Coronavirus Outbreak Leads To Empty Sports Stadiums

Mar 10, 2020
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NOEL KING, HOST:

One of the best things about live sports is that they bring big groups of people together - close together. But as the coronavirus spreads, the appeal has become a potential problem. Sports organizations and leagues are trying to deal with the outbreak. And NPR's Tom Goldman has the story.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: So far, canceling sports events is the exception. In the most extreme case, Italy, hit hardest in Europe by COVID-19, suspended all sports starting today. The women's world hockey championships won't happen in Canada. One of the world's biggest tennis tournaments at Indian Wells, Calif. - that's been called off as well. For the events that do continue, there's been the sometimes strange reality of continuing in empty venues - from Japanese baseball to an upcoming Formula 1 race in Bahrain. Christen Press of the reigning World Cup champion U.S. women's national soccer team hasn't had to play in a fanless stadium yet. She was asked about the possibility after a game last week in Florida.

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CHRISTEN PRESS: As soon as you step on the field, everything disappears.

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GOLDMAN: Although, having 16,000-plus roar for your goal the way they did for Press in Florida reminds even the most laser-focused athlete that the fans are there, and they'd be missed. NBA superstar LeBron James made that clear when he was asked the same question about empty seats.

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LEBRON JAMES: We play games without the fans? No, it's impossible. I play for the fans. That's what it's all about. So if I show up to an arena and it ain't no fans in there, I ain't playing.

GOLDMAN: At this point, neither the NBA nor the other major pro sports leagues in the U.S. have kept fans out, although late last night, Santa Clara County in California banned all gatherings of more than a thousand people. The National Hockey League's San Jose Sharks play in that county. And the team says it'll adhere to the order. Also yesterday, the NHL, NBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer announced locker rooms and clubhouses will be open only to essential personnel.

College sports are considering a similar policy at a particularly challenging time. The coronavirus outbreak is growing as the NCAA's jewel events approach, the men's and women's Division 1 basketball tournaments known as March Madness. The tournaments, in their many locations around the country, are on. NCAA Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Hainline spoke to NPR last night.

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BRIAN HAINLINE: We listened to the CDC. And in fact, today, I was on a call with the CDC for one hour and discussed all of these issues in terms of holding sporting events in the public. And they just don't see that inflection point right now - that that would be changed.

GOLDMAN: Hainline works with Dr. Carlos del Rio and other members of an NCAA advisory panel. They communicate daily about the virus and sports events. Del Rio, a public health expert at Emory University, says with all aspects of COVID-19, including sports, people have to think about risk in a smart way.

CARLOS DEL RIO: There is more risk driving to a sporting event right now than there is of dying from coronavirus from going to a sport event.

GOLDMAN: That said, any large event in the middle of an outbreak could potentially be a point of transmission. And del Rio says sports fans are going to have to make their own decisions.

DEL RIO: If I'm 80 years old and have a chronic condition, I think I'm better off watching the tournament on television than going to a tournament because the risk-benefit ratio for me is very different than if I'm 30 years old and healthy.

GOLDMAN: The NCAA, teams and leagues say they are watching, talking and ready to react day to day, even hour to hour. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY'S "FROM WEST TEXAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.