When the Final Four comes to Atlanta early next month, something will be missing: fans.
The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, including the men’s Final Four here, will be played with only “essential staff and limited family (in) attendance” because of coronavirus concerns, the NCAA announced Wednesday.
A disappointed Atlanta Basketball Host Committee, which had anticipated crowds of 80,000-plus for the Final Four games April 4-6, said it was informed of the NCAA’s decision “20 or 30 minutes” before the announcement.
“Now we’ve basically got to spend the next couple of days (sorting through) all the different considerations and issues … and probably regroup with the NCAA on Monday at the earliest to plow through the issues list so we can still plan for whatever this thing is going to look like,” Carl Adkins, the host committee’s executive director, said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Adkins said the Final Four will still be played in Atlanta, but the NCAA is looking into the possibility of moving it from Mercedes-Benz Stadium to a smaller venue. Adkins said it “would be pure speculation for me to say at this point” whether that will happen.
The decision to close the Final Four to the public will constitute a big loss for Atlanta, which had expected a substantial economic impact from the event.
NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a statement that his decision to exclude fans from the stands was based on consultation with public health officials and the NCAA’s COVID-19 advisory panel, as well as discussions with the NCAA Board of Governors. The decision also applies to other upcoming NCAA championship events beyond basketball.
“While I understand how disappointing this is for all fans of our sports, my decision is based on the current understanding of how COVID-19 is progressing in the United States,” Emmert said. “This decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student-athletes.
“We recognize the opportunity to compete in an NCAA national championship is an experience of a lifetime for the students and their families,” Emmert said. “Today, we will move forward and conduct championships consistent with the current information and will continue to monitor and make adjustments as needed.”
Asked if he agreed with the NCAA’s decision, Adkins said: “My opinion is really not relevant. I understand why they made the decision, and I respect the decision, and we have a job to do. So we are going to continue to do everything we can within our power to do what we are required to do and obligated to do by the bid.”
The NCAA said fans who bought tournament tickets from “an official NCAA Championship vendor” will receive refunds within 30 days, with no additional action required.
Kalem Gresham, a fan from Danville, Ky., was in attendance at the SEC men’s basketball tournament in Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday and had hoped to accompany the Kentucky Wildcats “all the way” to Atlanta if the Wildcats reach the Final Four.
"You don't know if it's panic or paranoia or legitimate concern," Gresham said of the NCAA’s decision. "I mean, I don't like it. I think you play the game for the fans. But you also have to respect if they feel like it's in the best interest of the individuals.
“It’s unprecedented ... what we’re seeing,” he added.
The Final Four and other games of the NCAA men’s tournament, which begins next week, will be televised by CBS Sports and Turner Sports, as originally planned. Play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz, who will call the Final Four on TBS, acknowledged Tuesday that it would be a challenge to broadcast a game without fans in the building.
“I can only try to imagine what it would be like as a broadcaster,” Nantz said. “The hardest thing to get your mind around in calling a game with so much at stake -- with no crowd, no excitement, in the stadium – (is) what would that feel like?
“When you’ve got an empty building, you’re going to hear a lot of squeaking sneakers; you’re going to hear the coaches calling out plays and defenses. That is going to come out loud and clear.
“Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that,” Nantz said Tuesday.
One day later, it came to that.
CBS and Turner issued a joint statement late Wednesday saying the networks “support the NCAA’s decision to proceed without fans at the tournament venues. We will continue with our plans to fully produce and cover the entire event.”
Adkins said the local host committee, which has worked for years to prepare for the Final Four, will remain committed to making the event the best it can be.
“You know what, at the end of the day, I still think we’re going to have a great Final Four here,” Adkins said. “It may look a little different than the previous ones.”
-- Staff writer Chip Towers contributed to this report.
Concerns about the coronavirus have resulted in the cancellation of many events and large gatherings. The AJC will monitor these announcements and keep you informed about any postponements, rescheduling and cancellations, but it’s best to check with venues or event organizers before making plans to attend.