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 vs. 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, as the novel coronavirus outbreak moved from a mostly overseas threat that was just beginning to reveal itself on American shores to an officially declared global pandemic that was spreading rapidly across this country.
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, played without fans out of the proverbial abundance of caution — to a full-blown crisis. In a dizzying, 24-hour span from Wednesday evening to Thursday evening, the NBA, the ATP Tour, Major League Soccer, the NHL, Major League Baseball, the WTA, the NCAA and the PGA Tour suspended, delayed or outright canceled the remainder of their seasons. On Friday morning, the Masters and Boston Marathon were postponed as well.
This was the week when sports ground to a halt, and it happened so quickly that the mind could barely keep straight the sequence of events. It was as if the vast, complex engine behind the collective enterprise began making a strange, barely audible noise — the sound of basketball sneakers squeaking on a gym floor in an empty arena — but before anyone could get it checked out, the entire, multibillion-dollar vehicle had thrown a rod and crashed into a ditch.
The delays and hiatuses range, at least for now, from two weeks to — in the case of the NCAA, which canceled all postseason tournaments and the remaining spring sports — forever. Nothing in the nation’s recent history, not even 9/11, had brought about such a long and thorough stoppage of play.
At some of America’s worst times, sports has been there to restore a sense of normalcy. That was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s argument for pushing baseball to play on during World War II and the NFL’s and MLB’s reason to return after short hiatuses in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
But this time is different because of the spread of an invisible virus. Covid-19 changed everything. Playing through this crisis would not have been a solution; it would have been a major part of the problem.
This is how the tumultuous, dispiriting week played out.
Friday, March 6
At 2:16 p.m., 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. The tip-off time was pushed back by about 75 minutes as WPI waited on approval from school administrators to take the court. Three WPI players, citing concerns over the virus, chose to sit out the game, which Yeshiva won, 102-78.
Official attendance: zero. But a live stream on Yeshiva’s website drew 31,000 viewers.
The delayed start meant the distinction of being the first U.S. sporting event held without fans because of coronavirus concerns went to a Division III first-round women’s game in Amherst, Mass., where Rowan beat the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, 72-68. Official attendance: 14. Perhaps they counted the janitors and scorekeepers.
“It was an empty arena, no energy. You had to pull it from yourself,” Rowan Coach Demetrius Poles told reporters. “Which is not bad and what you’re supposed to do anyways. But when you’re 35 minutes [into] the game and you’re tired and you’re beat up, and then you get a deflection or a steal or something, [when] that crowd gets into it or they shut up, you still feed off of that. We didn’t get anything. It was just whistles and sneakers.”
Elsewhere, the coronavirus was mostly a theoretical threat to sports, and most of the speculation centered on playing games without fans.
California’s Santa Clara County, where there were 24 confirmed cases as of March 6, issued an alert recommending postponing or canceling “mass gatherings and large community events.” The San Jose Sharks, who play in the county, announced their home game the next night against the Ottawa Senators would go on as scheduled — with 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. “I play for the fans; that’s what it’s all about,” James said in comments he would back away from the next day. “If I show up to the arena and there ain’t no fans there, I ain’t playing.”
With March Madness underway in the form of conference tournaments and with the NCAA men’s tournament set to start in 11 days, an NCAA announcement on the coronavirus said its advisory panel recommended stakeholders and athletes “practice risk mitigation at events,” but at that point it was “not recommending cancellation” of events.
In an interview with the Associated Press that day, Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, said contingency plans were being discussed that could result in games being played without fans.
“That,” he said, “probably is the ultimate scenario that we’re ready for.”
That day, there were 307 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States.
Saturday, March 7
At San Francisco’s Chase Center, 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. By entering the arena, you voluntarily assume all risks and agree that you will not hold GSW Arena LLC, the NBA or any of their respective affiliates or employees liable for any resulting illness or injury.”
Nonetheless, an announced crowd of 18,064, slightly above the team’s season average, jammed into the arena to watch the Warriors beat the 76ers, 118-114.
That morning, the Warriors had issued a statement saying star guard Stephen Curry would miss the game with an illness. Several hours later, after a flurry of speculation on social media, the team issued a second statement specifying Curry had the flu.
