Timeline of how COVID-19 shut down the sports world

Written by:
June 4, 2020
Jared Wickerham // Getty Images

Timeline of how COVID-19 shut down the sports world

The stark reality of the world and its sports, both battered by the COVID-19 pandemic, is well known by now. Shutdowns, isolation, quarantine, stay-at-home orders, astonishing unemployment, and historic casualties have consumed the day for five months as of May 2020.

In December 2019, Chinese researchers identified a new virus. By January, the first related death had been reported, and cases had reached other nations including the United States. The World Health Organization declared a global health emergency.

Sports fans have witnessed a parallel unimaginable series of events since then, as international leagues, college championships, and Opening Days have fallen victim to suspensions and postponements. The ramifications of this novel coronavirus are neither the first time sports have been interrupted nor the first instance in which a pandemic has been the culprit. 

But how exactly did we go from the Chiefs' Feb. 2 Super Bowl LIV victory to the first virtual NFL draft on April 23? How did the sports shutdown progress from the Premier League prohibiting handshakes before games in early March to the absence of nearly all major worldwide leagues by April? Stacker dug through dozens of news sources, press releases, and sound bites to create the following timeline, from when European and American sports first suspended play to the first moments they announced optimistic resumption plans.

We begin in late February, when the first Italian soccer games paused and the government stepped in. And we transition to mid-March, when American basketball started to adjust on the fly—a chaotic 24 hours in which NCAA conference tournaments ended at halftime of noon games, and an NBA team doctor made a cinematic sprint from the locker room to the court seconds before tipoff to relay a positive test and cancel the game. But, as we hope with the current pandemic, this timeline ends on a good note, as several leagues have confirmed their restarts. Most recently, on June 4, the NBA finally announced its return when the Board of Governors approved a plan to resume at the end of July.

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Augusto Casasoli/Xinhua // Getty Images

Feb. 23, 2020: Italy’s Serie A suspends matches

Four Sunday Serie A matches were suspended as the virus spread in Northern Italy. Two matches were held as planned in Genoa and Rome.

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Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto // Getty Images

Feb. 24, 2020: Italian government speaks up

Italian Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora suggested to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that, instead of postponing more games, the league continue with no fans. Italian Olympic Committee president Giovanni Malago called the closed-door concept ''problematic'' the day before.

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Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos // Getty Images

Feb. 29, 2020: March Madness without fans?

Amid growing U.S. case counts, the National College Players Association released a statement regarding the NCAA men’s tournament and protecting student-athletes, calling for “a serious discussion about holding competitions without an audience present.”

[Pictured: The Virginia Cavaliers' Kyle Guy grabs a rebound against the Texas Tech Red Raiders during the 2019 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship Game]

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Ethan Miller // Getty Images

March 3, 2020: NBA says fist-bumps, not high-fives

According to a memo obtained by ESPN, the NBA and its Players Association—having consulted with the CDC—recommend fist-bumps instead of high-fives and to avoid objects and pens exchanged with fans for autographs. The Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler told reporters, "I don't think about any of that. I'm still going to be who I am. We're still going to be who we are."

[Pictured: Bill Walton (L) and Ted Robinson talk before broadcasting a first-round game of the 2016 Pac-12 Basketball Tournament between the UCLA Bruins and the USC Trojans]

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Emilio Andreoli // Getty Images

March 4, 2020: Serie A officially moves behind closed doors

The Italian government made an official announcement that Serie A would continue behind closed doors for one month. They hoped to stop the spread as the country remained an epicenter of the outbreak.

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Visionhaus // Getty Images

March 5, 2020: English Premier League bans handshakes

Part of the “traditional walk-out protocol” prior to each Premier League match, fair-play handshakes between players and officials are customary. The league issued a statement banning the gesture “for health reasons,” since the virus “can be transmitted on to the hands and passed on via a handshake.”

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Harry How // Getty Images

March 6, 2020: LeBron James makes shortsighted statement

As the worldwide case count eclipsed 100,000 and the U.S. death toll reached 16, the NBA prepped its players for games in empty arenas, according to a memo obtained by the Associated Press. Following the Lakers–Bucks game, LeBron James told reporters, “I ain’t playing if I ain’t got the fans in the crowd. That’s who I play for.”

