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Coronavirus hits sports: March Madness canceled; NBA, MLS, NHL seasons suspended

Daniel Roberts

While the spread of coronavirus had already brought sweeping changes to the sports world in places like Italy and Japan, live sports events in the United States had mostly avoided making major adjustments—until this week.

Now the virus has upended the NBA, NHL, Major League Soccer, and NCAA March Madness.

NBA suspends its season

At a Warriors-Raptors game in San Francisco, March 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

On Wednesday evening, the NBA abruptly suspended its season indefinitely after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. In a statement, the league said, “The NBA is suspending game play following the conclusion of tonight’s schedule of games until further notice. The NBA will use this hiatus to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the coronavirus pandemic.” The NBA’s season was set to end April 14 with the playoffs set to begin on April 18.

The NHL, currently in season, was quick to issue a statement of its own saying that it is “aware of the NBA’s decision tonight to indefinitely suspend its season due to a player testing positive for the coronavirus. The NHL is continuing to consult with medical experts and is evaluating the options. We expect to have a further update tomorrow.”

Earlier on Wednesday, San Francisco Mayor London Breed placed a ban on all large public gatherings, which included Golden State Warriors games at the team’s new Chase Center. As a result, the Warriors were set to host the Brooklyn Nets in an empty Chase Center, with no fans. But then the league suspended the season.

MLS suspends its season

LA Galaxy forward Javier Hernandez heads the ball behind him during the second half of an MLS soccer match against the Vancouver Whitecaps in Carson, Calif., Saturday, March 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

Following the NBA’s lead, Major League Soccer on Thursday suspended its season for 30 days, effective immediately. (The NBA did not specify a timeframe in its suspension.) The MLS season was currently underway and normally runs until Nov. 8.

“Our clubs were united today in the decision to temporarily suspend our season,” said MLS Commissioner Don Gabrer said in a statement, “based on the advice and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), and other public health authorities, and in the best interest of our fans, players, officials and employees.”

NHL suspends its season

EDMONTON, AB - MARCH 11: Head Coach Dave Tippett of the Edmonton Oilers looks on from the bench during second period action against the Winnipeg Jets at Rogers Place on March 11, 2020 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images)

On Thursday afternoon, following the MLS announcement, the NHL also suspended its current season, using the word “pausing” in its official announcement.

The NHL specifically cited the news that an NBA player tested positive for the virus as an inciting factor.

“In light of ongoing developments resulting from the coronavirus,” the NHL said, the league “will pause the 2019-20 season beginning with tonight’s games. “Following last night’s news that an NBA player has tested positive for coronavirus – and given that our leagues share so many facilities and locker rooms and it now seems likely that some member of the NHL community would test positive at some point – it is no longer appropriate to try to continue to play games at this time... Our goal is to resume play as soon as it is appropriate and prudent, so that we will be able to complete the season and award the Stanley Cup. Until then, we thank NHL fans for your patience and hope you stay healthy.”

MLB suspends Spring Training, will delay start of season

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez reacts after giving up a two-run home run to New York Mets' J.D. Davis during the third inning of a spring training baseball game, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Port S. Lucie, Fla. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Major League Baseball is currently in Spring Training and on Thursday formally announced it will delay the start of its regular season by at least two weeks. The league also said it would “suspend” Spring Training.

ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that L.A. Dodgers pitcher David Price said on Thursday, amid earlier reports of delaying the season, “It’s gotta happen. This is so much bigger than sports. I've got two kids.”

March Madness tournament canceled

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 12: Denzel Mahoney #34 of the Creighton Bluejays battles Greg Williams Jr. #4 of the St. John's Red Storm for a loose ball in the first half during the quarterfinals of the Big East Basketball Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 12, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

On Thursday evening, the NCAA canceled the men’s and women’s March Madness basketball tournaments as well as all remaining winter and spring NCAA championships.

The NCAA said it based the decision on “the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to spread of the pandemic, and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities.”

It was a remarkable shift from the NCAA over just 48 hours.

On Tuesday, the organization had publicly reiterated that it had not yet decided to cancel any March Madness games or even hold them in closed arenas, but that “NCAA member schools and conferences make their own decisions regarding regular season and conference tournament play,” meaning that the individual conferences could go the closed-arena route for their conference tournaments, which are underway right now. That is what the MAC (Mid-American Conference) and Big West Conference did, announcing on Tuesday that the remainder of their conference tournament games would be closed to fans.

On Wednesday, NCAA president Mark Emmert announced that all games in both the men’s and women's March Madness basketball tournaments will be played in arenas closed to fans, with only “essential staff and limited family members” allowed to attend. “This decision is in the best interest of public health.” But on Wednesday afternoon, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine followed a number of other mayors and governors in calling for a ban on public gatherings in Ohio, and confirmed that this would apply to the “First Four,” the four play-in games on March 17 and March 18 in Dayton, Ohio, which will be played in empty arenas. Those four games are considered the official start of March Madness.

On Thursday afternoon, Duke University and the University of Kansas both removed themselves from the NCAA tournament, saying they would not play—that put pressure on the NCAA to cancel the tournament completely. And by Thursday evening, the NCAA canceled the tournament.

The fate of March Madness is notably different from the current status of the NBA, MLS, and NHL seasons: March Madness is canceled outright, while the other leagues, for now, still hope to pick back up their seasons.

Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance who closely covers sports business. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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