“I’m just like everybody else, just trying to learn about” the coronavirus, Warriors Coach Steve Kerr told reporters before the game. “It’s a concern, but we’re doing our job to come in and get ready for the game and play the game. The league will tell us what will be next.”
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.
At SAP Center in San Jose, the Sharks went ahead with their previously scheduled game against the Senators in defiance of the Santa Clara County memo recommending the postponement or cancellation of large gatherings or events. An announced crowd of 16,018 saw the Sharks fall, 2-1, in overtime.
That day, there were 437 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States.
Sunday, March 8
The BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif. — sometimes called tennis’s “fifth major” because of its huge crowds and purse — became the first major U.S. sporting event to be canceled because of the coronavirus after officials in Riverside County declared a public health emergency. Qualifying matches were set to begin Monday.
Players — many of whom, including Venus Williams and Rafael Nadal, already were on site — appeared to have been blindsided and more than a little peeved by the cancellation.
“The [players] didn’t get to weigh in at all,” Canadian Vasek Pospisil, the 93rd-ranked singles player in the world, told Tennis Channel. “We were just told very abruptly that the tournament was canceled. . . . It’s kind of a weird situation because you also understand the gravity of the coronavirus and you need to respect that. At the same time, I think it’s just a confusing time for everybody. Emotionally, it’s tough to really pinpoint how we’re feeling because it’s out of our control.”
By this point, more NHL teams were beginning to adopt the no-media-in-the-dressing-room policy, including the Washington Capitals, who practiced that day at the Harborcenter practice facility in Buffalo.
Media members waited in a small nook in a hallway outside the dressing room, and several players stopped to talk to reporters as they came off the ice. But other Capitals walked by with their gloved hands covering their mouth and nose, joking about not wanting to get infected. Some of the same players then went and signed autographs and gave away pucks to fans, in some cases standing inches away from them.
In Indianapolis, the championship game of the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament went off without a hitch, with the Maryland Terrapins meeting Ohio State. Everything seemed normal, although a video played before each tournament game instructing people to take precautions, such as avoiding handshakes, and bottles of Purell hand sanitizer lined press row.
After the Terrapins claimed the tournament title with an 82-65 win over the Buckeyes, Maryland players and staff hugged, shook hands and high-fived on the floor of Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
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 nonessential personnel. Players would be brought to designated interview rooms or areas to speak with media members, who were asked to remain six to eight feet from the athletes.
Still, it is remarkable now to see, just two days before the NBA halted its season and three days before the other leagues did, how normal life still was in the sports world. There had yet to be a wave of games played in empty arenas and stadiums, although talk of such a step was increasing.
The Washington Nationals sent an internal memo to players and staff via email stressing the need to avoid shaking hands whenever possible. Alternatives were offered: a fist bump or a touch of the elbows. But the safest way to greet a teammate or colleague, the email said, was a “slight bow.”
In Miami Beach, the Miami Heat held its annual gala at a grand theater, with the team’s three NBA championship trophies on display near the entrance. As guests entered, they were met by an attendant who offered them a squirt of hand sanitizer. Servers walked around offering glasses of champagne; others offered more hand sanitizer.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee announced it was canceling its media summit scheduled for the following week in Los Angeles. More than 100 Olympians and Olympic hopefuls had been scheduled to attend, including track standout Allyson Felix, swimmer Ryan Lochte and basketball stars Diana Taurasi and Elena Delle Donne.
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.”
At the Zions Bank Basketball Campus in Salt Lake City, where the Utah Jazz held a shoot-around ahead of its game that night against visiting Toronto, Rudy Gobert, Utah’s all-star center, was asked how players were handling the coronavirus outbreak.
“Just being aware of it,” he said while seated behind a table with microphones and recording devices arrayed in front of him. “There’s not much we can do right now. We’re not going to stop touching — stop saying hi to each other or stop giving each other high-fives. But just being aware of it. And try to have some hygiene — a little more hygiene, especially with the hands.”
Moments later, Gobert rose to leave, but before departing he reached down and with a grinning glance at the media touched each of the microphones and recorders on the table. Finally, he smiled and jogged out the door.
“Roses are red, Violets are blue,” Enes Kanter of the Boston Celtics tweeted at 7:08 p.m. “Wash your hands! WASH YOUR HANDS!”
