College athletic departments are finding it increasingly difficult to navigate through the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
Can athletes come back to campus safely for the fall semester - and, if so, how? What’s the timeline to bring student-athletes back on campus? How can sports seasons remain financially feasible? Every program, department and school must answer these questions - and many more - just to have events this fall.
Of course, much attention from athletic departments and the NCAA is ensuring football and men's and women's basketball seasons can proceed. For many, if not all, schools, those three sport seasons offer the biggest financial opportunity.
But where does that leave smaller programs? The soccer, volleyball, field hockey, softball, lacrosse and track teams (just to name a few) don’t have as big of an influence on athletic departments, especially at the mid-major level.
To help safely and financially navigate through this pandemic, the Atlantic 10 is one league that has announced several tentative changes for some nonrevenue sports this season.
While drastic, George Mason women’s soccer head coach Todd Bramble believes the changes were the best course of action.
“It seemed like it was a really thorough process," Bramble told NBC Sports Washington. "[It] was really thoughtful and it was absolutely the best solution that the group could have come up with to get us through this phase.”
Several details were needed to be ironed out by the conference heading into those conversations. Bramble says the first priority was the health and safety of the players, coaches and support staff. Making sure this was even possible had to be addressed. Bramble and the league believe that safety procedures at colleges and universities will be in place by then.
“All signs are pointing to the fact that we’re gonna have a season,” Bramble said.
Next up was finding a way to save money for all the schools involved. The third was to minimize travel to keep people off flights and out of hotel rooms to reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
In doing so, the 14-team conference will regionally condense its regular-season schedule for each team to play in ‘pods’ with three or four teams located close to the school. They will play several home-and-home series to make up conference play. The format for each sport is different given that not all will have 14 teams. Not every school sponsors the same sports within the league.
Conference championships will also go from eight teams down to four and overhaul the championship qualifying format.
For George Mason's women's soccer program, Bramble says their pod will consist of George Washington, Richmond, VCU and Davidson - all within a seven-hour drive of one another.
“I think our coaches group has a really good perspective on what we need to focus on," Bramble said. After the player's health and safety, "we need to try to provide the best student-athlete experience they can have which means we’re going to get some regular-season games and we’re going to have the opportunity to play in a conference tournament and the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament.”
It is not only the in-conference play affected. Nonconference schedules are constantly being adjusted to meet the same priorities at Mason. The projected schedule planned at the end of last season is far different now. Fortunately for Mason, there are several schools in the D.C. area to help limit travel concerns. But that comes at an expense - a contest against a Power 5 opponent had to be canceled in 2020, an opportunity to measure your team against better talent and perhaps increase the likelihood of an NCAA Tournament bid or just improve seeding.
Because of the coronavirus, the spring season was also eliminated - a huge component of training and a crushing blow heading into a new competitive season. While some ADs are concerned about needing six to eight weeks to train for a new season, Bramble doesn’t think the training will be too much of a concern.
“I think that’s going to take care of itself," Bramble said. "What we have sort of prescribed or suggested that our players have been doing during quarantine hasn’t been anything that’s tried to get them in peak fitness right now. We’ve just wanted them to stay physically active, more for their mental and emotional health than anything else ... We’ve got plenty of time that we’ve got built-in where we’re going to be able to responsibly bring out players back up to speed.”
There’s also a far different issue, though, that non-revenue teams are facing: survival. Many of these programs are being cut in cost-saving measures across the country. Akron has cut three programs. So did Wright State, Old Dominion no longer has wrestling. Cincinnati disbanded its men’s soccer team.
George Mason has not cut any programs during the pandemic. Nor has any other school in the Atlantic 10, a basketball-oriented conference, dropped a team.
A reason why? Bramble believes it’s because Mason doesn’t have a football team.
“We don’t have football. So for us, that’s an advantage I think in this situation because there are a lot of schools of our size that have football programs that rely on ticket revenue or things like that from a big football program to fund their budget. That’s not something that’s ever been something that we would rely on here,” Bramble said.
Not having a football budget makes widespread cuts to each program a lot more manageable.
Needless to say, this season will contrast the look of previous years in more ways than one. Who teams play, perhaps which teams play and how teams, conferences and the NCAA put things together will all be different. Hopefully, unlike in the spring when seasons were canceled entirely, they'll at least be able to crown some champions.
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