The grandest annual exhibition in college sports — the N.C.A.A. men’s and women’s basketball tournaments — will be played without spectators in the arenas as the United States grapples with the deadly spread of the coronavirus.
The move, announced Wednesday, is intended to allow the games to go on, largely satiating fans who plan to watch on television and upholding the network broadcast contracts that provide the lion’s share of the NCAA’s revenue, but in a dramatically different playing atmosphere that is certain to change the tenor of the tournaments.
“I have made the decision to conduct our upcoming championship events, including the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, with only essential staff and limited family attendance,” Mark Emmert, the N.C.A.A. president, said in a statement. “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.”
The N.C.A.A. privately reckoned with the virus’s implications for weeks before a decision that upended plans that were years in the making. The men’s tournament was expected to culminate in a packed Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on April 6, while the women’s competition was expected to draw thousands of spectators in New Orleans on April 5.
But as the number of cases of Covid-19, as the illness is known, surged in the United States and abroad, college sports executives faced increasing questions about whether the televised spectacle would go on, particularly with fans present.
Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio all but forced the issue on Wednesday afternoon, when he said that the state authorities would issue sweeping restrictions on indoor gatherings, like the N.C.A.A. games that were planned for next week in Dayton and Cleveland. His announcement came soon after the federal government’s top infectious diseases expert discouraged open athletic events.
Pressure had already been rising, though. On Tuesday, the Ivy League canceled its basketball tournaments, and the Big West and Mid-American Conferences both closed their tournaments to the public.
On Tuesday evening, in what seemed to be a softening of the N.C.A.A.’s stand that the national tournament games would be played as long planned, the association said it would “make decisions in the coming days.”
Soon, the association had little choice but to act, in part because its tournaments are, even in the most typical of years, logistical ordeals, and experts feared that the number of game sites invited public health risks in many parts of the country.
This season’s men’s tournament was scheduled to take place in 14 cities, including Atlanta, Indianapolis, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Omaha and Spokane, Wash. The women’s tournament, planned to run through cities like Dallas and Portland, Ore., was even more complicated because the venues for its first- and second-round games are not set until the top 16 seeds are selected.
The N.C.A.A., which assembled a group of medical experts to track the virus and had executives convening twice daily to grapple with the unfolding crisis, has been acutely aware of the implications of making any changes to the tournaments. Beyond the fans who fill arena, tens of millions of television viewers tune in thanks to broadcast deals that bring in hundreds of millions of dollars each year and are the backbone of the association’s finances.
College sports officials examined an array of options, including playing the games as usual but with plenty of hand sanitizer available; consolidating sites; holding competitions without fans present; and cancellation. Although executives viewed some of those options as unlikely, the cancellation choice was seen as the most improbable.
“From the get-go, it’s been clear that our priority — first second and third is safety, and what we’re using to guide our decision-making is science and good public health practices,” Vivek H. Murthy, a former U.S. surgeon general who is a member of the N.C.A.A.’s top governing body, said in an interview on March 7.
“It’s a judgment call at the end of the day,” Murthy said. “There is no tried and true protocol here for how to handle this kind of outbreak with Covid-19.”