in place — yet.
To compare what the responses have been — and to help game out where they might be going as the virus continues to hit the sports world — we spoke with experts, players and league officials and gathered news reports on how each league is handling the crisis.
How risky it is to attend a sporting event?
Dr. Wan Yang, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University: “It’s a huge unknown. If there’s no local transmission when you go, then there’s no exposure. But the problem is we don’t know how many people have been infected in each location. If there were a case in this huge gathering, then lots of people would get exposed. We saw this in South Korea, where … infection at a church gathering infected hundreds. And Zika a few years ago has been hypothesized to be introduced during a soccer game to Brazil. So we’ve seen many, many cases of this superspreading due to huge gatherings. It’s a big concern. If there’s transmission locally, people getting together will lead to transmissions.”
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While the league hasn’t offered guidance yet on moving or postponing games, one team has been affected by a local ban on gatherings. The Seattle Mariners decided on Wednesday to play their March homes games elsewhere after Washington banned events involving large groups through at least the end of the month.
Derek Falvey, the Minnesota Twins’ chief of baseball operations, on coronavirus prep: “There have been conference calls with Major League Baseball. There has been continued education, mostly from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], some of the stuff you can find online, that they are providing to us and giving us guidance. Medical personnel are on those conference calls regularly. MLB is taking a pretty proactive role in making sure we are all educated about this. We did instruct our players more recently, with respect to fan interaction [and signing autographs] … to not take items from fans. That’s how things are transferred. Be really cautious about that and understand the less hand-to-hand interaction we can have — a little less shaking of hands and engaging at that level — is probably best for everybody in the short term while we can continue to deal with ways of handling it.”
On not allowing fans into games: “We haven’t had any of that discussion yet. I don’t think they are there yet.”
The league is considering moving games to cities that haven’t faced outbreaks, but it hasn’t directed teams to do that yet. But states and cities may take those decisions away from the league: The Golden State Warriors will have to play their games without fans for the “foreseeable future” after the city of San Francisco on Wednesday banned gatherings of more than 1,000 people. The NBA has also joined with the NHL, MLS and MLB to restrict media locker-room access as a means of limiting players’ exposure to the virus.
Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, on playing games without an in-person audience: “It would be like an open run or an open gym. We play for the fans. … Obviously if you’re at home, they’re cheering you on, but when you’re on the road, in that foxhole together, it’s even more — that me-against-the-world mentality.”
Will it change the emotion of the game if there are no fans present? “There’s so many parts of the game, if a team is making a run or whatever, where the crowd just adds something. Timeouts happen because the crowd gets loud. Instead, this would be like if you’re practicing in your backyard or something. That’s what it would feel like.”
On Wednesday afternoon, NCAA President Mark Emmert announced a decision to conduct the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, which start next week, with “only essential staff and limited family” in attendance. “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,” his statement said. “This decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student-athletes.”
Conference basketball tournaments are underway right now, and while a few individual conferences have called off their tournaments (the Ivy League) or have chosen to play without spectators (the Mid-American Conference and Big West), most have started as planned.
The league issued a joint statement with the NBA, MLB and MLS on Monday saying the leagues would temporarily limit locker room access to players and essential staff: “After consultation with infectious disease and public health experts, and given the issues that can be associated with close contact in pre- and post-game settings, all team locker rooms and clubhouses will be open only to players and essential employees of teams and team facilities until further notice. Media access will be maintained in designated locations outside of the locker room and clubhouse setting. … We will continue to closely monitor this situation and take any further steps necessary to maintain a safe and welcoming environment.”
Deputy NHL commissioner Bill Daly, on whether games would be canceled or played in empty arenas: “I think it’s very unlikely — knock on wood, I’m hopeful — that we would progress to a stage where we have to consider something that dramatic. But certainly everything is possible, and we have to look at all possible contingencies. If it gets to that point, we will be ready.”
An XFL game set for Sunday in Seattle will be played without spectators because of Washington’s ban on gatherings.
Jeffrey Pollack, XFL president and chief operating officer: “We are closely monitoring this evolving situation. … The health and safety of the entire XFL family is of the utmost importance. We have established a COVID-19 task force and are closely monitoring this public health issue. We are in regular contact with our Medical Advisory Board, as well as health and public safety officials on a national and local basis. Additionally, we have connected with other professional sports leagues to share information and best practices. Consideration of this input, a fact-based perspective, and our priority for safety will guide our decisions going forward.”
The league told The Athletic, “Our plans remain in place. The NFL continues to closely monitor coronavirus developments and has been in contact with the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the NFL-NFLPA’s medical experts at the Duke Infection Control Outreach Network (DICON). We will continue to monitor and share guidance as the situation warrants and as our experts recommend.”
The NFL has more leeway in planning than other sports that are currently in season, since the 2020 season doesn’t start until Sept. 10.
The Olympics are scheduled to start in Tokyo on July 24, and as of now they are still proceeding as planned. International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound told the Associated Press in February that a decision about potentially canceling the games would have to be made by the end of May, but IOC President Thomas Bach held a conference call days later to say that the Olympics will be held as scheduled. However, no spectators will be present for the ceremonial lighting of the Olympic flame in ancient Olympia on Thursday because of coronavirus concerns.
Will the Olympics eventually be canceled? It’s happened before. The 1916, 1940 and 1944 Summer Games and the 1940 and 1944 Winter Games were called off — all because of war. But some other large sporting events have been called off or moved out of concern about infection: The 2003 Women’s World Cup was moved from China to the United States because of a SARS outbreak, and the 1919 Stanley Cup Final was canceled because of a Spanish Flu pandemic.