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Sport at standstill as virus fears paralyse US

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Los Angeles (AFP)

Sport across the United States and Canada ground to a virtual standstill on Thursday with baseball, soccer and ice hockey leagues joining basketball by declaring an immediate halt to play as fears of the coronavirus upended the sporting landscape.

A day after the NBA shocked the US sporting world by announcing an indefinite suspension of the basketball season, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and the National Hockey League all followed suit.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said the start of the baseball season on March 26 would be postponed by at least two weeks while Spring Training games were suspended with immediate effect as the US grappled with what Manfred described as a "national emergency."

The NHL meanwhile said it was stopping its season indefinitely, just as ice hockey heads into its crucial playoff season.

"Our goal is to resume play as soon as it is appropriate and prudent so that we will be able to complete the season and award the Stanley Cup," commissioner Gary Bettman said.

Major League Soccer had earlier announcing a 30-day halt to its competition.

The United States Soccer Federation also cancelled upcoming international friendlies and training camps at all levels, scrapping two US men's games against the Netherlands and Wales later this month.

Two US women's fixtures -- against Australia in Utah on April 10 and another against Brazil in San Jose California on April 14 -- were also axed.

In Florida, the ATP/WTA Miami Open was called off as Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez declared a state of emergency over the outbreak.

The hardcourt tennis tournament, one of the world's top events outside of the Grand Slams, was scheduled to begin with qualifying on March 23 and run through April 5.

The decision followed the cancellation of the Indian Wells tournament due to start in California this week. ATP Tour chiefs in London later declared a six-week suspension of the men's tennis calendar.

Other sports, meanwhile, were preparing to stage events without spectators following warnings from US health officials that large gatherings of fans posed a risk of escalating the outbreak.

- Golf fans locked out -

The opening leg of IndyCar's 2020 season will get under way on Sunday against a backdrop of empty viewing stands after spectators were banned by city officials in St. Petersburg, Florida.

"I don't make this decision lightly," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman after announcing the lockout.

"I strongly believe life must carry on, as best we are able. But the reality now is that's just not possible. I am disappointed. I love this race. But I love this city and our residents more."

In golf, meanwhile, the PGA Tour announced a ban on spectators at all of its events starting with Friday's second round at The Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach in Florida.

The spectator ban runs all the way up to the final tune-up event before next month's Masters at Augusta, the opening major of the seasons.

"I feel pain for the spectators," said South Africa-born Slovakian golfer Rory Sabbatini on Thursday. "I hope we can get this under control and get everybody back out there.

"It makes you realize how interconnected the entire planet is these days. It makes you realize in the global picture how really small we are."

The swathe of cancellations, suspensions and spectator lockouts is unprecedented in the history of modern US sport, with only the shutdown following the September 11, 2001 attacks coming close to matching the present turmoil.

- Positive case 'tipping point' -

Sports team officials said Thursday that the shutdown became inevitable after the disclosure on Wednesday that Utah Jazz basketball player Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the virus.

The NBA immediately announced all play in the league had been suspended until further notice.

A second Utah player, Donovan Mitchell, was also reported Thursday to have contracted the virus.

Major US college basketball conference tournaments -- precursor to the hugely popular "March Madness" national tournament -- all stopped their championship events on Thursday.

The move will increase pressure on NCAA to reconsider staging the national tournament, which had been set to go ahead with spectators barred.

"I thought for the past week that as soon as a player tested positive, it could be a tipping point," said Jorge Mas, one of the co-owners of David Beckham's MLS team Inter Miami.

Inter Miami had been due to play their first ever home game this weekend.

Mas said while fans and players would be disappointed, the MLS and its teams had been left with no other choice.

"(The players) were looking forward to opening up at home for the first time in front of a raucous crowd but they understand this is beyond our control," Mas said. "It's the right and correct decision."

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