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Claudio Villa/Inter // Getty Images

March 8, 2020: Zero supporters at Juventus vs. Inter Milan

Following the government’s orders, Juventus and Inter Milan played the first non-Chinese game without fans. Juve’s win put them atop the Serie A table.

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Stephanie Meek/CameraSport // Getty Images

March 10, 2020: EPL match postponed; LeBron backtracks

Arsenal played Olympiacos in the Europa League on Feb. 27. After the Greek side’s owner tested positive, Arsenal instituted 14-day self-isolation guidelines, postponing their March 11 Premier League match with Manchester City. LeBron backtracked on his March 6 comments, telling reporters, "I had no idea there was a conversation going on behind closed doors about the particular virus. I would be very disappointed [with no fans] because that's [who] I play for."

[Pictured: Arsenal FC and Olympiacos FC's Europa League round-of-32 second leg at Emirates Stadium on Feb. 27, 2020]

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julien mattia/Anadolu Agency // Getty Images

2–4 p.m., March 11, 2020: 'Pandemic' official; teams, leagues exclude fans

Midday on March 11, the World Health Organization characterized COVID-19 as a "pandemic." By 2 p.m., ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported the Golden State Warriors planned to play "foreseeable home games" without fans. An hour later, the first Champions League match without fans kicked off between Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund. Later that afternoon, the NCAA announced March Madness would restrict fans.

[Pictured: Fans of Paris Saint-Germain in front of the Parc des Princes for a Champions League match against Borussia Dortmund on March 11, 2020.]

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Omar Rawlings // Getty Images

9 p.m., March 11, 2020: Gobert’s positive test; NBA action suspended

Shortly before 9:30 p.m., The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus. The Jazz–Thunder game had been abruptly canceled as players walked on the court for tipoff; a team doctor had rushed from the locker room to deliver news. At 9:31 p.m. NBC Chicago’s K.C. Johnson tweeted that the NBA had suspended the season “until further notice.”

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Elsa // Getty Images

10–11 a.m., March 12, 2020: Tennis, MLS start chaotic day of decisions

Around 10:30 a.m., the ATP released a statement suspending the men’s tour for six weeks. An hour later, Major League Soccer announced a 30-day suspension of its regular season.

[Pictured: James Sands #16 of New York City FC]

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Patrick Smith // Getty Images

12–1:30 p.m., March 12, 2020: NCAA tournaments, UCL, NHL all pause

Just before noon, the Big Ten canceled its men’s basketball conference championship. By 12:40 p.m., the SEC, ACC, Pac-12, and Big 12 had all followed suit. The Champions League canceled its scheduled games for the following week. The NHL suspended the regular season shortly after 1:30 p.m.

[Pictured: Capital One Arena on March 12, 2020, in Washington D.C.]

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Ezra Shaw // Getty Images

3–4:15 p.m., March 12, 2020: March Madness is off; MLB Opening Day pushed

By 3 p.m., Major League Baseball had canceled spring training and postponed Opening Day by two weeks. An hour later, the NCAA finally brought the hammer down on the 2020 men’s tournament; it additionally shut down college winter and spring championships.

[Pictured: An aerial view of the San Francisco Giants' Oracle Park on March 12, 2020]

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Sam Greenwood // Getty Images

7–10 p.m., March 12, 2020: XFL season stops; PGA stops mid-event

The XFL, still in the infancy of its 2020 rebirth, paused its regular season at 7:15 p.m. At 10 p.m., following the conclusion of Round 1 of the Players Championship—considered golf's fifth major—the PGA Tour canceled the remainder of the weekend in addition to all tournaments through the April 2–5 Valero Texas Open.

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FRANCK FIFE/AFP // Getty Image

7 a.m., March 13, 2020: Dominoes continue to fall in European soccer

At 7:05 a.m., the official Premier League twitter account posted a joint statement with the FA, EFL, and WSL to suspend all play in England. A half-hour later, France’s Ligue 1 followed.

