SPOKANE, Wash. — Spokane's economy is set to take an estimated $4 million hit following the NCAA's decision to not allow fans inside basketball tournament games, leaders with the Spokane Sports Commission said on Wednesday.

In an unprecedented move, the NCAA announced on Wednesday that fans would be barred from watching March Madness games in person amid growing coronavirus concerns. On Wednesday, the World Heath Organization officially declared the outbreak of the virus a pandemic.

"The NCAA continues to assess the impact of COVID-19 in consultation with public health officials and our COVID-19 advisory panel," said NCAA President Mark Emmert in a statement. "I have made the decision to conduct our upcoming championship events, including the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, with only essential staff and limited family attendance. While I understand how disappointing this is for all fans of our sports, my decision is based on the current understanding of how COVID-19 is progressing in the United States."

The Spokane Arena was set to host first and second round games for the men's basketball tournament. Additionally, it was expected that the Gonzaga Bulldogs would play their initial games at the arena before a home crowd.

"That's very disappointing for the community," said Spokane Sports Commission president Eric Sawyer of the NCAA's decision on Wednesday. "We don't have a lot of answers just yet. Like so many of you, this is just happening so fast for us."

The tournament marks the sixth time Spokane has hosted NCAA basketball tournament games.

Based on stats from previous events, Sawyer estimated that Spokane's economy was set to get a $4 million boost from fans visiting for the tournament. An estimated 4,000 hotels stays were expected, too, Sawyer added.

"It is disappointing. There obviously is an economic impact associated with this," he said.

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The NCAA would be issuing refunds to impacted fans, sports leaders said.

"What I can tell you is that everybody will be refunded. When and how that will happen, we're still getting that information," said Matt Meyer, the Spokane Public Facility District's entertainment director.

Both Meyer and Sawyer indicated that local sports leaders and arena staff were caught off guard by the announcement.

"It's a surprise for us," Sawyer said. "We've never been down this path before and we're trying to understand how best we can meet the goals and still ensuring that we have a positive experience here in Spokane for the student-athletes."

Sawyer emphasized that, despite a lack of fans at the games, Spokane should still be proud of its selection to host March Madness games.

The sports commission stood behind the NCAA's move regarding fans, Sawyer said. 

"We need to do what's right for the health of the fans and student athletes. We know the NCAA doesn't make a decision like this lightly," he said. "They are doing what they need to do to ensure that there is a healthy environment for those student athletes and their fans."

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