CLEVELAND – The decision to close the Mid-American Conference’s men's and women's basketball tournaments to the general public wasn’t easy for commissioner Jon Steinbrecher.
On Tuesday, the MAC was the first conference to announce that it would not allow fans into the building for its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, as a means to minimize the spread of novel coronavirus. The decision came on the same day the Ohio Department of Health confirmed the first three cases of new coronavirus in Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located.
“At a baseline level, what it’s about, first and foremost, is the student-athletes,” Steinbrecher said. “I was and still am incredibly disappointed we had to make the decision we made to pretty much shut the doors and limit who could be in the building. But what mitigates that decision is the fact that we still are able to facilitate an opportunity for the student-athletes to compete. It starts with them.
“To be able to preserve that, that was really important. That’s kind of what’s bolstered my spirits, as we’ve worked through this.”
Again — here at the MAC Tournament, I’m getting a look at what postseason basketball looks like without crowds in the building. pic.twitter.com/s7W92al7BV
— Rachel Lenzi 💁🏻♀️ (@rachelmlenzi) March 11, 2020
The decision also came after Ohio governor Mike DeWine recommended Tuesday to ban spectators from indoor sporting events in the state, in order to minimize the spread of novel coronavirus. On Wednesday, DeWine announced that he planned to issue an order that will keep spectators from attending large-scale sporting events in Ohio, including the NCAA Tournament.
Less than 24 hours later, as the MAC’s women's quarterfinal games were played at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, the NCAA announced that only essential staff and limited family would be allowed to attend NCAA Tournament games. The drastic move came as a shock to some, but Steinbrecher looked at the health and safety of the tournament's participants when it came to making the decision.
In years past, health issues have been isolated solely to campuses and to regions across the country. In January, Miami (Ohio) had two students test negative for coronavirus, and the school postponed men’s and women’s basketball games in response to concerns about the illness. In a way, that became a blueprint for Steinbrecher and for the MAC on how to handle a situation that involves a growing public health issue.
“But this is so far beyond this,” Steinbrecher said. “I don’t know that you can plan specifically for this, but it’s crisis management. There’s basic principles, and most of them revolve around communication.”
Steinbrecher made the decision in consultation with conference athletic directors, public health officials and leadership on each campus.
"It was more or less being informed, this is the direction we're going to go in, with consulation from health officials, medical professionals and the governor of Ohio, who wanted to limit attendance," UB athletic director Mark Alnutt told the News. "For us, it was, 'what does that look like? the ticket allotment for each team, bringing the band and cheerleaders, if we're not going to have an arena filled with fans, it might not make sense to bring them to the facility.'
"Also, it was just following suit in terms of what's going on out there. Not just in the athletic world, but businesses, government, limiting contact, travel. For us, we want to provide the best and safest possible environment for our student-athletes and give them an opportunity to pursue their goals when it comes to athletics. It's one of those things, now, we have to go day-by day."
He said he was met with no resistance by officials from the MAC’s 12 member schools, who came to the decision to restrict access in the MAC Tournament on a conference call on Tuesday.
“But, at the end of the day, I’m responsible for this event,” Steinbrecher said. “And I’m responsive to their concerns.”