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Latest In Sports And How Coronavirus Could Affect March Madness

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And now it's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Suppose they held the biggest college basketball tournament in empty arenas. Will Tom Brady take his Uggs out of New England? And could the NFL season last 17 games? ESPN's Michele Steele joins us now from Chicago. Michele, thanks so much for being back with us.

MICHELE STEELE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: The March Madness college basketball tournament about to begin - locations around the country, indoor stadiums, people from all over the country - kind of a prescription for what people are supposed to avoid these days, isn't it?

STEELE: My goodness, yeah. You know, with March Madness, there's always those schools that end up getting an opportunity to play in a place really near their school, right? You'll see Duke in the southeast region. You'll see Gonzaga in the northwest. No fans at the game really does take the oomph out of home-court advantage. But this is really worth following for, obviously, many more serious reasons.

You know, I've been at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this weekend in Boston. It's a real sort of convention of heavy hitters across sports. And in just about every league, they're really following these developments closely. Late last night, the NBA sent a memo to teams to be prepared to play games with just their essential staff, so no fans. It doesn't mean that they'll do it, but just to be ready. What I'm hearing is that the next two weeks are going to be really critical.

SIMON: Will the NCAA consider canceling March Madness or making the kind of accommodation that we mentioned? I mean, no fans means no or limited income, doesn't it?

STEELE: Of course. Yeah, ticket sales are really important. But, of course, the TV deal dwarfs whatever they're going to do on the ticket side.

SIMON: Yeah.

STEELE: You know, I don't think anything is off the table at this point. March 18, 19 is when those first rounds begin. The NCAA says they're just monitoring their situation, and there's too much that they don't know, so their health advisory board just is not recommending them to cancel games or fan participation. So it's just wait and see at this point, Scott.

SIMON: Tom Brady, speaking of March 18, is set to become a free agent. His Massachusetts home is reportedly for sale; don't everyone call at once now. But do you see any indication that he's on his way out of New England?

STEELE: Yeah, I think his house is something like $33 million. So if anybody hearing this is in that price range, there's a big old mansion outside of Boston that you could look at. I used to live in New England, and I've spent some time around Brady and the Patriots. And my not-so-hot take here is that Bill Belichick knows he can win without Tom. He's done it before. Tom Brady doesn't know that. You know, he's been in one system. I'm hearing that the two sides have been talking, and it was, quote, "business as usual." You know, to a certain extent, it does feel like Belichick is kind of daring him to leave to test the market in free agency. It does feel like there's been a lot of theatrics. So it feels like he's really trying to convince us that he's at least flirting with leaving.

But the serious part of this, Scott, is that a lot of league business depends on what Brady does. He's, of course, the first big domino to fall in free agency, and then other teams can make their own moves at quarterback. But the entire league is waiting on this move with bated breath. We'll see.

SIMON: New collective bargaining agreement - the NFL owners are proposing two more playoff games and the option to add one more regular season game. And the reaction of players seems to be split on different levels, isn't it?

STEELE: Yeah, and that's part of the strategy. You know, voting on that new CBA, the collective bargaining agreement, started this week. And the mandate for NFL union negotiators, I'm told, was to deliver a deal that was better for the, you know, the middle class, let's call it, of the league - guys who are making the league minimum to more so a median income, but not really the top-tier guys. That's a vast...

SIMON: The league minimum is more than half a million dollars a year.

STEELE: (Laughter) Yeah, it's pretty good, but - although it is the Not For Long league. But these guys who are making the league minimum or are a little bit more - that's a vast majority of guys in a roster. And the league is offering to bump those guys' salaries up. You know, they want to bump up the league minimum, but they're not going to do it without extracting a cost from players. And they want to expand the season to 17 games. The entire time I have been covering the NFL, guys have been adamantly against this. However, like I said, it's the Not For Long league, and those guys who know that their careers are going to be real short are thinking, let me make my money when I can.

SIMON: ESPN's Michele Steele, thanks so much.

STEELE: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.