As the Minnesota State High School League held a board of directors workshop by video Thursday that took up the what-ifs of resuming a spring sports season on hold, Gov. Tim Walz gave a strong signal to suggest it won’t happen.
With students statewide engaged in distance learning to help slow the spread of COVID-19, Walz said at his daily briefing that he projected a “relatively slim” chance students would return to their school buildings before the current academic year ends.
On March 25, moments after Walz closed schools in favor of distance learning until May 4, the high school league moved quickly to extend its shutdown of spring sports for the same duration.
Reached for comment Thursday on Walz’s latest assessment, league executive director Erich Martens said “if distance learning is extended, in many other states where that’s happened the high school leagues have followed suit with canceling activities. If that happens here, the board of directors and staff will give strong consideration to canceling activities.”
To prepare for whatever spring season might be salvaged, league staff and the board members discussed Thursday how schools could best maximize a shortened calendar. Depending on the sport, only one to three weeks would be available for competition before section tournaments are scheduled to begin.
Activities directors are seeking a point-of-no-return date for spring sports should the reopening of schools get delayed or canceled. The other topic of interest was philosophical in nature: Give regular-season contests priority and shorten playoff schedules? Or the opposite? Currently, the state tournaments in baseball and boys’ and girls’ lacrosse end June 13, the latest of any spring sports.
“If this goes beyond May 4, which it sure seems like it if you listen to the experts, how far can we push it out?” asked board member Troy Stein, the Edina activities director. “It seems like state tournaments could maybe go a week or two longer into the summer but, I think beyond that, we start to run into other conflicts.”
Said board member Russ Reetz, the Prior Lake activities director, “The ADs in the South Suburban Conference and some other ADs in our region that I’ve spoken to are leaning more toward providing as much of a regular-season experience as possible. And, if there are playoffs, the suggestion that when teams are eliminated, they are still allowed to play exhibition until the last possible date.”
As for what the latest possible date should be, Reetz said, “I feel like the last date is June 30. A lot of the families in our community plan vacations during the July 4 holiday. And AAU and club sports are well into their seasons by the time we hit July.”
Board President Bonnie Spohn Schmaltz, who runs the speech program at Eden Valley-Watkins, said students have asked her whether they should pursue a summer job.
To better formulate contingency plans, the league will begin weekly video conference calls with administrators statewide. The first meeting next week primarily will gather information on protocols for returning to participation. Associate director Craig Perry said options can include “modification” or “exemptions or exceptions because of our current situation” to several bylaws, include those prohibiting no contact on Sundays and limiting teams to a maximum of three calendar dates for scrimmages.
The workshop also heard how a promising start to the league’s winter state tournament slate did an about-face, in large part because of the canceling of the boys’ basketball state tournament, one of the league’s four profitable events. The girls’ basketball tournament lost its final two days of state tournament play when play was halted because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Assistant director Rich Matter projected a $265,000 negative balance, what he called a “pretty major impact on our budget” for the winter state tournaments. Overall ticket sales were down 87,000 (27%) from the previous three-year average.
The league has a clause in its agreements with venues such as Target Center and Williams Arena that relieves the parties from performing their contractual obligations when certain circumstances beyond their control arise, making performance inadvisable or impossible.
All figures aren’t in yet but Matter said tournament venues “are going to be prorating or completely eliminating the rental fee and expenses in both the girls’ basketball and boys’ basketball tournaments.”