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WCC tournaments take place in front of fans without a hitch amid coronavirus fears

Gonzaga fans cheer as the  Bulldogs take on the Saint Mary’s Gaels in the West Coast Conference championship game March 10 at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
Gonzaga fans cheer as the Bulldogs take on the Saint Mary’s Gaels in the West Coast Conference championship game March 10 at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
(Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

West Coast Conference commissioner Gloria Nevarez crisscrossed a confetti-covered floor Tuesday night, congratulating players and fist-bumping parents after Gonzaga’s men’s basketball team captured the league’s tournament title at Orleans Arena.

For a few moments, the league’s third-year commissioner was able to relax. Her conference had completed its men’s and women’s tournaments without any serious coronavirus-related complications.

“We had our cancellation protocols in place, but we never received facts or information that there was COVID-19 in the building, on the teams, or that there was a threat here,” Nevarez said after all 18 games were held as scheduled in front of spectators.

“Had we heard that —”

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She stopped there, happy she no longer had to think of how much different the week could have been.

Like fellow athletic administrators in positions of power, Nevarez has been fixated on the coronavirus outbreak in recent weeks.

She closely followed declarations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which warned that some mass gatherings may need to be canceled. She worked the phones and fired off emails in the days leading to the start of the WCC Tournament last Thursday, reaching out to health officials in Las Vegas and coordinating contingency plans with her conference’s members. And during her time at the tournament, she checked her phone constantly, unsure of how urgent the situation might become.

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“We started from the place that safety of our student-athletes and coaches and fans was No. 1,” she said. “We didn’t want to go too quickly, but we definitely took it very seriously from the minute it was announced.

“There were quite a few calls in the beginning. I had a games committee ready — a smaller group of presidents, ADs, the [general manager of the arena] here, myself, some of my senior staff — ready to communicate. A formal memo went out, talking about how we’re addressing it, what our protocols are.”

Nevarez said this week’s planning was similar to other crisis-management scenarios. In her past job as a senior associate commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference, she had been on UCLA’s 2017 trip to China when three Bruins players were arrested for stealing. She said this week’s contingency plans weren’t too dissimilar to emergency measures taken in case of building failure or weather-related hazards.

“It was just another event prep,” Nevarez said. “And then just be diligent really. Constantly wiping and cleaning and keeping an eye out. If anyone showed symptoms, they were directed to alert us immediately.

“In this case, we had protocols if we had a [confirmed COVID-19] case in the building, either fan or participant: Quarantine. Exiting. Contacting authorities. And then we’d go into sanitation.”

One other benefit: The WCC held its tournament almost a week earlier than most other college basketball conferences. Hours before Tuesday’s final, for example, the Mid-American and Big West Conferences announced they would hold their tournaments without fans, and the Ivy League canceled its postseason event altogether.

“No doubt, we’re thankful our tournament is a week earlier,” Nevarez said. “But we have a lot of questions going forward.”

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For starters, Nevarez is not yet sure how the league will award its automatic NCAA Championship qualification spots in its six spring sports.

“How do we name a champion if some schools are deciding to travel and others may not, depending on what’s happening in their regions?” she said. “Do we need to have an event? Do we need to have an event in closed buildings just to figure out a winner? All these questions need to be asked.”

Also unclear is the fate of the three WCC men’s basketball teams and two women’s teams that are likely headed for an NCAA Tournament currently in flux and facing the potential of playing games in front of no fans or, if the outbreak worsens, playing no games at all.

A look at how sports leagues, including the NFL, MLB, MLS, NBA and NHL, are responding to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Now the ball is in the NCAA’s court,” Nevarez said. “The schools will be communicating with them. I’ll help as much as I can. But these are really now local decisions of the institutions based on what’s happening in their regions as well as the NCAA.”

Standing beneath a basket as Gonzaga players triumphantly walked off the floor behind her, coronavirus fears momentarily faded in the background, Nevarez was not yet at total ease.

Days from now, a fan who was in attendance this week (the men’s tournament alone had a combined attendance of more than 20,000) could be confirmed as having COVID-19 — a situation that happened at WCC member BYU’s home basketball arena last month. And if the epidemic gets worse, more extreme emergency measures could be put in place, potentially threatening far more than just one basketball tournament.

“Every day is about checking in and see what we’ve got going on,” Nevarez said. “I think there’s more to come.”


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