It made for good headlines, to be sure:
- Nation's Largest Youth Volleyball Event to Proceed in June Despite Concerns
- AAU Says It's Moving Forward with Volleyball Tournament, Could Bring Up to 15,000 People into Florida
- Local AAU Teams Skipping Nation's Largest Youth Volleyball Event Due to COVID-19 Concerns
And the copy below it was no less important. The AAU was citing the economic impact to the area as being an essential reason for hosting the tournament:
“The 47th AAU Junior National Volleyball Championships will be held June 16 - 28 with numerous safeguards in place to help protect all participants and officials. We do not make this decision lightly. This event brings significant economic impact to the Central Florida area -- hotels, restaurants, and other local area businesses -- all benefit from this event as it has become a staple of the local community each year.”
Turned out that didn’t exactly float with authorities. Less than a week later, the AAU had to walk back its announcement.
The news of the retraction, posted on AAU’s website, noted: “Upon further conversation, and taking into consideration the ongoing findings of the Orange County Economic Recovery Task Force, the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) and the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States, Inc. (AAU) have mutually postponed the 47th AAU Junior National Volleyball Championships to a later date. The priority is to keep guests, employees, and the community safe as the OCCC continues to monitor policy changes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Task Force, state and federal mandates.”
Pundits are saying the translation is: We jumped the gun. But since that’s only guesswork, it’s essential to understand what this means for other youth sports events this summer. And, as it turns out, that’s hard to say.
After all, while many sports events have begun hosting events, it is rare for a youth team tournament to move forward with plans for so early this summer. Little League has cancelled its season and US Youth Soccer has yet to say when its competitions will return.
AAU, which rushed forward, seems to have learned the hard way that parents aren’t eager to put their children at risk – and authorities aren’t interested in the liability of hosting a mass gathering of youth athletes.
From the start, the scenario wasn’t promising. Florida, which only recently opened to visitors, is still seeing cases of COVID-19; in fact, nearly 46,500 have been sickened and the state death toll was close to 2,000.
There are multiple other contraindications. Theme parks, one of the state’s major tourist attractions and a significant draw to many of the youth tournaments held in the state, have yet to open fully. In fact, while Universal Orlando will reopen, it will be at a reduced capacity, with face coverings required; Governor Ron DeSantis recently asked all parks to submit proposals as to how they might reopen safely. And to be fair, the AAU tournament, noted Yahoo! Sports, was already seeing some bad omens, reported in a news article back when the tournament was still going forward:
“As of Wednesday (May 13), more than 500 teams in the girls division alone are registered to take part in the event. Teams are allowed 15 players, five bench personnel and 10 chaperones, which means as many as 15,000 people will still be allowed into the event alongside tournament officials and referees. According to USA Today’s Tom Schad, more than 1,800 teams were previously registered for the tournament, meaning well more than half of them have withdrawn.”
While AAU says it intends to move forward with its summer schedule (found here) which includes basketball, baseball, track & field and other sports, it did cancel its traditional Memorial Day basketball event in Orlando, with a note that a new date would be coming soon. Other events have similarly been postponed or cancelled, without a new date announced yet. The AAU's Junior Olympic Games, originally scheduled to be held in Hampton Roads, Virginia, have been put on hold, and AAU says it will reschedule for another date and location later this summer. The beleaguered Junior Nationals in Orlando were ultimately rescheduled to July 14-22, en eight-day rather than a twelve-day event, with no spectators and a maximum of 10 chaperones per team. (Expect any live stream to be eagerly viewed by families that make the trip).
While economic impact is admittedly an enormous (and absolutely essential) aspect of large youth tournaments (and the reason so many cities are hurting for business right now), the AAU’s misstep may have been its emphasis on that aspect of the tournament as a reason for moving forward with it. While AAU also stressed that precautions would be taken – including mandating face masks and eliminating international teams and neutral spectators,as well as doing away with the event’s opening ceremony, water fountains and handshakes – it appears authorities simply were not ready to assume the risk of hosting one of the largest youth indoor sports events in the nation. (In fact, the 12-day event, which has been named to the Hall of Fame of SDM’s Champions of Economic Impact in Sports Tourism, brings in 117,000 room nights – and $91 million). And the fact that far fewer teams than usual were enrolled seemed to underline those doubts.
At the same time, many parents, whose children missed out on the chance to put in a full year of varsity sports in high school, are hoping to showcase students’ abilities to college coaches by putting them in summer travel programs – something else that is driving the need for tournaments.
So the question, of course, becomes how many of the AAU’s other big tournaments this summer will go forward as scheduled. It might be an uphhill battle; a survey by the Huddle Up Group recently found that parents' confidence in allowing their children to return to large sports events was strongest for events held in September and beyond.
Already, some youth tournaments are showing a resurgence but it’s a mixed bag. The 11th Annual High School Fishing World Finals and National Championship are scheduled for La Crosse, Wisconsin in June. The Ferguson North American Sand Soccer Championships in Virginia Beach were rescheduled from June to August.
USA Softball has noted that its college recruitment camps will be held in July in Oklahoma City. USA Baseball cancelled its Futures Series scheduled for May 15-17 in Irvine, California, but may hold a second Futures Series event in Irvine, California, from August 28-30. USA Gymnastics announced it would not host specific events in 2020 and would convert others to a virtual format.
The National Federation of State High School Associations has noted that the sheer random pattern of the virus is making it impossible to pinpoint a date for youth sports to return. The fact that many states are bowing to pressure to reopen may open doors to further infection – or it may be a step toward normal behavior, and that it is impossible to know which direction the future will take.
“One of the challenges to solving the crystal ball of high school sports and activities this fall is the uncertainty of the spread of the virus as states begin to re-open this month,” notes Dr. Karissa Niehoff, executive director of NFHS. “While we remain uncertain as to the timetable for the return of high school sports and other activities, we believe that when these programs return – and they will return – that everyone will bring renewed zeal to provide the 12 million participants in these programs the best experience possible.”
And more than three-quarters of sports fans say it is “not very likely” or “not at all likely” that they would attend a sporting event right now, if government restrictions were lifted. But about 40 percent claim such precautions as mandatory facemasks, social distancing requirements and fever checks upon entering venues would make them feel “at least somewhat” more comfortable about going to games. Those are two key findings of a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll of more than 1,100 Americans conducted between May 5-11.
“The overriding factor that would make fans feel comfortable attending a sporting event in person again seems to be the development of a COVID-19 vaccine,” notes Neil Paine, a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.com.
On the other hand, 62 percent of survey respondents indicated they would be “somewhat” or “very likely” to watch sports on TV if they were to return now. Additionally, 80 percent agreed with this statement: “Sports are a way for people to connect with others,” and 39 percent said they miss sports more than they thought they would. Tellingly, only 12 percent said they’ve watched esports or online competitions during the shutdown.
“In general, all of these results square with other polling showing that most Americans think it’s too soon to return to the way life was before the coronavirus shut down the country,” Paine concludes. “The majority of citizens remain somewhat or very worried about the virus, which shows up in their aversion to the idea of returning to sporting events as spectators. The way we will have to consume games at first — over the airwaves, and not in person — could change some of the fundamental pillars of the sports industry forever.”