With Big 12 Tournament’s return to KC, some fans, businesses lament loss of Fan Fest

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Sports Commission announced Friday that the Big 12 Tournament will allow 20% of fans in each venue.

The men’s tournament will be played at T-Mobile Center, and the women will play at Municipal Arena in the convention center. The tournament is slated to be held March 10-14.

“Both venues have been working with and will continue to work with the Kansas City Health Department to make sure health and safety of all staff, guests and student athletes is primary,” said Kathy Nelson, president and CEO of the Greater Kansas City Sports Commission.

The venues will have increased signage and protocols promoting social distancing and mandatory mask wearing.

Although fans will be able to return to the venues, the events surrounding the tournament will look different.

“We will not be hosting Fan Fest on Grand Boulevard, nor will we host pep rallies in the Power & Light District,” Nelson said. “The Kansas City Big 12 Run will be held virtually, and participants will receive a unique finisher’s medal resembling the basketball court.”

On March 11, 2020, the Big 12 Tournament opening round tipped off with all the usual excitement and fanfare. It was the same date COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. There were pep rallies with bands, cheerleaders and, of course, fans. Alex Whirley was in that crowd. 

“Honestly I have a blast with all the out-of-towners, love basketball so we just kind of came down here, socialized for awhile,” she said.

But it was a day of constant developments. First the NCAA announced March Madness would be played without fans, then the Big 12 said it would follow suit starting the next day. 

That night while games went on inside Sprint Center, now T-Mobile Center, the NBA had suspended its season as Rudy Gobert tested positive, and Tom Hanks announced he had COVID-19.

By the next morning, the Big 12 Tournament was the first of thousands of events around the city that would end up being canceled as life changed as we knew it. 

“Emotions, memories of a year ago are still very real. Fans are critical to the success of this event, but this year of all years making sure that we are keeping these student athletes safe was what was primary,” Nelson said.

Businesses like Rally House nearby said those changes will likely take a big chunk out of the estimated $10-15 million the tournament generates for the city annually. 

“This year we are expecting less people because of the restrictions that we have, but we do expect some people to come in,” said Geonna Alexander, Rally House assistant manager.

“I think the city we’re going to take a hit from not having everyone come into town and do all the festivities,” Whirley said. 

The convention center and Municipal Arena are Global Bio Risk Advisory Council facilities and are required to follow similar protocols of cleaning, disinfection and infectious disease prevention, Nelson said.

“In accordance with NCAA guidance, the Big 12 conference has put together a very detailed plan on student athlete health and safety in cooperation with their medical team and the Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department,” she added.

Hospitality spaces will be closed throughout the Big 12 Tournament, and the facilities will follow the city and health department’s guidelines on physical distancing and mask mandates, except when actively drinking or eating while in ticketed seats.

Fans who buy tickets will receive a “know-before-you-go” email before each event, and it will also be available on the facility websites. Ticket information will be made available as the final capacity numbers are put in place.

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