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Sports

How Cancellation Of March Madness Last Year Signaled The Beginning Of The COVID-19 Shutdown In Kansas City

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On March 12, 2020, the NCAA announced it was canceling its men's and women's basketball tournaments, a decision that set the course for other major events in the early days of what became a once-in-a-generation health care crisis.

When the NCAA Men's basketball tournament was canceled and the NBA suspended its season last March 12, it was clear to the entire country that the coronavirus had ushered in a dramatic shift in Americans' daily lives.

When the reality that the coronavirus was spreading around the nation, March Madness had begun. Tournament basketball was already underway in Kansas City. Bids to the NCAA Division II tournament were decided when the MIAA conference held its men’s and women’s title games downtown at Municipal Auditorium.

For a three-week stretch, Municipal was set to be one of the busiest basketball venues in the country. The Big 12 women’s tournament was returning for the first time since 2012, followed by the NAIA men’s national tournament.

But Kathy Nelson, president of the Kansas City Sports Commission, was already feeling sick. Literally. While battling the flu, Nelson remembers hearing news about the coronavirus spreading.

"I ended up in the emergency room because I was extremely sick, and to see everyone and the anxiousness," Nelson recalls. "It was, 'It’s here. We don’t know what’s coming yet.' Then to have the decision made, of course, to cancel the championships made it real."

The same night two Big 12 tournament men’s games opened at Sprint Center, an NBA game down I-35 in Oklahoma City was called off moments before it started. Two players on the visiting Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby says the news that made its way up the turnpike was impactful.

"That really hit our basketball players hard," Bowlsby says. "Once they saw the NBA canceling games, all of a sudden this became real to them. I remember that so vividly. Young kids, they’re handsome, intelligent and bullet-proof. They’re going about their business, and they’re not thinking about a virus that can kill somebody."

Then on March 12 last year, the dominos fell. The Big 12 and all the other major tournaments around the country called off their games. Bowlsby recalls meeting with the Big 12’s athletic directors, and there was no knowledge of social distancing.

He reflects, "Probably lucky we didn’t infect one another, but it was kind of surreal. I recall sitting at that press conference and it was a little bit of an out-of-body experience. You just don’t feel like that’s the sort of thing you’re going to get in front of the media and say, 'Yeah, we’re serious. We’re not playing.'”

Then came the bombshell: no Selection Sunday, no NCAA tournament and no Final Four. It felt like a punch in the gut for those who turn to live sports for entertainment. But by last summer, Bowlsby says he was told by government leaders to figure out a way for college sports to forge ahead within safe guidelines to create a semblance of normalcy.

"Our society relies on the things that are traditions for us," he explains. "Watching NFL football, watching college football, watching college basketball. Those things, when they’re not there, they unnerve the public."

And so, college football and basketball resumed and the Big 12 was able to recover some of the revenue generated from live television. But with limited or no fan attendance, colleges around the country are still feeling the financial loss from the pandemic.

Bowlsby adds, "We’ve, I think, been able to get ourselves to a good spot, but I think it’s going to be a matter of years before the institutions have fully recovered and before we will be certain that we’re back to business as usual relative to revenue distribution."

Besides social distancing and cleansing hands during the pandemic, Bowlsby says he learned something else that might be applied to conducting future business: less travel and more zoom calls. But for now, he’s looking forward to seeing fans in the stands again soon.

As Kansas City reflects on a year shaped by COVID-19, KCUR is looking back with decisionmakers whose leadership played a crucial role in the beginning of what we know now as a once-in-a-lifetime crisis.

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