[Pictured: The headquarters of the French Football Federation in Paris]

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Lars Baron // Getty Images

10 a.m.–3:30 p.m., March 13, 2020: ‘National emergency’; no April Masters

As many Americans were still finishing their coffee, the 2020 Masters was officially postponed. One hour later, Germany’s Bundesliga postponed play. In a late-afternoon press conference, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency.

[Pictured: A sign at Signal Iduna Park marks the way to a coronavirus care facility at the north stand on April 3, 2020, in Dortmund, Germany.]

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Ethan Miller // Getty Images

March 14, 2020: 1st major Nevada sportsbook closes

The Wynn Las Vegas confirmed to ESPN the indefinite closure of its sportsbook and poker room, the first Nevada casino to do so.

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Mauricio Salas/Jam Media // Getty Images

March 15, 2020: No crowds of more than 50; Mexican league stops

The CDC released updated guidelines for canceling gatherings of 50 or more people. Mexico’s top-flight soccer league, Liga MX, announced an indefinite suspension of games following the evening’s schedule.

[Pictured: A sculpture among empty seats prior to the Liga MX match between America and Cruz Azul on March 15, 2020, in Mexico City.]

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Elliott Brown/E and P Phtography // Getty Images

March 16, 2020: NFL, UFC, NASCAR update public

With the 2020 NFL Draft just over a month away, commissioner Roger Goodell canceled all in-person events in Vegas (where it was to be staged) but confirmed that the original dates would be televised. UFC president Dana White postponed events through April 11, and NASCAR postponed races through May 3.

[Pictured: The Maryland Terrapins' Antoine Brooks Jr. celebrates being drafted in the sixth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers on April 25, 2020, at home in Lanham, Maryland.]

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Andy Lyons // Getty Images

9 a.m., March 17, 2020: Horse racing’s Triple Crown put on hold

The 2020 Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the horse racing Triple Crown, was postponed from May 2 to Sept. 5. Consequently, the second-leg Preakness Stakes, which is run two weeks after the Derby, was postponed.

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OLI SCARFF/AFP // Getty Images

10 a.m.–5 p.m., March 17, 2020: Euros to ‘21; Roland-Garros, PGA Championship to fall

UEFA, the governing body for European soccer, officially postponed the 2020 European Championships by a full year. Two hours later, Roland-Garros released a statement to move tennis’ second major, the French Open, from late May to late September. In the evening, the PGA of America postponed the season’s second major, the PGA Championship.

[Pictured: A sign advertising the now-postponed Euro 2020 football tournament outside a closed-down pub in York in northern England on March 30, 2020]

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Natalia Fedosenko\TASS // Getty Images

March 19, 2020: Belarus soccer is last league standing

Of the 55 UEFA members, the Belarus Premier League was the only remaining top-flight competition by March 19, beginning its season that day. That morning, MLS extended its suspension from a March 30 end date to May 10.

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Thomas Campbell/XFL // Getty Images

March 20, 2020: XFL is axed

Eight days after pressing pause on its season, the XFL canceled its season altogether, with plans to resume in 2021.

[Pictured: James Butler #28 of the Houston Roughnecks carries the ball against the Seattle Dragons at TDECU Stadium on March 7, 2020, in Houston]

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VISIONHAUS // Getty Images

March 23, 2020: UEFA clarifies Europa, Champions League fates

UEFA formally postponed the May dates for both the Champions League and Europa League (the next tier) Finals.

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March 24, 2020: Tokyo Olympics rescheduled

In the morning on March 24, the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee and the International Olympic Committee jointly released a statement to postpone the Summer Olympics to 2021.

[Pictured: International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, speaks during an interview after the historic decision to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 25, 2020.]

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Andrew Redington // Getty Images

March 26, 2020: Golf’s U.S. Open postponed

Late in the evening of March 26, the New York Post reported the United States Golf Association’s plan to postpone the season’s third major, the U.S. Open, from June. The event was last canceled during World War II in 1945.

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Andrew Redington // Getty Images

April 1, 2020: No Wimbledon; more tour delays

Wimbledon 2020 became the first edition canceled since WWII. All England Lawn Tennis Club chair Ian Hewitt expressed commitment to “instead concentrate on how we can use the breadth of Wimbledon's resources to help those in our local communities and beyond.” The same day, the ATP and WTA extended suspension of play through July 13.

