PROVO — This virus thing is spooky. It’s creating visions of a zombie apocalypse so popular on TV and in the movies. It is now hitting sports in a scary way.

Take note, this piece isn’t to promote panic or dread. This column is simply addressing how nuts March Madness could be and how the COVID-19 virus could impact some of the year’s most anticipated sporting events — ones that involve Utah colleges and their fellow conference members.

In fact, I’m going to Las Vegas this week where the city will be hosting the WCC, WAC, Mountain West and Pac-12 conference tournaments during the next two weeks. I’ve also already bought airline tickets to the NCAA first round, guessing where BYU might be planted by the NCAA Selection Committee, with contingency plans to switch destinations if needed.

Here’s the rub.

The idea of a crowded arena or airline cabin crammed in close proximity with many potential coughers or eating in crowded restaurants is a sticking point for the sports world. 

There is a possibility that our pro and college teams could be playing in front of empty arenas in the near future — or substantially fewer attendees.

Right now the airline, cruise, hotel and travel industries in general are on red alert, dreading the impact of empty seats, rooms and canceled plans.

Skittish fans and teams could be costly for the travel industry.

In the U.S., ground central for the coronavirus looks like Seattle. My son-in-law is a physician’s assistant in a clinic just outside the city. He and co-workers have been instructed to wear splash protective goggles, a gown and gloves when treating fever-coughers who may have been exposed. He is also required to take his own temperature twice a shift.

Seattle, they say, is a ghost town.

Of the 11 deaths in the U.S. from coronavirus as of midday Wednesday, 10 have been in Washington.

The Washington Post reported Chicago State announced its men’s basketball team would cancel its final regular-season games, road trips to Seattle University and Utah Valley this week. The school cited “health and well-being of the campus community” as the reason. The Associated Press calls this the first sporting event affected by the virus. Utah Valley later announced that both the men’s and women’s games against Chicago State would be cancelled. (The women’s teams were to meet in Chicago on Saturday.)

Chicago State said it is evaluating whether to send its men’s and women’s team to the WAC Tournament in Las Vegas next week. Stanford Athletics announced that it is working on attendance guidelines “in order to allow for sufficient social distancing.” According to The Washington Post article, the National College Players Association, an advocate group for student-athletes, is asking the NCAA to consider playing tournaments without crowds.

So how will this affect March Madness? The NCAA is developing contingency plans in the event that tournaments are affected by an outbreak, according to The Washington Post.

Gonzaga of the WCC is scheduled to host NCAA first-and second-round tournament games in Spokane, which is some 300-miles east of Seattle. Prior to that, schools from all over the West will tip off tournament play in Las Vegas. No other city in the nation will host as many tournament games and fan bases as Vegas in the coming two weeks.

It is a mass of humanity seeking fun, watching beloved teams, seeking a respite, vacation and tradition.

Or, it could be not much of a mass gathering at all.

It all depends on the spread of an invisible but existential bug that is a real threat to health and life and whatever precautions need to be taken.