The NCAA took the unprecedented step Wednesday of closing the doors of its March Madness basketball tournaments and other championship events to most spectators in response to the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
The move, announced by NCAA President Mark Emmert, was one of a number of dramatic actions made around sports. Wednesday night, the NBA announced it was suspending its season after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for COVID-19.
The Big Ten Conference joined the NCAA in mostly shutting its arena doors to fans, a move that will be felt by the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team when it opens conference tournament play on Friday in Indianapolis.
The first UW team affected in Madison will be women's hockey, which will host Clarkson in an NCAA quarterfinal game Saturday in front of a limited audience at LaBahn Arena.
As with all NCAA events under the announcement made Wednesday, only essential staff and a limited amount of player family members will be allowed to watch in person.
For the women's hockey game, players and coaches will be given four tickets each, according to UW.
"The most important thing is the first step — we get to play," Badgers coach Mark Johnson said. "It would have been devastating if all of a sudden they said you can't play. Then it's hard because everybody works for a long time to get in this position. And then to have it pulled away from you, that would be really devastating."
UW said guidance from public health officials and medical professionals to limit large gatherings informed its decision on attendance.
"The safety and well-being of our student-athletes, staff members and attendees of our athletic events remains our highest priority," UW athletic director Barry Alvarez said in a statement. "After consulting with campus and local health officials, the decision was made to play Saturday's game, but with a substantially reduced crowd size."
UW-Madison on Wednesday announced it was suspending in-person instruction from March 23 until at least April 10. The school's spring break week starts Monday.
UW officials didn't have information about the fate of other events scheduled for its athletic buildings in coming weeks and team travel for track and field, tennis and rowing events this weekend. A source said the women's tennis team was informed its trip to California for a Friday match against California-Santa Barbara was called off.
The Kohl Center is scheduled to host the WIAA state boys basketball tournament March 19-21 at the Kohl Center. The WIAA said Wednesday that this week's girls basketball state tournament in Ashwaubenon and boys basketball sectionals around the state will go on as planned. The high school association didn't address the boys state tournament; UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said the school is in conversation with the WIAA.
The boys basketball state tournament has an estimated $6 million direct spending impact to the area annually, according to the Madison Area Sports Commission.
In his radio show on WIBA-AM Tuesday night, Alvarez said the school has "some very difficult decisions" ahead in its response to the COVID-19 coronavirus.
'A unique experience'
The Big Ten Conference men's basketball tournament, in which the Badgers will play Friday morning, will close its doors to most fans starting Thursday.
The same policy will be in place for Big Ten championship events for the rest of the academic year.
Playing in front of a limited number of fans will be "a new experience, a unique experience," Badgers guard Brad Davison said.
"It is kind of out of our control," he said about the potential for closed-door events before Wednesday's announcements. "I don't think any of us want that. These are Big Ten tournaments and March Madness, NCAA tournament. This is what you prepare for, this is what you work toward all summer, all fall, all winter. All through high school, this is kind of what you're looking for.
"We want to have that experience, obviously, but some things are bigger than us and out of our control. So, adapt and overcome."
Badgers men's basketball coach Greg Gard has asked his team, which finished the regular season on an eight-game winning streak to claim a share of the Big Ten title, to keep its mind on the court.
"Focus on the things that we can control, and that's been really the mantra through this stretch we've been on," Gard said. "Knowing that so many things had to happen, and don't get consumed with what lies ahead on our schedule as we entered into February, let's just take it one day at a time and make the most of that day."
Other measures in pro and college sports announced Wednesday were more drastic than the NCAA and Big Ten spectator limitations.
Wednesday's NBA game between Utah and Oklahoma City was canceled, then the league announced that the season was suspended because of a positive COVID-19 test by a Jazz player, reported by The Athletic to be Rudy Gobert.
The Ivy League, which on Tuesday canceled its men's and women's college basketball tournaments, washed out its spring sports seasons and left it up to individual schools on whether winter sports teams will be able to finish postseason play.
Harvard and Yale decided to back out of their ECAC Hockey men's quarterfinal series and end their seasons.
Locally, Madison College canceled all athletic travel, keeping its baseball and softball teams from making spring trips to Arizona and Florida, respectively.
A travel ban for athletics at UW-La Crosse, meanwhile, was lifted to allow athletes to attend NCAA meets.
Sports teams globally have enacted measures to try to limit the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, which has infected more than 1,000 people in the U.S. and killed more than 30. Four U.S. pro sports leagues implemented restrictions on reporters entering locker rooms.
'We're talking about lives'
Six people in Wisconsin, two of them in Dane County, have tested positive for COVID-19.
"When you're talking about lives and this virus and what potentially could happen, you have to think about the welfare of people and what you have to do," Alvarez said on his radio show. "If you have to sacrifice something, you have to sacrifice it. It's more about you playing a game — there's more than that. It's more than winning a championship and who's the Big Ten champ. Now we're talking about lives and potential loss of lives. So we have to be sensitive of all that. But do it in a sensible way — be educated and make smart decisions."
A sellout crowd of more than 2,400 people was expected for the 2 p.m. Saturday Badgers women's hockey game. Fans who purchased tickets will have their payment refunded.
The game will be broadcast on a stream through the NCAA's website.
Women's hockey senior captain Mekenzie Steffen, who'll play her last game at LaBahn Arena under unusual circumstances, said she has already worked with teammates to ensure all of the team's ticket allotment will be used.
"At first, I think we were all kind of scared that no one was going to be able to watch," she said. "I know our fans were fired up to come, are families are fired up to come. ... We're glad that our families are going to be able to at least come in the building and watch us."
Governors in some U.S. states have prohibited large public gatherings, affecting sporting events. In Washington, a ban on events with more than 250 people in the Seattle area has made Major League Baseball's Seattle Mariners start looking for alternate plans for home games early in the season.
California's Santa Clara County shut down events with 1,000 or more people, impacting hockey games in San Jose.
There has been no public health emergency declared in Wisconsin, but Public Health Madison and Dane County's recommendations are for event organizers to avoid bringing large groups of people together.
"This is serious business," Alvarez said on his radio show. "We take our athletics and sports serious. But this is life and death now. This is real serious. We've got to do what we have to do. Just be aware of things, have our antennas up and do what's right."
State Journal reporter Jim Polzin contributed to this story.
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