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NAIA cancels winter championship events, including women's basketball tournament in Billings

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Posted at 11:05 AM, Mar 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-12 14:57:05-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Joining the fray of conferences and organizations across the country, the NAIA announced on Thursday morning it will cancel the remainder of its winter championship events, including the Division I men's basketball tournament in Kansas City and women's DI tournament in Billings.

"We're very disappointed for the teams, fans and Billings community, but fully understand that health and safety are top priorities at stake," Visit Billings executive director Alex Tyson told MTN Sports. "This is the end of the 32-team format with 31 games (for NAIA DI championships) and we were taking great pride in celebrating not just this year's tournament, but the 40-year run."

Rocky Mountain College was in its fourth year as the tournament's host team. The NAIA women's national championship in Billings has drawn significantly more attendance than any previous site. Tyson told MTN Sports the total attendance for last year's event was 19,408, an estimated 2,000 more than in 2018.

Naturally, it provided an economic boost to parts of the Billings community, though Tyson said the overall net was generally a financial loss.

"We typically lose around $85,000, but it's still a nice benefit for our hotels, restaurants, stores and others," she said. "We understand that for some who've invested in this tournament, the issue of balancing health and money is sensitive. But at this point, economic impact is not a priority."

Rocky head women's coach Wes Keller shares the disappointment and understanding.

"It's a very unfortunate situation, but it's the right move for the NAIA to make in regards to the safety of our student athletes and the public in general," Keller told MTN Sports. "I really feel for our seniors who won't have the opportunity to close out their careers at First Interstate Arena in a national tournament setting."

The NAIA announced its brackets for the men's and women's tournament on Wednesday and announced late in the afternoon it would limit attendance at its winter championships, which also include the inaugural men's and women's bowling championships. But the growing threat and concern over the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) led to the complete cancellation of the championship events.

"The health and safety or our student-athletes, as well as all involved in our championship events, is the NAIA's highest priority," the NAIA said in a release Thursday morning. "We will continue to monitor COVID-19 developments and NAIA leadership will work closely with our member institutions to determine the best path forward for future NAIA events, including all spring 2020 championships."

Tyson said Visit Billings is grateful for overwhelming number of volunteers and businesses over the past four years, and it has a priority of reimbursing local sponsors.

The announcement comes on the heels of multiple NCAA conferences across the country canceling or postponing their own tournaments, including the Big Sky Conference championships in Boise, where the Montana State men and women and Montana men were still competing.