By Steve Keating
(Reuters) – One of the busiest periods on the North American sport calendar could be thrown into disarray with the coronavirus threatening to disrupt a host of major events from the Masters to March Madness.
March and April are traditionally exciting and hectic times for sports fans in the United States and Canada but as Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Opening Day and National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Hockey League (NHL) playoffs approach, the coronavirus outbreak is slowly casting a cloud over the fun.
Unlike some other countries, no sporting events have been canceled or postponed in North America but ESPN reported on Monday that the NHL is prepared to reschedule games or play them in empty arenas if the outbreak posed a significant health threat.
“We have to consider and plan for all contingencies – and we are,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told Reuters in an email.
The total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Washington state rose to 27 on Tuesday, including nine deaths, the state Department of Health reported, while the number of cases in the United States was at least 108.
The flu-like coronavirus that originated in China late last year has killed more than 3,000 people, infected over 86,500 globally and is forcing the cancellation or postponement of numerous sporting and other events.
MLB, NBA, NHL and other sporting organizations such as the PGA have all said they are closely monitoring the situation and taking guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO).
Many leagues and sports, however, have implemented short-term recommendations to limit the spread of the virus officially known as SARS-CoV-2, causing an illness called COVID-19.
The NBA told players in a memo on Monday they should fist-bump with fans instead of high-fiving them and avoid taking items to autograph.
“The coronavirus remains a situation with the potential to change rapidly,” the league told its 30 teams in the memo obtained by Reuters.
With Opening Day set for March 26, ESPN reported that MLB issued a similar memo on Tuesday telling players to avoid taking balls and pens from fans to sign.
MLB also said it had created a task force to deal with complications that could arise in the coming months.
The NCAA, U.S. college sports governing body, said on Tuesday that it had established an advisory panel of “leading medical, public health and epidemiology experts” in response to the outbreak”.
The announcement comes a little more than two weeks ahead of the NCAA basketball tournament, otherwise known as March Madness, a collegiate championship competition that draws huge interest from sponsors and fans alike.
While, for the moment, it is mostly business as usual, leagues and international sport associations are paying close attention to developments in the United States and Canada.
A jam-packed lineup of top-flight events also includes two of tennis’s biggest tournaments outside the majors – in Indian Wells (March 11-22) and Miami (March 25-April 5) – and the Boston Marathon on April 20.
A little further down the road are the Kentucky Derby (May 2), PGA Championships (May 14-17) and the Indianapolis 500 (May 24), which bills itself as the world’s biggest single-day sporting event attracting over 300,000 motor racing fans.
Canada will host a triple header of world championships in March with the figure skating championship in Montreal, the women’s curling in Prince George, B.C., and the women’s ice hockey in Halifax.
The International Ice Hockey Federation on Monday canceled six world championship tournaments due to the virus but said the March 31-April 10 women’s championship remains on the schedule.
The International Skating Union had earlier canceled the world short-track skating championships in Seoul but noted that all other events are going ahead as planned.
The International Curling Federation said the women’s world championships on March 14-22 would also proceed as scheduled.
“Currently, the World Health Organization does not recommend any travel or trade restrictions that would impact on our events,” the World Curling Federation said in a statement. “Therefore, at this time, all World Curling Federation events will go ahead, and qualified Member Associations will compete, as planned.”
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Additional reporting Amy Tennery, Frank Pingue and Rory Carroll; Editing by Christopher Cushing)