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Coronavirus: 72 hours that shook the industry

The dramatic events preceding the near-total suspension of sport by Friday 13th March were unprecedented. Here, SportsPro breaks down how it all unravelled.

18 March 2020 Tom Bassam

After the first dominoes fell on 11th March, a chain of events was set in motion which would leave the sports industry in a coma barely 72 hours later.

Until seven days previous, postponements in Asia felt distant enough not to be a grave concern. Even when Serie A, Italian soccer’s top flight, and the Pro14 provincial rugby union competition began shuttering games in late February, few were predicting that, come 13th March, virtually all of professional sport would be on hiatus. 

On 9th March, the UK government’s Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) advised the media that there was “no rationale” for postponing events nationally. Yet at the same time in Italy, as the number of coronavirus cases in the country passed 9,000 and the death toll amounted to more than 450, prime minister Giuseppe Conte suspended all sport until 3rd April. 

The following day, the Italian football federation (FIGC) announced a number of options for deciding the winner of Serie A if the league saw its season curtailed. The governing body already appeared to accept that a complete campaign was now unlikely. 

What unfolded over the next three days was unprecedented. Postponements and cancellations came thick and fast as sport at all levels ground to a halt. What had been a steady stream of announcements soon became a raging torrent, and then an inexorable flood.

Wednesday 11th March (All times are UK)

7am: The message in England is very much ‘keep calm and carry on’. Even as Manchester City's match with Arsenal is postponed on the morning of the game – a move described as a ‘precautionary measure’ – the Premier League vows to continue play, announcing ‘no plans’ for further cancellations. Meanwhile several Gunners players go into self-isolation after coming into contact with Olympiakos and Nottingham Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis, who publicly confirms he has tested positive for coronavirus. 

4.25pm: Just a few minutes before the London Stock Exchange (LSE) closes, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declares the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic – its most serious category.   

8.30pm: In the US, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) announces that March Madness, its national basketball tournament and one of the highlights of the American sporting calendar, will be held behind closed doors. Confirmation of the news feels like a major change in the wind. The US stock market slumps, the Dow ending in bear-market territory for the first time in more than a decade.

Midnight: Perhaps the most dramatic sporting moment of the coronavirus crisis occurs at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City. Players from the visiting Utah Jazz and the Thunder are hauled off the court ahead of their National Basketball Association (NBA) regular season game just seconds before tip-off. 

Confusion reigns. Even the announcers are unsure of what is happening as the players head back to the locker rooms and only learn that the game is postponed as it is confirmed by the arena’s public address.

Hours after the scheduled start, the Jazz players are still in the locker room, wearing masks and preparing to be tested before they can leave the building. It is later confirmed that Rudy Gobert, the team’s French centre who is not playing that night, has tested positive for the virus in the minutes before tip-off.

By the conclusion of the rest of the evening’s games, the NBA has suspended its season. Donavan Mitchell, who sat next to Gobert on the plane to Oklahoma, later tests positive. 

Thursday 12th March

1am: The NBA’s decisive, rational decision stands in stark contrast to the confusion emanating from the Oval Office, where, in a rambling address, US president Donald Trump announces a ban on all travel from European Union nations, excluding the UK. “This is not a financial crisis,” he says. “This is just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome together as a nation and as a world.”

6am: The morning news from Japan is not good. The Nikkei 225 declines 4.41 per cent by its close at 18,559.63, more than 20 per cent lower than its 52-week closing high. 

10.30am: In Europe, where stock markets are also plummeting, Real Madrid’s players arrive at their Valdebebas training base only to be sent home as a player from the Spanish giants’ basketball team has tested positive. 

“We went to training this morning, but people from the club came and told us we don't have training or anything for the next two weeks. We must all stay at home and not leave Madrid,” striker Luka Jovic told Serbian publication B92.

“Since I got injured and I didn't train for the last two or three days I've used the same facilities as a player with coronavirus.”

EuroLeague Basketball, the continent’s top club competition, is next. By midday, Spanish soccer’s La Liga has postponed its next two matchdays and Fiba, world basketball’s governing body, has hit pause.

4.30pm: Financial markets continue to reel. By the time the UK’s FTSE 100 Index closes ten per cent down, its worst crash since 1987, a host of other major sports properties are suspended. In soccer, the Dutch Eredivisie and Portugal’s Liga Primeira follow La Liga’s lead. Elsewhere both the main tennis tours, the ATP and the WTA, announce suspensions, as does rugby union’s Pro14.

