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  1. Sports

Tampa Bay fans waited two years for the NCAA Tournament, and ‘now it’s gone’

The NCAA announced Wednesday that fans would not be permitted to attend the games this year.
The 2011 NCAA Basketball tournament began in Tampa, FL with Clemson taking on West Virginia. [HANDOUT | Times (2011)]

TAMPA — Dave LaMarre had everything planned out.

About a year and a half ago, the Lightning season-ticket holder asked to be put him on a suite waiting list for the NCAA Tournament basketball games March 19 and 21 at Amalie Arena. He was one of the first to do so, his ticket rep told him.

But now his mini-reunion which included 18 other people has been canceled by the NCAA.

In a shocking announcement on Wednesday, the NCAA decided its tournament would go on without fans in attendance, only permitting essential personnel and limited family for the games.

LaMarre, a 38-year-old Tampa resident, and his wife, Kristi, were looking forward to sharing the experience with their 11-year-old son, Jackson, who got his tickets as a Christmas gift. LaMarre’s brother, Brendan, was to fly in from Massachusetts, and some other friends who were coming in from out of town.

“I was just excited to have 18 of my friends in a box, watching basketball,” he said. “We’ve waited two years for this and now it’s gone.”

Related: NBA’s Warriors, NHL’s Blue Jackets to play without fans Thursday because of coronavirus fears

LaMarre said he understands the NCAA’s decision, but he’s still frustrated for the players and people behind the scenes that put a lot of work into hosting an event like such.

“Tampa does such a tremendous job with these events, especially Rob (Higgins) and The Tampa Bay Sports Commission,” LaMarre said.

“I feel for (them)...and now they’re going to have to wait how many more years before they can have one again? The people in the hospitality business, like waiters and waitresses. I knew people that couldn’t wait for this thing to come and now it’s gone. The hotel industry, too. And then I feel for the players because now they’re truly playing in an arena that will have less people than 90 percent of high school basketball games across our country.”

LaMarre, who has attended at least four other NCAA basketball tournaments in Florida, told his son the bad news Wednesday.

“It’s pretty hard to explain to an 11-year-old boy that you can watch the games, but you can’t go there,” he said. “I feel for my son because he was really looking forward to this.”

Steve Agosti was looking forward to attending the Tampa games with his son, Matthew, a 23-year-old University of Florida graduate. The two were hoping that there might be a chance to see the Gators play in Tampa if things worked out.

Related: Lightning and the NHL adjust to the new Coronavirus media policies

Agosti, a pathologist who has worked in the medical field for 35 years, said he was somewhat expecting an announcement like this but not necessarily while he was getting his oil changed and aimlessly scrolling through Twitter on Wednesday afternoon.

“(The tournament is) having family come in from all over the country, but not the fans,” the 60-year-old Tampa resident quipped. “I see the advantage to try to limit the spread...but it’s just annoying.”

He’s had his tickets since they were first released (he’s a Lightning season ticket holder and had pre-sale access). And he planned on sitting in the lower-bowl, estimating he’d spent $500-$600. Now, Agosti is worried about how this will affect future sporting events, especially his Lightning games, which he plans on attending with an upcoming three-game stint at home beginning Thursday night against the Flyers.

Related: Grad Prix of St. Petersburg still a go despite Coronavirus outbreak

John Rosick, was looking forward to crossing the tournament off of his bucket list. He moved to the area five years ago and has always tried to find a way to make it to the first and second rounds of the tournament. This year, he was finally getting that opportunity. He purchased his tickets in the fall after they went on sale for all four games on Thursday and planned on attending the tournament with his friend, Adam Covey, from back home in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Rosnick, a high school basketball referee, has many memories of previous March Madness tournaments. His first and favorite came at age 7, when he saw Danny Manning and the Kansas Jayhawks under coach Larry Brown defeat the Oklahoma Sooners in the 1988 final.

“I always loved those first two days in the NCAA Tournament where there’s basketball on from noon until midnight,” he said in a reminiscing tone. “I always figured out a way to take school or work off on that first Friday, especially.”

The 39-year-old found out the news via a text message from his mother, Dorthy, which he said came within 15 minutes of the news breaking. When the Ivy League canceled its conference tournament, he knew that wasn’t a good sign.

“I feel for the players. (Some have) worked for four years, all types of practices and the hours they dedicate to this, especially the smaller schools’ seniors where this could be their only moment and now they’re going to play in mostly empty (arenas),” Rosick said. “But I think the utmost importance is everyone’s health.”

Contact Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.

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