N.C.A.A. Weighs Using Fewer March Madness Venues Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

ATLANTA — Faced with the United States’ surging coronavirus caseload and mounting public fears, college sports executives have discussed in recent days whether to reduce the number of venues at which games are played during the N.C.A.A. men’s and women’s basketball tournaments that begin in less than two weeks.

A narrowed list of playing sites is one option N.C.A.A. executives are studying as the association prepares for the tournaments, which are among the marquee events in American sports and are scheduled in dozens of cities in the coming weeks. Executives and medical experts are also considering other possibilities, including holding games without spectators and proceeding normally but with enhanced efforts to promote public health, such as hand sanitizer stations.

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“We’re playing out every possible scenario, ranging from ‘OK, we’re full-go’ to modified-go to ‘Are we playing a game and we’re certain that everyone in the arena is clean and there won’t be any public?’” Brian Hainline, the N.C.A.A.’s chief medical officer, said on Saturday.

He said it was “hard to imagine” the tournaments being canceled.

As recently as Friday, Hainline said, officials talked about whether they could lower the number of tournament sites during what is known as March Madness. The men’s tournament is expected to be played in 14 cities, including Atlanta, the site of the national championship game that is scheduled for April 6. The women’s tournament, slated to conclude in New Orleans, is planned for even more cities.

A consolidation of sites, Hainline said, would pose formidable logistical challenges and be “a difficult option to carry out.” Sports officials, some of whom are convening twice a day to discuss the coronavirus, have not reached any decisions, and a medical panel that is advising N.C.A.A. leaders has not yet recommended any changes to the formats of the tournaments.

“We’re preparing for a storm, but we don’t know what that storm is going to look like in a week or two weeks or three weeks,” Hainline said.

But with the tournaments nearing and a rising number of cases of Covid-19, as the illness is known, the association is likely to face greater pressure in the coming days. N.C.A.A. officials have so far been unmoved by the cancellations of other major events, including a music festival in Miami and the South by Southwest event in Austin, Texas.

Late last month, though, the National College Players Association called on the N.C.A.A. to consider closing tournament games to the public or restricting interactions between players and others. More recently, Johns Hopkins, a Division III tournament host, decided it was “prudent” to hold three games across Friday and Saturday without spectators. Stanford and Washington have canceled in-person classes.

“I wish I could tell you that there was specific protocol that said if we have X number of cases, then this is what we should do — if it spreads this rapidly in a community, then this is the step to take,” said Vivek H. Murthy, a former U.S. Surgeon General who is a member of the panel advising N.C.A.A. officials. “But the challenge that we’re faced with is that we’re still learning each day more and more about Covid-19.”

Murthy, who is also a member of the N.C.A.A.’s highest governing body, said that “everything should be on the table in terms of options since safety is our primary goal.”

The Wall Street Journal first reported that the N.C.A.A. might order tournament games to be played behind closed doors. Hainline told the newspaper that was a “very unlikely” outcome.

Conference tournaments have already begun, and more are scheduled for the coming week. N.C.A.A. officials are expected to scrutinize those competitions for possible lessons to apply during the national tournaments.

The men’s tournament is scheduled to begin in Dayton, Ohio, on March 17 before expanding over several weeks to sites nationwide, including at least nine states with confirmed coronavirus cases. The first round of the women’s tournament is scheduled to start on March 20, with the initial games taking place at the top 16 seeds.

Tournament brackets will not be announced until March 15 and 16, and N.C.A.A. officials said they believe they had at least a few more days to assess the crisis and its possible impact on the games.

“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.”