The Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference will begin winter sports competition later this month, with seven-game league schedules in basketball and hockey starting Feb. 6.
Presidents of the MIAC's member schools voted to allow all of its men's and women's winter sports — basketball, hockey, indoor track and field, and swimming and diving — to begin play with reduced schedules, the league announced Wednesday. There will be no MIAC playoffs or tournaments in any of the sports, and spectators will not be permitted. The MIAC decided in August to postpone fall and winter sports because of the pandemic.
St. Olaf and Carleton will not play any winter sports, after announcing last year they were canceling all sports competitions through mid-March. Macalester has opted out of MIAC play in men's and women's basketball, and St. Catherine's will not play a MIAC schedule in women's basketball or hockey.
MIAC Commissioner Dan McKane said it will cost more to play under COVID-19 protocols, with mandatory testing, personal protective equipment and extra sanitation. But each campus was able to work out the finances to get MIAC athletes back into competition for the first time since last March.
"We had some very in-depth, frank discussions about playing during a pandemic," McKane said. "It's our responsibility to make sure we keep everyone safe, and prioritize keeping our campuses safe so we can continue with in-person learning. We know a lot is riding on us.
"I think everyone is satisfied and happy to move forward, and happy to bring collegiate athletics back at the Division III level in Minnesota."
During league play in men's and women's basketball and hockey, teams will play each MIAC opponent once. The team that compiles the best winning percentage while completing at least 51% of scheduled games will win the MIAC title and the league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Schools also can play as many as four nonconference games, beginning Jan. 29.
McKane said spectators might be allowed at some point, depending on how things go. League members will continue to discuss a spring sports schedule, and creating a spring schedule for football and other fall sports that were postponed.
"We should have a definitive answer by the end of February or early March," McKane said. "A lot is going to ride on how successfully we put on winter sports."
As of now, the NCAA winter sports tournaments remain on the schedule, with fields limited to 75% of their usual size. The organization said COVID-19 testing and stricter sanitation requirements will add about $9 million to the tournaments' cost, leading the NCAA to reduce the number of participants.
To be eligible for an NCAA tournament, schools must play a minimum number of games — nine in men's and women's basketball and hockey — and conferences must have at least four core members participating to earn an automatic bid. If COVID-related issues force any changes, the automatic qualifier would still be eligible, but any school in the running for an at-large bid would need to get a waiver.
NCAA tournaments also could be canceled if too few schools participate in a given sport. In D-III basketball, indoor track and field or swimming and diving, 60% of schools with those sports must compete in order to hold an NCAA tournament; in hockey and wrestling, the threshold is 70%.
The NCAA championships committee still is uncertain how many members plan to compete. It has asked schools to respond to a survey by Jan. 25.