Four weeks after the Minnesota State High School League said no to fall sports state tournaments amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Executive Director Erich Martens urged the organization’s board of directors to reconsider conducting such events from a fresh perspective.
“This is our reality. We need to start working toward how things will look next week, how they will look next year and beyond,” Martens said Wednesday during a board of directors workshop. “We should be thinking about how we’re moving forward, with more clear guidance for ourselves.”
The meeting occurred three days after a second attempt by soccer supporters to hold a state tournament, both of which failed, and two days before an independently run postseason cross-country showcase was held.
Martens emphasized the league’s mandate to provide worthwhile opportunities for student athletes. He added that board members should strongly consider new information and use it to plan through the coming weeks and beyond with decisions about postseason play for the winter and spring.
“It’s important to try to get ideas about what the state tournament proposals look like, how we want to present them and how we want them to look,” Martens said.
In an interview Monday, he added that with COVID numbers rising statewide, the league is focused for now on safely finishing the fall football and volleyball seasons, and getting winter sports started on time.
Of rethinking state tournaments, he said, “There’s a lot of work left be done.’’ A key factor will be to “increase the amount of testing for students to better provide those safe experiences at a state level,” he said.
Board member Frank White said during the workshop that the lack of state tournaments is confusing to the public, which sees opportunities available for athletes that the league has rejected.
“When the public sees that [the National Sports Center in] Blaine can have a hockey tournament with 88 teams. What they see is how can Blaine do this and the high school league isn’t keeping up,” White said. “Why can’t the league do this at Edina or whatever school. The optics to the public don’t look good.”
The high school sporting public is watching intently.
Last month a group of high school soccer coaches sought the league’s permission to hold a tournament for schools to compete beyond section championships. The request was denied, leaving 32 teams statewide to finish their season as winners instead of playing down to four champions across two classes of boys’ and girls’ teams.
A few days later, metro area students gathered outside the governor’s residence in St. Paul to hand-deliver a letter to Gov. Tim Walz, seeking to reconsider the league’s decision to not hold tournaments for fall sports and not budget for them for the winter or spring seasons as well.
Then soccer parents tried to do what coaches could not, relying on booster clubs to put a tournament together, only to have the effort fall short.
Cross-country supporters found a way to bring together top performers with private support. Backed by TC Running Company, they held showcase races for dozens of teams and about 100 individuals last weekend at the Island Pine Golf Club course in Atwater, Minn.
Meanwhile, neighboring South Dakota and North Dakota have completed state tournaments in boys’ soccer and cross-country.
South Dakota also had a girls’ soccer state tournament.
‘‘In some of these events, there were more precautions than in a normal year, but the chance for a state title was back!’’ the National Federation of High School Sports proclaimed on its website.
Minnesota is part of the minority not offering state tournaments in football and volleyball. State championships will be held in 30 of the 35 states that played football this fall, according to the National Federation of High School Sports. Twenty-four states will have completed volleyball state tournaments in November.
This year, amid concern about virus transmission and with fan attendance restricted by COVID guidelines, the state high league dropped state tournaments from its budget, shrinking it to $5 million. To fund the budget, the league has asked its 506 member schools in September to pay up to 300% more in fees, prompting criticism from smaller schools about the high costs.
League officials have yet to spell out how winter sports postseasons will proceed. In years past the boys’ hockey, wrestling and boys’ basketball tournaments were three of the league’s four biggest moneymakers, collectively bringing in at least $1.5 million annually.
State tournaments have been the league’s financial lifeblood in recent years, providing up to 80% of its budget.
Just a few bring in more revenue than they cost to run, however, most notably boys’ hockey and football, which collectively generate about $2 million annually.
Minnesota’s challenges are mirrored nationwide. The national high school federation said its 51 member state associations, like Minnesota, ‘‘are heavily dependent on revenue from state tournaments.”
The loss of fall championship tournament revenues, on the heels of losing state basketball tournaments and spring sports, has them “facing severe financial challenges,’’ it said.
When the league, at its Oct. 1 board meeting, settled on ending fall postseason play at the section level, it nearly went a step further. A proposal was made to hold one more round of games, in which the eight section champions would square off.
Several board members spoke in favor of the plan but the discussion took a sobering turn when board member Dustin Bosshart, school principal and football coach from St. Clair, raised the financial implications. The proposal failed on a 10-8 vote.
Canceling winter state tournament would give room for outside entities to fill the void and provide a welcomed, if unofficial, season conclusion, similar to the cross-country races for two classes of boys and girls competing last Friday and Saturday.
Bosshart, who attended last week’s workshop, sits on the league’s Return to Participation task force, which meets Wednesday. He echoed Martens’ thoughts about looking at winter sports state tournament decision through a new lens.
“We know more now, but the Minnesota Department of Health hasn’t changed its guidelines and there is still no financial plan,” Bosshart said. “But we’re not just going to say no to winter tournaments just because we didn’t have them in the fall.”