WHITEFISH – As the calendar gets set to turn to August, anticipation continues to grow across the country regarding the return of athletics, from professional sports to the youth level.
Discussions continue on the collegiate front, particularly on the football landscape, where multiple teams and conferences across the nation have postponed or even canceled their fall seasons.
The Frontier Conference lost its three out-of-state teams – College of Idaho, Eastern Oregon and Southern Oregon – when their parent conference, the Cascade Collegiate Conference, announced it would delay all fall sports until at least Nov. 1.
Frontier commissioner Kent Paulson told MTN Sports he understood and respected the decision, which ultimately sent the league’s five remaining football schools – Carroll College, Montana Tech, Montana Western, MSU-Northern and Rocky Mountain College – back to the drawing board to create a new, five-team schedule.
While those five teams, as well as the other Frontier Conference fall-season varsity sports, plan to continue their seasons, uncertainty remains with the uptick of COVID-19 cases in Montana.
One option often discussed is playing in front of limited or no fans, though it would create a detrimental financial impact on the schools in the league.
“It's really, really important. We need the spectators to come through the turnstile. We can't operate financially at our level, we don't have the TV contract, although we get an occasional TV game, certainly, and we get great coverage from our news outlets,” said Paulson. “We have webcasting, but at the end of the day we need our good fans. That certainly is a consideration.
“Again, you go back to, what is the deciding factor, and the deciding factor is safety, and what are the obstacles? If more of them start to become insurmountable that has to affect your decision. And again, we're not going to necessarily do what another conference in the area is going to do.”
While many other schools and leagues have committed to the “play on” mentality, others are joining the Cascade in delaying seasons to a later date in hopes of the coronavirus pandemic lessening along the way.
One other option, the worst-case scenario that many officials prefer not to discuss, is a complete cancellation of all sports, similar to the shutdowns that took place last spring.
While it’s certainly the last resort, Paulson understands the possibility, as well as the disastrous results it would have from a financial standing.
“Devastating. Yeah, totally devastating. Schools that were in financial difficulty even before COVID, that to me would be devastating,” Paulson said. “It would be like a restaurant saying, 'Could we make it a year without any customers?' I just think that at some point you've reached that point of no return. And so, that piece would be very detrimental to schools our size.”
“We don't have Ivy League endowments, we don't have Power 5 television revenues. We are who we are, we're darn proud of it,” Paulson continued. “We put out a wonderful product. … But anyway, it's just really imperative, it's so important. Go back to what you talked about earlier about communities. Communities, those schools are a cornerstone of their economy.”
Many universities are already feeling the financial effects of the novel coronavirus, with multiple schools announcing the discontinuation of varsity programs as a result. Stanford recently announced it would cut 11 varsity programs, while the University of Connecticut previously said it would drop four programs from its offerings.
Paulson admitted he can’t speak for the Frontier Conference schools directly but said he hasn’t heard of similar discussions among his league.
“We've actually seen the addition of programs. We did lose women's hockey at the University of Providence -- I can't say that that was directly tied to the COVID situation -- but across the NAIA world, we've continued to see the growth in the emergence of various sports,” he said. “It really hasn't deterred schools from continuing in their quest to develop platforms in which to attract students.
“Esports, good example. I mean, when I first heard that it was like, 'Oh, that's a bit of a stretch,' and man alive, that's taken off like wildfire. In our conference, we have some schools that have really taken that to the next level. Overall, really haven't seen that.”
The attention remains focused on the upcoming decisions at every level, with the mentality seemingly split over which decision is best. Paulson remains optimistic his league can find ways to safely conduct athletic events and hopes other schools and leagues across the country can do the same.
“It goes back to the thing that, if you took athletics away at our level, I can speak for the whole NAIA, without athletics we got a lot of doors closing permanently,” Paulson said. “We run anywhere from 50 to 65 percent of our student enrollment where that student is in one or more sports. I mean, our schools are centered around learning, but they're enhanced by athletics.”
“As one person said, you can have academics and not have the athletics, but you cannot have the athletics without the academics,” he added. “The real deciding factor is, can we safely bring our kids back on campus? That's the launching point then for your athletics.
The clock is ticking, the anticipation growing … buckle up, everyone.