That day, there were more than 600 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States.
Tuesday, March 10
Things began to change but still slowly. The Ivy League became the first NCAA conference to cancel its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, a decision it announced just before noon — to a mixture of bewilderment, frustration and vitriol, particularly from affected athletes and coaches.
In a scenario that would occur several more times in the coming days, some of those athletes were seniors who seemingly had their collegiate careers end with a tweet or a news release.
“I just think it’s an overreaction, from what we know now,” Steve Donahue, coach of the Penn men’s team, said of the cancellations. “. . . All the things they’ve worked for since they were 7, 8 years old — to get it torn away like this seems really unfair. No one knows how dangerous this virus is, but you could [play without fans] to make it low risk for the student-athletes. That’s what [officials] are going to do with all the other sports.”
Harvard point guard Bryce Aiken was even more direct: “Horrible, horrible, horrible decision and total disregard for the players and teams that have put their hearts into this season,” he tweeted minutes after the Ivy League’s announcement. “This is wrong on so many levels and the @IvyLeague should do its due diligence to find a better solution. Everyone knows the risks of playing!”
The Ivy League, at least, was listening to what the scientists and experts were telling them. Not everyone was doing the same.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R), citing the public health crisis, announced in the afternoon that he was recommending indoor athletic events be held without spectators, but within hours of DeWine’s statement, the Columbus Blue Jackets announced their home games Thursday and Saturday would go on as scheduled — with fans.
“Additional steps have been taken that include an expanded, detailed cleaning throughout all areas of the arena and an increase in the number of hand sanitizer dispensers available to all,” the team said in a statement.
The NCAA, which planned to hold the opening First Four games of its men’s basketball tournament in Dayton on March 17 and first- and second-round games in Cleveland on March 20 and 22, released its own statement, saying, “We are consulting with public health officials and … will make decisions in the coming days.”
Other conferences, including the Mid-American and Big West, announced they would hold their conference tournaments without fans.
MLB officials, with Opening Day looming March 26, insisted baseball had no plans to alter its schedule or play games in empty stadiums, but it began to urge teams — particularly those, such as the Seattle Mariners, in hard-hit areas — to begin making alternative arrangements.
One idea that gained traction was to keep the Mariners and other affected teams in Arizona, where they were stationed for spring training, and to play their first regular season games at their spring training sites, at Chase Field in Phoenix or at some other neutral site.
That day, there were more than 1,000 coronavirus cases in the United States.
Wednesday, March 11
This was the day America began to realize 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.
At first, it seemed the country could still be in store for a March calendar chock-full of games — played in empty arenas and stadiums but still played and still televised. It would be a curiosity, a novelty, perhaps an inconvenience to many. But at least there would be games.
DeWine changed his recommendation against large gatherings to an order, and the Blue Jackets announced they would play their remaining home games in March with no fans. A similar order in California prompted the Warriors to announce they would play upcoming home games, beginning with Thursday night’s matchup against Brooklyn, without fans.
But at least there would be games.
Then an exhibition game scheduled for March 24 between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics was canceled.
The San Jose Earthquakes of MLS became the first North American professional team to postpone a game, pushing back their scheduled March 21 match vs. 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 canceling all spring sports.
At 4:30 p.m. came a big development: The NCAA announced its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments would be played without fans. Within hours, the individual conferences were following suit with their tournaments.
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 vs. Northwestern and Nebraska vs. Indiana. During his team’s game, Nebraska Coach Fred Hoiberg looked visibly sick on the bench — alarming television viewers and onlookers, including the assistant coaches next to him sanitizing their hands — 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.
Hours earlier, the Big Ten 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. Most of those conferences had already begun their tournaments Wednesday in front of fans. When the Big 12 announced, during an Iowa State-Oklahoma State first-round game, that it was going fanless, the crowd responded with a chorus of boos.
But the games — at least some of them — were still on.
The NHL had five games played that night, with attendance totaling 84,690. 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. By the end of the night, with events moving swiftly, the NHL would say only that it would reevaluate in the morning to determine the path forward for the rest of its 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 with a vague announcement over the PA: “Due to unforeseen circumstances the game has been postponed. … Good night, fans.” New Orleans at Sacramento was also called off before tip-off.
