MANKATO — Hockey practice at Minnesota State Mankato starts after lunch, but first, coach Mike Hastings and senior goalie Ryan Edquist need to make a quick trip across town.
Heavy snowfall creates a snow globe as the pair climb into Hastings’ SUV for a nine-minute drive to a Mayo Clinic Health System facility located in a commercial complex that also houses a post office and brew pub.
They arrive just before 1 p.m. Within minutes they are back on their way to campus after undergoing a test for the COVID-19 virus.
This process — conducted at a higher frequency — will determine when the bulk of Minnesota college sports teams will be able to resume competition.
COVID testing remains the fulcrum of return-to-play efforts for thousands of athletes at the 22 Minnesota colleges and universities in the Division II Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference and Division III Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. For each school, that balance includes the challenge of how to fund testing expenses reaching six figures with budgets already strained by the pandemic.
Tuesday has the markings of a pivotal day for those leagues and all collegiate sports.
A meeting of the NCAA’s Board of Governor is expected to possibly act on recommendations proposed in late September suggesting all athletes be tested three times per week during the season. The recommendations were specific to basketball, but realistically, they apply to all winter sports.
That frequency — three times weekly — felt like a gut punch to schools in conferences that lack the money of Power Five goliaths such as the Big Ten, which provides daily antigen testing to its teams.
“That certainly got the attention of athletic directors at our level because most of us are still trying to figure out how we’re going to do one-time-a-week testing in terms of how to execute it and how to afford it,” said Kevin Buisman, Mankato athletic director.
NSIC Commissioner Erin Lind called it “a curveball.”
Officials across all NCAA divisions are waiting to see if the organization keeps those recommendations as just that — recommendations — or if they mandate that teams test three times per week.
Either option creates a dilemma.
If it is required, schools must figure out how to get access to thousands of tests. And then how to pay for them with budgets already stretched thin by significant revenue loss from the pandemic.
If testing remains recommendations, each league will be left to decide its own standards, knowing the NCAA’s Sport Science Institute recommends testing three times.
“When it’s guidelines, think about that conversation that has to happen at every league level,” Lind said. “What type of risk are we willing to take on?”
Both the NSIC and MIAC suspended competition until Jan. 1. MSU Mankato’s men’s and women’s hockey teams play Division I so they compete at a higher level in different conferences. The Mavericks are hopeful to begin play in mid-November with testing three times per week.
The uncertainty that has ensnarled college sports since the start of the pandemic continues with schools seeking clarity on testing protocols.
“Everything that we can control, I feel really good about right now,” Mankato’s Hastings said.
The clinic visit by Edquist and Hastings is part of what NSIC and MIAC schools are doing to conduct surveillance testing, whereby 25% of a team’s inner bubble — coaches, players, support staff — gets tested every other week. That’s about eight to 10 people per team each time. Teams are holding organized workouts as they await clarity on when their seasons will begin.
Schools secure and pay for their own tests. MSU Mankato contracted with Mayo Clinic Health System. Concordia (St. Paul) partnered with Valley Medical in Burnsville. The NSIC, which has 16 member schools spread across five states, has contracts with Sanford Health.
Helping to cover testing costs so far is money saved on team travel, recruiting and other competition-related expenses from sports being postponed.
Access to testing has been a challenge, in part, because schools need to test asymptomatic people and must secure tests independently.
“A lot of these D-Is are research universities where they can partner with their medical centers,” said Regan McAthie, the athletic director at Concordia (St. Paul). “A lot of our D-III and D-II campuses don’t have that same type of resource, even in just physically being able to get our hands on tests, let alone being able to finance that.”
Cost remains a major hurdle. D-II and D-III — and even D-I leagues outside of the Power Fives — are not subsidized by massive TV contracts. The Gophers athletic department carries a $122 million budget. MSU Mankato, one of the most robust Division II athletic programs in terms of size, resources and success, has a $14.3 million budget.
MIAC member Hamline counts 465 athletes in 20 varsity sports, but the athletic budget is about a 2% line item in the overall institutional budget, according to AD Jason Verdugo.
