Washington DC: On the afternoon of March 6, a person arriving at Goldfarb Gymnasium on the campus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for the first-round game in the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament — pitting Yeshiva University against Worcester Polytechnic Institute — would have been greeted by a curious sign: a blue NCAA logo with two words below in red letters: “No spectators.”
By the evening of March 13, a mere week later, that same sign could have been slapped, metaphorically speaking, across almost the entirety of the nation’s sports landscape. There are no spectators — or television viewers or athletes for that matter — because, at week’s end, there were no sports.
It all happened so fast. Within the world of sports from March 6 to March 13, the effects of the coronavirus similarly moved from an ominous but isolated curiosity — a pair of obscure Division III tournament games — to a full-blown crisis. This was the week when sports ground to a halt. This is how the tumultuous, dispiriting week played out.
Friday, March 6
At 2.16pm, a recorded version of the national anthem played across Goldfarb Gymnasium with almost all 1,100 seats empty. The decision to play the game without fans was made the night before by Johns Hopkins, the host school, owing largely to the fact that a Yeshiva student earlier had tested positive for the coronavirus. Official attendance: zero. But a live-stream on Yeshiva’s website drew 31,000 viewers.
Elsewhere, the coronavirus was mostly a theoretical threat to sports, and most of the speculation centred on playing games without fans. In Los Angeles, Lakers superstar LeBron James was asked about the possibility of playing games without fans — something an NBA league memo instructed all teams to prepare for. “If I show up to the arena and there ain’t no fans there, I ain’t playing.”
That day, there were 307 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States.
Saturday, March 7
At San Francisco’s Chase Centre, where the Golden State Warriors were hosting the Philadelphia 76ers that night, a sign greeted fans with a warning: “Attending tonight’s game could increase your risk of contracting coronavirus.” Nonetheless, an announced crowd of 18,064.
Some NHL teams began closing their dressing rooms to the media and bringing players to designated interview areas instead. “Wash your hands. Be safe,” Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings told reporters after recording a hat-trick in a 7-3 win over Minnesota.
That day, there were 437 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States.
Sunday, March 8
The BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California — sometimes called tennis’s “fifth major” — became the first major US sporting event to be cancelled because of the coronavirus. Players — many of whom already were on site — appeared to have been blindsided and more than a little peeved by the cancellation.
By this point, more NHL teams were beginning to adopt the no-media-in-the-dressing-room policy. In Indianapolis, the championship game of the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament played before each game instructing people to take precautions, such as avoiding handshakes, and bottles of Purell hand sanitiser lined press row.
That day, there were 550 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States.
Monday, March 9
As the coronavirus continued to spread, the NHL, the NBA, MLB and MLS issued a joint statement saying they would close their locker rooms to media and all non-essential personnel. The Washington Nationals sent an internal memo to players and staff via email stressing the need to avoid shaking hands whenever possible.
The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee announced it was cancelling its media summit scheduled for the following week in Los Angeles. More than 100 Olympians and Olympic hopefuls had been scheduled to attend.
Bringing so many athletes and media members into one room, the USOPC said in a statement, “with 136 days to the opening of the Olympic Games, and 168 to the opening of the Paralympic Games, that simply isn’t a risk worth taking.”
That day, there were more than 600 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States.
Tuesday, March 10
Things began to change. The Ivy League became the first NCAA conference to cancel its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. Other conferences, including the Mid-American and Big West, announced they would hold their conference tournaments without fans.
MLB officials, with opening day looming on March 26, insisted baseball had no plans to alter its schedule or play games in empty stadiums.
That day, there were more than 1,000 coronavirus cases in the United States.
Wednesday, March 11
This was the day America began to realise the full extent of its crisis, a day that began with fleeting hope the games could go on — in some form or fashion — but ended with little doubt that hope had been extinguished.
- An exhibition game scheduled for March 24 between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics was cancelled.
- The San Jose Earthquakes of MLS became the first North American professional team to postpone a game, pushing back their scheduled March 21 match v Sporting Kansas City.
- The Mariners said they would be moving their opening day and opening homestand from T-Mobile Park.
- The Ivy League, again ahead of the rest of the country, announced it was cancelling all spring sports.
- At 4.30pm came a big development: The NCAA announced its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments would be played without fans.
Things were beginning to change by the hour, if not the minute.
The first two games of the Big Ten men’s tournament were played in front of fans: Minnesota v Northwestern and Nebraska v Indiana. During his team’s game, Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg looked visibly sick on the bench and eventually left the floor during the second half. Nebraska’s players were briefly quarantined in the locker room after the game, and Hoiberg was transported to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with influenza A.
The Big Ten later announced that all remaining tournament games would be played without fans, and it was joined by the Big 12, Big East, Pac-12, SEC, ACC, Atlantic 10 and American Athletic. But the games were still on.
The NHL had five games played that night. Martin Frk’s game-winner for the Los Angeles Kings, lifting them to a 3-2 victory over Ottawa, stands at this moment as the final goal of the 2019-20 season.
The NBA also had a slate of six games that night, four of which tipped off. A fifth, in Oklahoma City, was minutes away from tipping off when the players from the Thunder and Jazz were pulled off the court and fans were sent away.
That day, there were 1,311 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States.
Thursday, March 12
Baseball players reported to their camps unsure whether it would be the last time for a while. It would be.
Nothing would feel normal again. The blows started landing early and never really stopped, an extraordinary couple of hours when the sports calendar collapsed on itself.
- The ATP Tour suspended tournaments for at least six weeks just before 11am.
- MLS suspended its season.
- The PGA Tour said it would play the rest of the Players’ Championship that week in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, without fans.
- College basketball cancels all tournaments
- The NHL and MLB announced their stoppages
- The NCAA cancelled its remaining winter and spring championships.
By the end of the night, just about all that was left was the PGA Tour — which was determined to stage the rest of the Players’ Championship, albeit without fans — and NASCAR, which was planning to hold its race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, also without spectators.
The PGA Tour changed course by the end of the night, saying it would cancel the rest of the Players, as well as the next three events on its calendar — taking its blackout right up to the doorstep of the Masters, which, at that moment, was still scheduled for April 9-12 at Augusta National Golf Club.
That day, there were more than 1,600 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States.
Friday, March 13
By Friday, America’s sports-watching public was subsisting on a thin gruel of hope in the form of auto racing and potentially the Masters in a few weeks, with an additional, occasional diversion sprinkled in. But by the end of the day, that, too, was yanked away.
- The Masters: postponed indefinitely.
- NASCAR: shut down for at least the next two weekends.
- IndyCar: cancelled through April.
- The Boston Marathon: postponed until September.
Nor will there be any solace found in early-morning European football matches; most leagues have shut down.
All that’s left is the UFC. The next domestic event, March 28, will be moved out of Columbus, Ohio, where the governor’s order precludes fans, to a UFC-owned arena in Las Vegas. Whatever happens there, you can only hope, will stay there.
That day, there were more than 1,700 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States.