Within an hour, the NBA announced it was suspending its season — with the chief impetus behind the swift action being an NBA player testing positive for the coronavirus. The identity of the player was not immediately announced, but soon it was revealed to have been Utah’s Gobert — the same player who had jokingly touched reporters’ microphones and recorders two days earlier in Salt Lake City. He would have been carrying the virus at the time.
That day, there were 1,311 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States.
Thursday, March 12
Across the Grapefruit League, baseball players reported to their camps unsure whether it would be the last time for a while. It would be. But for one last day, the rhythms of spring training provided some comfort in the familiar: the sunshine, the morning workout, the afternoon game.
Ten major league teams played in Florida, with total attendance of 29,523. In West Palm Beach, where the New York Yankees were visiting, the Nationals posted their first sellout of the spring, squeezing an announced crowd of 8,043 into Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.
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 11 a.m.
MLS suspended its season.
The PGA Tour said it would play the rest of the Players’ Championship that week in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., without fans.
A second Utah Jazz player, Donovan Mitchell, tested positive for the coronavirus.
Across college basketball, players were on the court preparing for conference tournament games — all of them in empty arenas. In Indianapolis, Michigan players took the floor with their arms raised and pointing at the empty stands, playfully exhorting the non-crowd to make some non-noise.
But then came the cascade of cancellations, beginning with the American at 11:42 a.m. A minute later, the Big Ten canceled its tournament, with players from Michigan and Rutgers quietly leaving the floor, then the SEC, the ACC and the Pac-12. In Nashville, the scoreboard clock counting down the time until tip-off stayed stuck on 38:07. The time remaining in the college basketball season was about to hit 0:00.
“You can ask, ‘Why was [the decision] not made sooner?’ It’s a fair question,” ACC Commissioner John Swofford said in Greensboro, N.C. “The answer is that it’s an extraordinarily fluid situation, with information coming to us that changes — I used to say by the week, then I said by the day, and now I say by the hour.”
Swofford awarded the conference championship trophy to regular season champion Florida State in an awkward ceremony in an almost completely empty arena.
In Waco, Tex., the defending national champion Baylor women’s team was on a plane on the tarmac, heading to the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, when Coach Kim Mulkey took a call. On the other end was Baylor Athletic Director Mack Rhoades. Both Big 12 tournaments were canceled. Mulkey and her players never got off the ground.
The Atlantic 10 tourney was called off as VCU players were in a pregame dunk line.
At a near-empty Madison Square Garden in New York, Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” played over the loudspeakers just before Creighton and St. John’s tipped off, its lyrics — “Welcome to the jungle / We’ve got fun and games / … If you got the money, honey / We got your disease” — providing a cringeworthy soundtrack.
At halftime, St. John’s led 38-35. There would be no second half. The game was halted, and the rest of the tournament was canceled.
By midafternoon, when the NHL and MLB announced their stoppages — with the former suspending its regular season and the latter scrapping the rest of spring training and pushing back Opening Day by at least two weeks — they felt like faits accomplis.
“It’s got to happen,” Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price told reporters as he walked into the clubhouse Thursday. “This is so much bigger than sports. I’ve got two kids.”
By late afternoon, the NCAA had gone ahead and canceled its remaining winter and spring championships as well.
And 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. Plenty of people were willing to tell those entities how crazy they were.
“I just don’t really see the upside to continue to play,” analyst Brandel Chamblee said on Golf Channel. “When you look at the scenario that’s unfolding here, why would they not consider the worst possible scenario? … If they leave here — a player or two, a caddie or two — and find out next week that they’ve been infected, you cannot help but consider the legal ramifications of that.”
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.
What could have made the day worse? How about Little League International, just before 8 p.m., recommending its affiliates worldwide “exercise an abundance of caution and implement a temporary suspension of all league activities until no earlier than April 6.”
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: canceled through April.
The Boston Marathon: postponed until September.
Nor will there be any solace found in early-morning European soccer matches; most leagues have shut down.
All that’s left — as presumably it still will be when Earth is a giant fireball hurtling through space — 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.
Candace Buckner, Chuck Culpepper, Jesse Dougherty, Emily Giambalvo, Ben Golliver, Samantha Pell and Ava Wallace contributed to this report. Photo editing by Mark Gail. Design by Clare Ramirez.