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NCAA Tournament will be played without fans in Spokane and elsewhere

The NCAA made the unprecedented move Wednesday of requiring all men’s and women’s basketball tournament games to be played in mostly empty arenas.

The reaction to growing concerns over the coronavirus outbreak is expected to have a huge economic impact on Spokane, which is set to host first- and second-round men’s games March 19-21.

Alisha Benson, CEO of Greater Spokane Incorporated, said visitors fly into Spokane from all over the country to attend the games, which will now be played without fans inside the Spokane Arena.

“It’s a big deal,” Benson said. “Hosting the NCAAs is significant. It definitely will impact our community and our region on many different levels.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert made the announcement Wednesday prior to bracket selections, scheduled for Sunday and Monday, that would have compelled thousands of fans to book airline flights to faraway venues to watch their favorite teams.

“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 in a statement.

Benson couldn’t put an estimate on the overall economic impact on the Spokane area, but said the NCAA decision will hurt.

“Activities like the NCAA Tournament fill our hotels throughout the entire region and county,” she said. “Our restaurants and stores, from a visitor’s standpoint, they are contributing to our economy in a lot of different ways.”

Eric Sawyer, CEO of the Spokane Sports Commission, said this is the sixth time the Spokane Arena has hosted men’s NCAA Tournament games. Past events have generated about 4,000 hotel stays and about $4 million in revenue for area businesses.

“It’s always a disappointment when we can’t allow fans into the building and experience what that excitement is,” Sawyer said. “Hey, we need to do what’s right for the health of the fans and the student-athletes. We know the NCAA doesn’t make a decision like this lightly. We have to be behind that, as disappointing as it is for the community.”

Matt Meyer, director of entertainment for the Public Facilities District, which manages the Spokane Arena, said he still was gathering information and could not say how many employees and vendors will be affected by the change. But he said the PFD was working with the NCAA and University of Idaho, which is the official host of the tournament games, to provide refunds for any tickets already purchased.

“We are still working with the NCAA to gather information so we can get it out to everybody,” Meyer said.

The No. 2 Gonzaga men, who beat Saint Mary’s 84-66 on Tuesday to win the West Coast Conference Tournament in Las Vegas, are projected to be a No. 1 seed and play in Spokane starting March 19.

The GU women, who are ranked 11th after winning the West Coast Conference regular-season title, are projected to be a No. 4 seed, meaning they could host a four-team pod at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

“This is devastating, obviously,” said Kate Hudson, spokeswoman for Visit Spokane. “I think public health is the most important thing at this point. But it’s disappointing and upsetting and we will take a huge financial hit in Spokane County in the month of March.”

The economic impact hits hotels, restaurants and vendors who would otherwise be supplying the needs for the capacity crowds inside Spokane Arena, Hudson said.

“This was going to be a big year for Spokane,” she said. “It’s going to be a trickle-down effect losing all these visitors. But I’m hoping we can pull through this and come out the other side.”

The NCAA’s decision came after a day in which National Institutes of Health official Anthony Fauci told a congressional hearing that large gatherings should be prohibited.

The NCAA last week formed an advisory panel of experts and epidemiologists, and Wednesday it recommended playing tournament games without spectators.

“This decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student-athletes,” Emmert said. “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 the NCAA wants to move the men’s Final Four on April 4 and 6 from Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium to a smaller arena in the area. The NCAA also will consider using smaller venues for second-week regional sites currently set to be played at the Toyota Center in Houston, Madison Square Garden in New York, Staples Center in Los Angeles and Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

“We have to determine the availability of the sites, obviously, but it doesn’t make good sense to have a football stadium be empty,” Emmert said.

The NCAA is scheduled to hold the men’s tournament’s First Four in Dayton, Ohio, on Tuesday. The first and second rounds of the women’s tournament will be hosted in 16 on-campus venues starting March 20.

Mark Starr, owner of David’s Pizza, located across the street from the Spokane Arena, said he has no clue what the NCAA decision will mean for his business, which relies on events like the recent State B high school basketball tournament.

“I’m absolutely disappointed. I’m also disappointed for the players,” Starr said. “This is the pinnacle of their careers. Now they have to play in front of an empty house.”

Despite fans not being allowed to attend, Starr said he intends to keep his staff ready to go.

“We are still planning on having a full house. I’m hoping for the best,” he said. “Look at what this means to Spokane in terms of tourism dollars. This is unprecedented.”

The Associated Press contributed to story.