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After days of discussions and deliberations, the NCAA made a stunning announcement Wednesday that reverberated through Tampa and across the nation.
Its famed basketball tournaments will open at Amalie Arena and elsewhere next week with only “essential personnel and limited family attendance” because of the coronavirus outbreak.
March Madness without fans.
“While I understand how disappointing this is for all fans of our sport, my decision is based on the current understanding of how COVID-19 is progressing in the United States,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement. “This decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student-athletes.”
And that decision means the scene in Tampa will be surreal next Thursday when the first round tips off. Instead of crazed fans, boisterous pep bands and packed arenas, the stands will be nearly empty for one of the nation’s biggest sporting events. It’s a blow to Tampa tourism, depriving the area of thousands of out-of-town attendees.
But the NCAA and its COVID-19 advisory panel decided the move was necessary to try to slow down the outbreak.
Although the decision itself was unprecedented for an event of this magnitude, college athletics had been moving in this direction. On Tuesday, the Ivy League canceled its conference tournament. The Mid-American Conference tournament began in Cleveland, Ohio, without spectators.
Then on Wednesday, the director for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told Congress that large crowds should be limited, even if it means playing NBA games without fans in attendance. Later in the day, the NCAA’s advisory panel recommended “against sporting events open to the public” to protect players, employees and fans. Conference tournaments, including the American Athletic Conference and Big 12, will start limiting fan access Thursday.
By late afternoon, it became clear that the Tampa site would look very different than it did the last time it hosted, in 2011. What has not changed is the TV coverage; tournament broadcasters CBS Sports and Turner Sports said that they support the NCAA’s decision and they’ll continue with their plans to “fully produce and cover the entire event.”
Some things remain unclear about the tournament, which begins with First Four games in Dayton, Ohio, on Tuesday and will end with the Final Four in Atlanta next month. The NCAA has not yet specified the “essential personnel” who will be allowed to attend the event.
“We understand the NCAA’s decision,” Amalie Arena spokesman Bill Wickett said, “and will be working with our partners at the NCAA on next steps moving forward, including the process for ticket refunds. We will share all pertinent information when we have it.”
For tickets purchased through an official NCAA vendor, refunds will be automatically delivered within 30 days back to the credit card used for purchase, except for applicable fees.
“We fully respect and understand the decision made by our partners at the NCAA,” the Tampa Bay Sports Commission said in a statement released Wednesday night.
“We will move forward with the goal of conducting the best tournament possible for the student-athletes competing in our community. We will be working with the NCAA on all of the next steps, including the ticket refund process.”
Reaction from fans who already had tickets ranged from understanding and disappointment to frustration.
“They should let us fans make our own call if we want to attend the games at our own risk,” said Alex Sommers, an assistant boys basketball coach at Sarasota High who was planning to attend the event with seven of his friends. “March Madness without fans is not the same.”
Brian Marx, a 33-year-old Tampa resident was bummed, too. He’s a Florida State University alumnus who was looking forward to the high likelihood of watching his Seminoles start their tournament run in person. But he said he accepts the NCAA’s choice.
“I think with every passing hour, it became more and more real…” said Marx, who had a pair of tickets to the first two sessions. “It’s probably in our best interest that the decision gets made for us. Until anything affects anybody individually, we’re not taking it that seriously.”
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