8pm: In the US, as the Dow closes 12 per cent down, Major League Soccer (MLS) and the United Soccer League (USL) both confirm suspensions in play. 

“We strongly believe this is the best decision considering the ongoing worldwide health situation,” said US Soccer chief medical officer George Chiampas, citing conversations with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as state and local health officials.

Elsewhere the NCAA calls time on March Madness, cancelling the event almost exactly 24 hours after its first announcement.

10.40pm: Having indicated that play would continue, perhaps behind closed doors, English soccer officials announce they will meet on Friday morning to discuss postponing matches in the Premier League and the English Football League (EFL). 

11pm: The returning XFL spring football league also cancels its first season back, later revealing a player had symptoms on 10th March.  

Friday 13th March

12.20am: Europe awakes to news that Formula One has cancelled its first Grand Prix of the season in Australia after a member of the McLaren team tests positive. The move proves highly controversial, with the entire Formula One circus already in Melbourne. Next to hit the skids is the all-electric Formula E, which confirms the suspension of all racing before the morning’s out. 

2am: With the Players Championship having played its first round, the PGA Tour announces the cancellation of the rest of the event and postpones tournaments up to the Masters, the first major of the men’s golf season. 

9.30am: The Indian Premier League (IPL), the world’s most lucrative Twenty20 cricket competition, suspends the start of its 2020 season until 15th April as a precautionary measure. It is later revealed that cancelling the competition could cost the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) ₹3,869.5 crore (US$521.6 million) in broadcast revenue.

9.45am: French soccer’s top-tier Ligue 1 is suspended indefinitely; Uefa suspends the Champions League and Europa League shortly after.


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10.30am: The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) confirms that the national team’s tour of Sri Lanka is off. “There was an element of relief,” captain Joe Root says of the decision. 

11.05am: English soccer finally succumbs, postponing all fixtures until 3rd April. The decision is eventually made after a number of English clubs become directly affected by the pandemic, with both Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and Chelsea winger Callum Hudson-Odoi contracting the virus.

“Above all, we wish Mikel Arteta and Callum Hudson-Odoi speedy recoveries, and everyone else affected by Covid-19,” says Premier League chief executive Richard Masters. “In this unprecedented situation, we are working closely with our clubs, government, the FA and EFL and can reassure everyone the health and welfare of players, staff and supporters are our priority.”

The Scottish Football Association (SFA) and Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) follow suit.

Midday: “[Disney World closing] was the final thing that [when] we had heard that said, you know what, even though we feel like we have a safe environment and we’ve done all the right things, we can’t proceed, and it’s not right to proceed,” says PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, revealing the rationale behind the circuit’s actions. 

The Ladies European Tour (LET) cancels its inaugural event in Saudi Arabia, whose government has banned travel from several countries affected by the virus, including Italy. 

“There is no doubt that the last few weeks have been extremely challenging for sports and postponing next week’s tournament has not been an easy decision,” says Alexandra Armas, the LET chief executive. “But we fully appreciate the recent restrictions which have been introduced in respect of travel into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

12.30pm: Formula One’s Bahrain and Vietnam Grands Prix fall by the wayside as the series’ previously defiant chiefs scrap the first four races of season, which will now begin in Europe at the end of May.

2pm: The organisers of the Masters announce the tournament is postponed for the first time since 1945.

“That's not a fun message to get,” says JT Poston, a PGA Tour winner who had qualified for his first shot at the green jacket. “That's a tournament that I've been looking forward to since I was a kid, and still very much looking forward to it. I know I'll get my chance at it. Just won't know when that'll be.”

3pm: Having both received criticism for planning to go ahead with their Six Nations clash after the rest of the tournament’s matches have been postponed, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) and Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) reverse their decision just hours after insisting they will play.

The German Football League (DFL), which oversees the country’s top two professional soccer tiers, postpones its fixtures immediately having announced earlier in the day it would do so after the weekend.

5.30pm: The National Hockey League (NHL), which had previously been reluctant to pause play, puts out a statement from commissioner Gary Bettman appearing to lay some of the blame for its suspension at the feet of the NBA.

9.30pm: The LPGA Tour postpones its first major of the season, the ANA Inspiration, among other events. 

11pm: Major League Baseball (MLB) moves to push the start of its 2020 season back by two weeks, becoming the last of North America’s major leagues to shut down. The game is, literally, up.

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