The Western Athletic Conference announced the immediate suspension of all conference athletic activities until further notice due to concerns regarding the COVID-19, or novel coronavirus, outbreak, according to a news release from the conference’s offices Thursday afternoon.
The news comes on the heels of the WAC also electing to cancel both its men’s and women’s basketball conference tournaments slated for this weekend in Las Vegas and just before the NCAA announced that it was cancelling all spring and winter sports championships, including the NCAA Basketball Tournament or March Madness.
“I don’t think any of us anticipated being here 24 hours ago or 48 hours ago when we all got here,” Western Athletic Conference commissioner Jeff Hurd said at a news conference in Las Vegas. “Obviously what’s happened is unprecedented. It’s uncharted waters for everybody. How we got here today began last week, but really began last night and led to a decision we made today to cancel the remainder of the WAC men’s and women’s basketball tournament. In addition to that, our board of directors earlier this morning voted to suspend all spring conference sports and championships for an indefinite period of time pending further information.”
The WAC’s decision was made after a previously scheduled board of directors meeting early Thursday morning that included WAC officials and the university presidents and athletic directors of all nine of the conference’s member institutions. Herd stressed that the member institutions were “heavily involved” in the decision-making process.
“We’re in a situation today where none of us know the extent of the danger that’s out there. It’s not something you can see; we don’t know,” Herd said. “If we’re going to make a mistake, we’re going to make it on the side of caution and we may be accused of ultra-caution, but if that’s the case then so be it. I think we made the right decision, and I think we made the only decision that was available that made sense.”
The conference’s decision comes amid a flurry of similar decisions made Thursday by several other collegiate conferences and professional sports leagues.
Late Wednesday night, the NBA, NBA G League and WNBA all elected to postpone the remainder of their seasons after a player on the Utah Jazz tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. Thursday morning, all major college conferences including the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC made the same decision as the WAC to cancel their respective basketball conference championships.
The MLS and NHL were quick to follow suit Thursday as well, with MLB also deciding to push back opening day and cancel the remainder of spring training, per multiple reports.
Hurd said that as recently as late Wednesday evening the conference and its member institutions were considering alternative plans to play the tournament as scheduled without bands, cheerleaders or fans or postpone the tournament until a later date. Ultimately, however, he said it was an easy decision for the league to make because of the safety risk posed to student athletes.
“I don’t think anyone wanted to cancel the tournament. In a perfect world scenario, you want to play for a lot of reasons, particularly for the student athletes playing the game,” Herd said. “But for that reason, also, the decision to cancel really wasn’t a difficult decision. There really wasn’t another decision to make. We kept looking at the total picture and our efforts, discussion and decision this morning was based solely on what’s best for the student athletes involved, both short-term and long-term. That made the decision fairly easy.”
Herd was quick to shoot down a rumor that an unnamed WAC basketball player had contracted the coronavirus, instead noting that the unnamed player in question received a negative test for the virus. The player’s name was withheld due to both privacy and medical concerns.
“I think it’s more accurate to say that there was no indication at all for the individual involved that there was any coronavirus indication for that particular individual,” he said.
The decision came together quickly and was initially set in motion late Wednesday evening in the midst of quarterfinals play in the WAC women’s basketball tournament at Orleans Arena. The league moved quickly to cancel the final game of the evening, which was previously scheduled to be played Thursday morning before the conference’s decision to cancel the tournament outright.
“When we went into that meeting this morning, I didn’t know what would be the outcome,” Herd said. “I became aware, and actually a couple members of my staff became aware before I did, of a potential medical issue at some point during the third game that we needed to look into. I can’t give you a specific time because I don’t remember, but it was sometime during the first half of that third game. That led to the postponement of that fourth game at the time and that’s how it happened.”
The conference’s decision will have ripple effects throughout the league and its member institutions for the foreseeable future.
Cal State Bakersfield, which is scheduled to join the Big West Conference at the start of the 2020-21 academic year, will effectively have its WAC tenure conclude earlier than anticipated.
Furthermore, the WAC stands to lose hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars from the cancellation of its basketball tournament and postponement of any spring sports and championships. The income lost from ticket revenue and sponsorships will have a direct effect on the conference’s financial situation and will also likely diminish the payouts for each of its member institutions, funds that are used to fund athletic department operations.
“I couldn’t even begin to tell you,” said Herd, regarding the financial impact of the league’s decision. “That’s one of those things that will take some time. There’s a number of issues involved with that. It’s not just ticket refunds and ticket sales, it’s sponsorships and other things. We simply haven’t had the time and quite frankly, it wasn’t even a concern. We made the decision and it wasn’t something that factored into that, whether it was a huge loss of money, no loss or whatever. That wasn’t part of our consideration.”
Herd also noted that discussions between the conference and school administrators went beyond athletic competition to address the effects of COVID-19 on each respective institution’s campus as well as their plans for combating the further spread of the coronavirus.
“We were able to have good input from (our university presidents) and our ADs about this. As we talked about this, conversations even extended what’s going on on individual campuses and how are they handling their (situations) moving forward. Are they going to have on-campus classes? Are they going online? Are they shutting down? What are they doing? That factored into it also.”
WAC officials and university administrators plan to discuss additional steps on a weekly basis for the short-term future as more information becomes available.
“All conference sports — baseball, softball, golf, tennis and whatever the conference sponsors — are suspended at this time. There will be no conference competition or conference championships as of now,” Herd said. “Our board will have a conference call on Monday and a call each Monday for the next four weeks at least. We will adapt as the situation changes, if it does. We will certainly know more in a week than we will today. This is also tied into what’s going on at individual campuses and how that has to be handled. It’s just one of those situations where we don’t know everything that we need to know, so we are taking a cautious approach.”
The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic Wednesday after the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases had had surpassed 100,000 worldwide. The Center for Disease Control reported Thursday afternoon that the total number of COVID-19 cases in the United States had spread to 1,215 in 42 states plus the District of Columbia with 36 fatalities to date.