“If you’re looking at [testing] three times a week, that is going to be potentially a very big struggle for all of us,” said MIAC Commissioner Dan McKane, who noted that schools in his league currently are paying $70 to $120 per test.
Concordia (St. Paul) is doing surveillance testing in six sports. Valley Medical trained the school’s athletic trainers in how to administer the tests on campus. They then drive the samples to the facility in Burnsville, which helps save money, too. Even so, total cost per test is $100.
Lind, the NSIC commissioner, did quick math in her head using a basketball team as an example. Figure 30 people inside the bubble. Assume $100 per person with being tested three times per week. That’s $3,000. Now multiply that by 10 weeks of season competition. That’s $30,000.
Now repeat that for women’s basketball, wrestling and men’s and women’s hockey for schools that sponsor those sports. And then potentially — or even likely — spring sports as well.
“NCAA collegiate sports has to thread the testing needle,” Lind said. “And it is so hard to thread.”
The NCAA has informed schools that it is working to procure large quantities of tests to distribute to members at all levels at a discount. Schools have heard rumblings that the price might be as low as $30 for antigen tests.
“If you do that math, if the antigen tests are $30 and you have to use them three times a week, then you’re right back up to $90 or $100 that our tests are already costing,” McAthie said. “So that’s not really a price break.”
The NCAA also hasn’t guaranteed that tests will be distributed through its centralized body, which means individual schools are scrambling to secure their own deals. Rapid antigen tests are in hot demand because they have been hailed as a “game-changer” for college sports’ return to action.
Buisman said he has heard talk that the NCAA may use a supplier called Quidel to buy millions of tests to distribute to schools.
“You can imagine Kevin Buisman trying to call Quidel and saying, ‘Hey, we need 10,000 tests,’ ” he said. “ ‘Well, sorry, I’ve got the NCAA on line two trying to buy 10 million. So we’ll get back to you.’ You can’t source the antigen tests right now. Supply has dried up because they’ve got these massive deals out there.”
The introduction of saliva tests brings hope because they are inexpensive compared to so-called PCR tests, which Edquist received, and antigen tests. Some estimates suggest costs could dip as low as $5 to $10 per test in the future. Time is ticking, though.
“I think everyone is hoping for that $5 test to come out,” McKane said. “Someday we will reach that, but we just don’t know when. We know every business, every athletic department, wants their hands on those $5 tests.”
Eliminating sports has become a trend across Division I as the pandemic has hit school budgets hard, including the Gophers dropping three sports. But the D-II and D-III models are different. D-III does not have the financial burden of awarding athletic scholarships. Few D-II athletes receive full-ride scholarships. Most pay a high percentage of their tuition.
In that sense, D-II and D-III athletics operate as enrollment drivers for their schools. St. John’s enrollment this school year is 1,560 students, including about 600 athletes. Mankato counts 575 athletes, Hamline 465. Eliminating sports does not make financial sense.
“Division III athletics is so critical to a number of liberal arts campuses around the country because we have [athletes] paying tuition,” Hamline’s Verdugo said.
The tenuous nature of planning during a pandemic, against a backdrop of shifting COVID case trends, has caused both exhaustion and frustration for athletic department officials. Figuring out the testing component alone is like being on a “hamster wheel,” St. Cloud State athletic director Heather Weems said.
“You get protocols and you get a vision and perspective in place and then new information comes out,” Weems said.
Leagues simultaneously are trying to put together schedules for various sports not knowing testing standards, when games might start, potential travel restrictions or how many games will be allowed.
“There are so many layers,” Concordia’s McAthie said. “It’s almost like a chicken-or-the-egg situation. But there are eight different eggs.”
Testing is the giant egg commanding the most attention: Will schools be required to test athletes, coaches and staff three teams per week?
No one is more anxious than athletes and coaches. The long layoff has been a mental grind.
“We need to see faster results from when you take a test and we also need the costs to come down,” McKane said. “We anticipate those things will occur. We just don’t know if they’re going to occur fast enough for us to get going in January.”