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March Madness is back for 2021 — and so are the fans

Despite the pandemic, the NCAA will allow a limited number of spectators for both men’s and women’s tournaments.

The USC Trojans bench looks on during a NCAA basketball game against the Utah Utes at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles on January 2, 2021.
Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News/Getty Images

The National Collegiate Athletic Association announced Friday it would allow a limited number of fans to attend the the upcoming 2021 men’s and women’s Division I March Madness basketball tournaments in person, despite the risk posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the NCAA, fans will be present for every round of the men’s tournament, though only the later rounds of the women’s tournament — starting with the Sweet 16 — will have spectators.

The tournaments will both begin in March and run into early April, with the men’s tournament set to kick off on March 18 and the women’s on March 21.

Teams usually travel around the country during the tournaments, but this year each will take place across multiple venues in a single city, with the men set to play every game in Indianapolis, and the women playing in San Antonio.

Arenas will be at as much as 25 percent capacity for the men’s games and 17 percent for the women’s, with masks, social distancing, and testing requirements in place for all games.

In a statement released Friday, the NCAA said that the decision to allow fans was made “in conjunction with state and local health authorities” and that the “number one priority for decisions around the tournament continues to be the safety and well-being of everyone participating in the event.”

However, a number of public health experts have said the safest thing to do would be to have no spectators at all.

“At this point in the epidemic, we can no longer say we don’t know enough,” Ana Bento, a professor in Indiana University’s epidemiology and biostatistics department, told the New York Times on Friday. “We know what to avoid in order to minimize risk. This is something that carries a lot of risk.”

According to Bento, the tournaments could easily spiral into superspreader events, worsening a pandemic that has already killed more than 495,000 Americans and knocked a full year off the average life expectancy in the US.

Superspreader events are of particular concern as new coronavirus variants continue to infect people around the country and threaten a fourth wave of cases. Last Sunday, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky warned that a more infectious — and possibly more deadly — coronavirus variant first seen in the UK could become “the dominant strain by the end of March.”

“Now more than ever, with continued spread of variants that stand to threaten the progress we are making, we must recommit to doing our part to protect one another,” Walensky said at a press conference Friday. “Wear a well-fitting mask, social distance, avoid travel and crowds, practice good hand hygiene, and get vaccinated when the vaccine is available to you.”

In 2020, the NCAA canceled both tournaments outright in response to the first wave of Covid-19 cases in the US. Almost a full year later, the country has reported more than 28 million total cases — but a steady decline in daily case numbers since early January 2021, as well as an accelerating mass vaccination campaign, has made the limited return of fans to indoor sporting events look more feasible to many sports officials.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 60 million vaccine doses have been administered in the US. Both of the Covid-19 vaccines authorized by the Food and Drug Administration require two doses to be fully effective, and at least 17 million people have been fully vaccinated.

College basketball isn’t the only sport to bring back fans

Despite the pandemic, the NCAA isn’t alone in its move to allow a limited number of fans back to sporting events.

A handful of NBA teams are already letting spectators attend home games; New York’s teams will allow fans to fill 10 percent of their stadiums starting on February 23, according to the NBA. However, no NBA team has filled its arena to more than 25 percent capacity, and most teams haven’t even done that.

The NBA was among the first leagues to suspend its season in 2020 after a player tested positive for Covid-19 in early March, and later concluded the season in a “bubble” the league set up in Orlando, Florida.

The majority of NFL teams, meanwhile, allowed fans to attend at least some games in person during the league’s 2020 season, and about 22,000 people attended the Super Bowl earlier this month in Tampa, Florida.

A portion of that total — which represents about 30 percent of capacity at the Tampa Bay stadium, according to the New York Times — was vaccinated health care workers, but for about 14,500 other attendees, vaccination was not a requirement.

The NCAA also allowed fans during its 2020 football season, though that didn’t always go off without a hitch. In August, two major conferences — the Big Ten and Pac-12 — canceled their fall season before later reversing their decisions, and quite a few games ended up being canceled anyway after players tested positive for Covid-19.

Nonetheless, the college football season concluded with about 14,000 fans in attendance at the national title game in January.

As the New York Times points out, however, football has at least one major advantage over basketball when it comes to public health — unlike basketball, many football games are played in open-air stadiums, where Covid-19 transmission is far less of a risk.

Still, the NCAA is forging ahead with its plan. “This year’s tournament will be like no other,” NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said in Friday’s statement, “and while we know it won’t be the same for anyone, we are looking forward to providing a memorable experience for the student-athletes, coaches and fans at a once-in-a-lifetime tournament.”

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