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Mountain East Conference Tourney To Tip Off in Wheeling With Safety in Mind

WesBanco Arena employees set up the court for this week’s Mountain East Conference men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. The event, running Thursday through Sunday, will be the first the MEC has hosted with fans since the 2020 hoops tournaments. (Photo by Scott McCloskey)

WHEELING — When the West Liberty and Glenville State women’s basketball teams tip off at 11 a.m. today in the Mountain East Conference tournament, it will end the span of nearly an entire calendar year that the MEC has held championship events without fans in attendance.

Attendance will be limited at WesBanco Arena to 750 spectators, but MEC Commissioner Reid Amos looks at that as a victory after 362 days navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and the limitations it created. And while fans will be back, they and everyone participating in this weekend’s tournament — to be held today through Sunday at the arena — will be kept as safe as possible.

The last championship event the MEC held with fans in the stands actually was last year’s MEC tournament. Spectators who show up to this year’s games will see a few different features throughout the arena.

The most evident, Amos said, will be masks worn throughout the arena.

It’s a requirement to be in the building, and the only people who won’t be wearing masks are the players on the court.

Another step will look familiar to anyone who has attended a Wheeling Nailers hockey game. Outside of the glass in the corners, removed to accommodate cameras, the hockey glass around the rest of the court will remain up. Amos said that, in areas without that glass, spectators must be no closer than 12 feet off the floor.

“If everyone was 12 feet off the floor here and we took down the glass, then essentially we’d have all the spectators so high, it would be difficult to socially distance and get 750 people into the building,” he said. “The glass staying up allows us to maintain the initial rows.”

Any WesBanco Arena seats with black cloth draped over them are unavailable for purchase. Available seats are grouped in pods as small as two and as many as six. Participating teams will not be allowed to sit in the arena seats until those teams are eliminated from the tournament and not under NCAA regional tournament consideration.

Media members sitting at tables across the court from the team benches are appropriately spread apart, and they will be kept on that side of the court away from the teams. Postgame interviews will be done via video conferencing.

The pandemic forced the MEC to think creatively and work like crazy to make sure that, when conference competition could restart, it could be done safely and with as few interruptions as possible. Amos said only a handful of men’s and women’s basketball games had to be called off.

Now the conference gets to hold its marquee event with fans in the seats in a city Amos said has been nothing but supportive since the tournament moved to Wheeling in 2019.

“We’ve set box office records and corporate support records through sponsorships,” Amos said. “There is just a tremendous feeling in this building with the environment we’ve been able to create for our student athletes and fans.

“The last sense of normalcy we all had in the Mountain East was this tournament a year ago,” he added. “To have played 97 percent of our women’s games and 95 percent of our men’s games, that alone has been gratifying. But I think it’s going to feel really special for every one of us when we see spectators in the seats again and things will begin to return to what normal will be going forward.”

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