Youth sports are starting to bear an eerie and unpleasant resemblance to a wagon train of settlers trying to find a decent place to live – but encountering unhospitable conditions each time they try to put down stakes.
Case in point: the event owners (and teams) from California. State officials have walked back their promise to have return-to-play protocols (RTPP) in time for fall sports and are now saying guidance won’t be available until after January 1 “at the earliest.”
And, Forbes has noted, as COVID cases and hospitalizations surged in Santa Clara County and across California, local officials rolled out an additional three-week ban on all contact sports and required anybody traveling from more than 150 miles away to quarantine for 14 days.
It served as the final death knell for sports events in California, from school-based to private tournaments. If and when sports do resume, it’s unclear whether there will be enough students to play; several months ago, many began joining the exodus to travel teams that play tournaments in more liberal Arizona.
But not even that is working out in their favor. The Phoenix City Council decided last week to call a halt to all tournaments being held on city properties as COVID cases spiked.
According to AZ Central, the City Council's decision prohibits the use of city-owned sports complexes for practice, games and tournaments until COVID-19 cases and community spread decreases. All tournament reservations at city complexes in December and January were immediately canceled. The Council said that no events could be held at those facilities until at least February 2021 – although this may change as well, depending case numbers in the area at that time.
A total of 14 upcoming tournaments — mostly youth softball and soccer — were scheduled to take place on city fields before the end of January.
Many California-based event owners, who previously moved their tournaments to Arizona in search of a safe harbor, have found themselves adrift and they say they don’t know what to do.
"We have a responsibility to offer these kids a safe place to play compete and showcase their talents in front of college coaches," Brian Enge, CEO of San Diego-based Surf Cup Sports, which was scheduled to host two tournaments in Phoenix in the next month, told reporters at AZ Central. "I believe the response to COVID has unfairly damaged kids, and this is just another example of this happening."
Enge also previously noted that event owners were being hurt just as badly.
“You’re talking about a lot of money that’s moving out of the state,” he said. “I think the biggest issue for anybody who runs events is, with no information from our political leaders and no information from our governor, we have to assume the worst. Nothing has changed since June. There’s nothing about youth sports activities on any of those silly color charts — purple, red, whatever. None of those things tells us when we can open up an event. They’ve basically given us two choices: Go out of business or go out of state.”
That ruling doesn't cover sporting events held at private complexes or high schools in the city. Organizers also could try to reschedule tournaments in a nearby city; however, their options may be limited. The article notes, “Some surrounding communities, such as Chandler, Gilbert and Peoria say they aren't accepting new tournament reservation requests right now. Scottsdale says it is fully booked. Buckeye, Goodyear, Surprise, Tempe and Tucson are not allowing tournaments right now, according to research compiled by Phoenix.”
AZFamily.com noted that yet another diaspora is likely to be seen. According to Rex Gonzalez with Arizona T-Rex Baseball Club, the city will lose economic impact as tournaments begin looking into sites in Texas or Florida.
"The trickle-down of this could be great," he told reporters.
As it turns out, it’s not just the under-18 set that has to worry. The emergency measures in California effectively made it impossible for the 49ers to host home games in the San Francisco Bay area, setting off a search for a new temporary stadium.
They found it in State Farm Arena in Glendale, according to The Sacramento Bee. The 49ers will practice on grass fields adjacent to the complex the Arizona Cardinals have used for past training camps.
“Very appreciative of Arizona welcoming us during these unprecedented times,” 49ers CEO Jed York tweeted.
Players will stay in a nearby hotel. Already, grumbling has begun over whether, and how, the players will get back into California legally in order to celebrate the holidays.
If they can’t, the 49ers are trying to arrange for family members of players, coaches, staffers and everyone else in the traveling party to join the team in Arizona.
“I just try to tell our guys, I don’t care what happens, we’re not going to spend Christmas without our families. We’ll figure it out,” head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters. “That’s really what I tried to give to everyone just so they could say that to their families, because I think that is their concern.”
San Francisco may be the first NFL team to have to change home venues because of COVID but it may not be the last. As case numbers skyrocket nationwide, other restrictions may be in the offing, and the league itself recently addressed the possibility that the entire remaining NFL season could be moved to a bubble format.
It’s also likely games will continue to be played to empty stands.
And in California, from which teams were originally migrating to Arizona (but are now looking at a much longer journey to find sites for tournaments), the pressure is mounting. One high school student, reported the Sacramento Bee, created an Instagram page on Nov. 21 called “CIF_LetUsPlay.” He also set up a rally of sorts one Sunday afternoon in front of the California Capitol in Sacramento. About 200 people — student-athletes, parents, coaches and more — showed up with signs including “Let Us Play” and “Kids Need Sports.”
The irony that the state capitol grounds were used as the site of the protest was fully apparent. Around the same time the new restrictions were being rolled out, California Governor Gavin Newsom was under fire for attending a large dinner (while not wearing a mask) at a popular California restaurant. The dinner was put on by lobbyists for the California Medical Association, which has been active in sending out tweets like #WearAMask and #StayAtHome. Sports parents and reporters alike were quick to call out Newsom for his hypocrisy and his failure to lead by example.
But if events can successfully be held anywhere, Florida and Texas may be able to come through. Florida already has a strong track record, having hosted the AAU Junior National Volleyball Championship and the AAU Junior Olympics. Texas also has active listings for youth travel events in basketball, soccer, baseball and other sports.
Other youth tournaments have been held successfully elsewhere in the U.S. In Wisconsin, two PrepHoops events took place at the Community First Champion Center. The National Travel Basketball Association, meanwhile, had a winning formula in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, having hosted three back-to-back events there.
Event owners noted that success was a matter of putting in extra hours in advance to create a safe environment.
“You take all the precautions you can,” said John Whitley, NTBA’s president. “Everything we could think of, we did.”
Space may not be the final frontier after all. Locations where tournaments can be held, safely and successfully, are.