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High School sports without fans would be “Financially devastating” for schools

By Andy Rhinehart

The uncertainty over the future of the global coronavirus pandemic means the North Carolina High School Athletic Association has little idea as to what high school sports in the state will look like this fall.

But NCHSAA Commissioner Que Tucker is fairly certain of one thing – games in front of empty stands aren’t likely to be something seen.

“Let me say this – high schools playing without fans obviously is never what we would envision,” Tucker said Wednesday during a conference call with state media members. “A regular season of every sport we sanction belongs to the membership, and so for any school who fields a football team to be faced with the prospect that they would be trying to have a fall football season, or fall soccer season or a fall volleyball season, and then no fans be permitted to come in at all, would be financially devastating.

“As all of you know, football in many and most instances helps pay the bills for some of the other sports, and so football is vital, it’s a lifeline for many of our programs. So, it’s hard to imagine what it could look like, what it would look like, if spectators were not allowed at all.

“That being said, I could imagine that there could be a scenario where football is played, but the numbers are limited. You still are able to allow spectators to come through the turnstile, through the gate, but the numbers are limited, and therefore there could be that opportunity to still generate some funds.”

Tucker and Brad Craddock, president of the NCHSAA Board of Directors, met with media at the conclusion of the board’s annual spring meeting. Held as a virtual meeting, the board approved a handful of items, including:

  • Declaring all regional basketball champions this season as state co-champions with the finals unable to be played.
  • Approved two policies already passed by the State Board of Education, the first to allow athletes with a valid physical taken after April 1, 2019 to use that physical for the 2020-21 academic year, the second to grant eligibility for the 2020-2021 fall semester to any athlete who is locally promoted to the next grade.
  • Approved changes to the soccer playoff calendar (now a Monday-Thursday format for early rounds) and an adjustment to allow regular season soccer matches to end as a tie following two ten-minute overtime periods.

With North Carolina still required to move through three phases of reopening outlined by Governor Roy Cooper, Tucker said it’s nearly impossible to say whether the fall sports season would have to be adjusted in order to play games with fans in stands. There will be no shortening of the required preseason conditioning period across all sports, and Tucker said for sports such as football, moving state championships to later in the year would be difficult. Thus, a shorter regular season could become a possibility.

“Let’s say we can’t start until August 15th with our first day,” Tucker said. “Now we’re talking about having to shift the schedule. But at that point would we be talking about now we’re delaying football? No, we’d be talking about probably playing fewer games. Maybe we’re not able to have as many non-conference games as some teams would be playing. But I think that’s where the shifting would come in.

“I was on the phone last week with Omar Ramirez, who is my counterpart with the North Carolina Independent High School Association, and we talked about the possibility that we may not even be able to start playing anything until after Labor Day. So, what does that do to the schedule? I think, again, it would mean we would have to be looking at perhaps playing fewer games than we play right now.”

Tucker and Craddock noted the current pandemic has placed an effective pause on the process for the next realignment of schools into classifications. While the next four-year realignment is still slated to go into effect with the 2021-2022 academic year, the work toward that plan has been halted until the realignment committee can again meet in person, feeling the extensive discussion required around molding the process would be difficult to conduct over email and virtual meetings.

“One of the chairs of the realignment committee made a presentation to our board of directors (Tuesday) and essentially they reported that due to the pandemic, the committee had only had two in-person meetings,” Tucker said. “Until the realignment committee can come back together and have an opportunity to sit down in a setting where they can look at the pieces, look at the criteria, and then feel good about where they are and be unified in the approach they want to take, we will stay paused. Then we’ll try to push out, hopefully in September, and our regional meetings will become a big piece of the puzzle.

“We still hope to be able to get realignment done during this next six, seven months. It will mean that our board will have to meet a couple more times than they would have normally to approve the plan, so that then once we get the numbers to plug into whatever the process is, we’ll be able to do that. I anticipate right now that the realignment would come together to be able to roll out sometime in March of 2021.”

Tucker said the NCHSAA still plans to recognize award winners, as is usually done at the annual meeting, and also award Wells Fargo Commissioner Cups and Conference Cups. The Association will be discussing criteria for the latter with conferences in the weeks ahead. Polk County, which won the 2018-19 Wells Fargo Conference Cup for the Western Highlands Conference, led the 2019-20 WHC standings at the end of the winter sports season.

The overriding theme from the most unusual of annual meetings, though, was that all high school sports activities remain on hold and will continue to be on hold for some time.

“We remind our schools, coaches and teams that we are acting as if we are in a ‘dead period’ for all in-person activities,” Tucker said in a statement. “These restrictions remain in place until further notice. Virtual communication and activities to maintain relationships within teams is encouraged, but no in-person activities are permitted.

“We understand that many people are interested in how schools and teams can get back to workouts, practices and competition. At this time, it is premature to speculate on a return date and whether or not the fall season will be impacted by COVID-19. We will continue to listen to the advice and mandates of our state’s governor, Department of Health and Human Services, and medical advisors to inform our decisions going forward. Any decision made by the Board of Directors and staff at a future date will be guided by those sources of information, erring on the side of health and safety. We will do our part to ensure health and safety for all of our athletes, coaches and communities.”