NBA, NHL owners opposed to games with no fans if coronavirus spreads

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Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta told CNBC on Friday the idea of playing games without fans in attendance is “never gonna work,” as fears of the coronavirus outbreak continues to plague markets worldwide.

“I don’t think you ever want to play games in front of no audiences,” Fertitta said, adding he would instead prefer to suspend play for a week. “But you don’t want to play games with no fans.”

Appearing on CNBC’s “Power Lunch,” Fertitta commented on the coronavirus, urging fans to remain calm and not panic. Fertitta approved of attendance at Thursday’s night’s Rockets contest against the Los Angeles Clippers, which the National Basketball Association reported as a sellout at 18,055 tickets sold.

He added the game was a “lower no-show” for fans than usual “which I like to see because we’re not panicking, and we shouldn’t,” Fertitta said.

Several sporting events have been canceled or altered due to the coronavirus outbreak. The NBA delayed the start of the Basketball Africa League, which was scheduled to begin next week.

And though the NCAA announced its Division III men’s tournament at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore will be played without spectators, the organization’s coronavirus advisory panel said it doesn’t recommend “cancellation or public spacing of athletic and related events scheduled to occur in public spaces across the United States.”

Hence, as of now, the annual NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament will be played as scheduled. 

“We’ve got to go on about our lives,” Fertitta said when discussing the coronavirus.

Austin Rivers #25 of the Houston Rockets shoots the ball against the LA Clippers on March 5, 2020 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas.

Bill Baptist | NBAE | Getty Images

Fertitta’s opposition to playing games with no fans is shared by a counterpart in the NHL, Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola. 

Viola, who is also the founder of Virtu Financial, told CNBC on Friday he was opposed to playing NHL games in empty arenas. He suggested such a move could have a sustained impact on the way fans interact with professional sports. 

“It probably beckons at worst a delay on our way to complete the schedule eventually. No, I don’t want to play games in front of an empty arena,” Viola said on “Fast Money Halftime Report.” “I think that would not be good for the long-term concept of crowd activity.”  

The decision to cancel or postpone sporting events — or simply play them with no spectators — carries significant financial ramifications. There are high-dollar TV contracts and neatly planned venue schedules to consider, among other factors, adding to an already complex public health situation.

Viola said he did not foresee the NHL putting the season on a temporary delay, but he stressed the league and its leadership would not compromise the safety of its fans. 

“But what I see is the contingency that we have to be prepared to do what’s best for our fan base,” he said.

“The fans come first. Their safety is paramount,” Viola said, adding his franchise was in frequent communication with U.S. health officials. “Obviously we don’t want to conduct an activity if we think there’s even the slightest chance that that activity is going to promote the spread of a not normal virus.”

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