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Brian Ach // Getty Images

April 4–5, 2020: WrestleMania 36 goes on tape delay

For the first time in its history, WrestleMania was taped ahead of time without fans and broadcast on delay over two days. The event shattered viewership and social interaction records.

[Pictured: Braun Strowman tosses Colin Jost of "SNL" out of the ring during a WWE WrestleMania at MetLife Stadium on April 7, 2019, in East Rutherford, New Jersey. ]

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Gareth Fuller/PA Images // Getty Images

April 6, 2020: NFL decides on remote draft; R&A says no British Open

According to a memo obtained by NFL Network's Tom Pelissero, Goodell informed the league that the 2020 draft would take place virtually and remotely. The R&A canceled the 2020 Open Championship for the first time since WWII, meaning just three majors will be contested.

[Pictured: A view of the clubhouse at Royal St George's, in Sandwich, Kent, where the Open Championship will be held in 2021.]

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Leonard Ortiz/Digital First Media/Orange County Register // Getty Images

April 13, 2020: Wrestling goes live with empty seats

With the April 13 edition of WWE Raw, the company resumed live broadcasts from a performance center behind closed doors. The event followed weeks of pre-taped broadcasts.

[Pictured: Thousands pack the Honda Center on Monday, Aug. 8, 2016, to watch the WWE Monday Night Raw live broadcast.]

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Ben Jared/PGA TOUR // Getty Images

April 16, 2020: PGA Tour reveals new truncated schedule

The PGA Tour released its updated, modified schedule to begin June 11 when the Charles Schwab Challenge commences from Fort Worth. Though still subject to change, the new season added 14 events, bringing the season total to 36. Originally, 49 events were scheduled for 2019–20.

[Pictured: Mackenzie Hughes of Canada hits a shot on the 16th tee during the final round of the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club on May 26, 2019, in Fort Worth, Texas. ]

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NFL // Getty Images

April 23–25, 2020: NFL draft makes history from home

The 2020 NFL Draft, held remotely for the first time, drew a record 15.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen. Goodell read picks from his Bronxville, New York, home, and players and teams videoconferenced in.

[Pictured: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks from his home]

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Chris Graythen // Getty Images

April 30, 2020: LLWS scrubbed; NASCAR to be 1st sport to resume

Little League International canceled the World Series for the first time, having been contested from South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, every summer since 1947. The same day, NASCAR announced plans to resume a modified schedule on May 17, but with only essential staff and limited teams.

[Pictured: Joey Logano crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Cup Series FanShield 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 8, 2020]

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Christian Verheyen/Borussia Moenchengladbach // Getty Images

May 6, 2020: German top-flight soccer to return

On May 6, the Bundesliga confirmed a May restart, becoming the first major European soccer league to resume. Hoping to finish by June 30, the league has just nine matchdays left on the schedule and will play without fans until the Aug. 31 ban on mass gatherings lifts in Germany.

[Pictured: Borussia Mönchengladbach supporters can buy cardboard characters to be displayed at the stadium should the Bundesliga continue with matches played behind closed doors.]

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Jared Wickerham // Getty Images

May 28, 2020: Boston Marathon canceled for first time in history

On May 28, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced that the Boston Marathon—the nation’s oldest marathon—would be canceled for the first time in its 124-year history, citing public health concerns. The marathon, which was originally scheduled for Patriots Day on April 20, had already been rescheduled for Sept. 14th. On average, 30,000 runners from around the world participate in the event. 

[Pictured: Boston Marathon runners cross the finish line on Boylston Street, in Boston, Massachusetts.] 

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Katelyn Mulcahy // Getty Images

June 4, 2020: NBA Board of Governors approves 22-team resumption

After a layoff since abruptly stopping play on March 11, the NBA will return in July. Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the league’s Board of Governors voted to approve a 22-team resumption format—mini eight-game schedules followed by postseason—in Orlando from July 31–Oct. 12. The 22 include the existing 16 teams in postseason position plus six others (1 Eastern, 5 Western) within striking distance of the eighth seed—thus providing a chance for bubble teams to qualify.

[Pictured: LeBron James stands on the court in a game against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Staples Center on March 3, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.] 

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