NCAA cancels basketball tournament, Atlanta Final Four

This architectural rendering shows how Mercedes-Benz Stadium would have looked for the Final Four.
This architectural rendering shows how Mercedes-Benz Stadium would have looked for the Final Four.

Scratch the Final Four from Atlanta’s sports calendar.

One day after announcing the event would be played without fans in attendance because of the coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA said Thursday its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, including the men’s Final Four here, will be canceled altogether.

The decision was a bitter disappointment for the Atlanta Basketball Host Committee, which had been preparing for the event for years.

“It’s difficult, but the team is taking it as best as I can expect,” said Carl Adkins, the host committee’s executive director. “Everyone is disappointed, but we certainly understand the reasoning.”

Atlanta will have to wait until at least 2027 for another opportunity to host the Final Four, which is committed to other cities for the next six years.

In the 24 hours after the NCAA’s announcement Wednesday that it would play this season’s tournament without fans in the stands, pressure steadily built to abandon the event.

Pro sports leagues – first the NBA, followed by MLS, the NHL and MLB -- called off games because of coronavirus concerns. Also, numerous college athletics conferences, including the ACC and SEC, canceled their league tournaments. And two of the nation’s top college basketball programs, Kansas and Duke, said they wouldn’t participate in the NCAA tournament even if it were held.

So by the time the NCAA announced its decision shortly after 4 p.m., it seemed a foregone conclusion.

“I think from the perspective of everything that has transpired nationally with the sports landscape (in the past two days), it certainly makes sense in our mind for this to be added to that,” said Dan Corso, president of the Atlanta Sports Council and chairman of the host committee’s board of directors. “We respect the decision.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert and the organization’s Board of Governors made the cancellation decision, which also applies to all other remaining winter and spring NCAA championship events.

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“This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to spread of the pandemic, and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities,” the NCAA said in a statement.

Until now, the NCAA men’s tournament had been played every year since 1939. This season’s tourney had been scheduled to begin next week.

The Final Four, which had been set for April 4-6, was awarded to Atlanta six years ago. It was to have been the third sports mega-event held at Mercedes-Benz Stadium over a 28-month period, following the College Football Playoff championship game in January 2018 and the Super Bowl in February 2019. Some of the host committee’s staffers, board members and volunteers had worked on all three events.

“I can’t say enough about how special the team that we had put together across these events has been,” Adkins said. “They are certainly disappointed the final one didn’t come to fruition, but we’ve got the best group of people in the business, hands down, not only on this team but throughout all of Atlanta’s hospitality community and sports community.”

The host committee’s budget for the Final Four totaled about $13 million, funded  mostly from Atlanta hotel-motel tax revenue and some from corporate contributions. Most of the budget had not yet been spent, and some of the more expensive budgeted costs -- transforming Mercedes-Benz Stadium into a basketball venue and hosting Final Four fan events – won’t be incurred.

Adkins said about $3.2 million has been spent to date, including staff salaries for the past two years, agreements with the Georgia World Congress Center and early events hosted in preparation for the Final Four.

Asked if the host committee will be reimbursed for expenses in light of the event’s cancellation, Adkins said: “That is a discussion we’ll have with the NCAA. There may be some (reimbursements). At this point, it’s just premature to really put a number on it.”

The tournament produces almost $1 billion in annual revenue for the NCAA and its member schools, mostly from TV contracts with CBS Sports and Turner Sports.

In the hours before the NCAA's decision to cancel, consideration was given to moving a fan-less Final Four from Mercedes-Benz Stadium to a smaller venue in Atlanta, State Farm Arena or Georgia Tech's McCamish Pavilion. As of late morning, Corso said the NCAA hadn't broached the idea of canceling the tournament with the host committee. But the committee later began to suspect that would happen when it was told the NCAA Board of Governors would meet at 4 p.m.

“We received a call right after that meeting (with word of the cancellation),” Corso said.

The NCAA’s host selection process for the 2027-31 Final Fours is scheduled for next year, and Atlanta plans to submit a bid.