College basketball’s March Madness became the highest-profile sporting event to forego fans during the coronavirus pandemic, joining some NBA and NHL teams that have decided to play in largely empty arenas in an effort to slow the disease’s spread.

NCAA President Mark Emmert said Wednesday only essential staff and limited family will be allowed to attend the tournaments, draining the signature school spirit from one of the biggest events on the sports calendar.

The NBA game between the Warriors and Nets in San Francisco on Thursday night will also be played without fans, as will upcoming NHL games scheduled for Columbus, Ohio, and San Jose, California.

The Columbus Blue Jackets are the first NHL team to say they’ll hold home games without fans in the stands.

The Blue Jackets announced their game Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins would be limited “to home and visiting club personnel, credentialed media and broadcast partners, essential club and arena staff and NHL officials. The games will be closed to the public.”

NBA owners met via teleconference Wednesday and discussed all teams temporarily playing without fans, according to a person with direct knowledge of the talks. More talks are scheduled for Thursday, the person told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because no details had been made public.


Conference tournament games for the Big Ten, Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conference will also be without fans starting Thursday. Boston College said all sports on campus would be played without fans; the Big3 basketball league said six weeks of its season would be moved to an “intimate, controlled Los Angeles venue.”

The entire NCAA Division I men’s hockey tournament, including the Northeast Regional in Worcester, Massachusetts, will be played in empty arenas, the NCAA ruled. The Times Union Center in Albany, New York, the PPL Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland, Colorado, are also hosting.

The Frozen Four is in Detroit.

No decision has been made about the Hockey East semifinals and final next weekend at TD Garden, but the list of impacted events is expected to grow.

The list is expected to grow.

Also Wednesday, the Mariners said they will move all of their home games in March out of Seattle, the U.S. city hardest-hit by the outbreak; the team and Major League Baseball have not decided whether the games will be played at the opponent’s ballpark or a neutral site.


And the Italian soccer club Juventus said defender Daniele Rugani has COVID-19 — the first player in the country’s top division to test positive. The team said Rugani and “those who have had contact with him” have been isolated.

The pinnacle of the college basketball season, the NCAA Tournament is a month-long festival of pep bands and face-painting and a cash cow that, along with football, helps fund non-revenue sports at schools throughout the country. The decision to play in fanless arenas will cost millions in ticket sales but preserve billions in TV rights fees.

The 68-team men’s tournament is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio, where Gov. Mike DeWine has announced plans to ban “mass gatherings” to combat the spread of COVID-19, which was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization on Wednesday.

“You dream of this situation where you’re playing for the highest stakes on the biggest stage, and it’s hard to imagine that if nobody is around to see it,” said Bill Self, the coach of the top-ranked Kansas Jayhawks. “But I told the guys: ‘Why did we all start loving this game and playing it? Did we do it because we need people to watch us, or did we do it because we loved it?’

“It will have a different feel but it will still be highly competitive, and the kids will still play like there’s no tomorrow,” he said. “They’ll make the most of it. We’ll make the most of it.”

Elsewhere, the Ivy League canceled all spring sports, as many American schools told students not to return from spring break and prepare for classes to be taught online. The conference had already canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

Other college basketball leagues went ahead with their postseason tournaments Wednesday with fans in attendance, although the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC announced there would be no fans starting Thursday. The group that owns the Washington Wizards and Capitals said their games will go on — with fans — despite a D.C. Department of Health recommendation that “non-essential mass gatherings” be postponed or canceled because of the coronavirus.

Also bucking the trend toward caution: The major auto racing circuits also said they plan to race as scheduled this weekend, including a season-opening IndyCar event that is the centerpiece of a three-day street festival expected to draw about 130,000 people to St. Petersburg, Florida. There will be additional hand-washing and sanitizing stations.

NASCAR will race at Atlanta Motor Speedway as scheduled. Reporters will observe a 6-foot buffer when interviewing drivers.

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