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Game On for Youth Sports as Summer Tournaments Begin

16 Jul, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher,Michael Popke

The post-COVID youth sports scene doesn’t just have signs of life, it has some great case studies of success. You just need to know where to look. Across America, tournaments are going on.

In Georgia, Lake Point Sports, which hosts more than 30 sports year-round, including baseball, basketball, volleyball, soccer, lacrosse, gymnastics and cheer, recently hosted the Lake Point Live showcase, one of the earliest youth basketball tournaments in the nation, with more than 50 traveling teams. PlaySight. The venue will bring the U.S. Games to campus August 7-9 and LakePoint Hoops Battle for Georgia August 30.

In essence, though, Lake Point had started the journey back to live sports months earlier.

The venue’s phased return to on-campus activity began with limited outdoor practices in late May, leading up to the first Prep Baseball Report (PBR) tournament, which took place the first week of June. The summer travel baseball season is now in full swing on the LakePoint Sports campus with every PBR tournament nearly sold out from now through August.

“The coronavirus pandemic really disrupted the youth sports world,” Mark O’Brien, president and CEO of LakePoint Sports, told AIThority. “As we considered how and when to open the campus, safety was and continues to be our top priority. We are aggressively assessing the unique nature of each sport, event and venue through a methodical and well-defined process as we incorporate federal, state, county and local safety requirements. It continues to be an intense and detailed process focused on providing the safest environment for our team members, partners, youth athletes, coaches, scouts and family members at the LakePoint Sports campus.”

LakePoint’s Safety Guidelines are published on its website and reinforced on its campus. Capacity in the venue is limited and PPE is required.

“We’ve worked closely with our operators and partners to ensure that we provide the safest campus experience possible as the season ramps back up,” said O’Brien. “There’s excitement and momentum as we move from sold-out baseball and volleyball tournaments in June into the heart of the summer sports season with activity on campus across baseball, basketball, beach volleyball, soccer, lacrosse and our summer camps and clinics, as well as the anticipation of our first esports event in July. It is great to see youth athletes safely returning to LakePoint Sports.”

While phased-in play is possible at some facilities, events that run once per year have one shot at getting it right. That makes for a lot of planning on the back end. Tom Galecke of Waupaca Boatride Volleyball, known as the U.S. Open of Grass Volleyball, put in the hours trying to make the event not just take place but take place in the safest way possible. Meetings with county officials, the health department and Visit Oshkosh helped lay the groundwork. Ultimately, in conjunction with Visit Oshkosh, the tournament developed a “Spike COVID” campaign to encourage safety among players and spectators.

There were plenty of immediately recognizable differences between the 2020 event and tournaments of years past.

“Probably our biggest change was that we cut back our attendance limit by 50 percent. We usually have more than 300 nets set up and this year, we cut back to 153. That allowed us to spread courts not 10 feet apart the way we usually do, but 35 to 40 feet apart so people could keep social distance.”

Of course, he added, that meant having to turn away long-time attendees from the always sold-out tournament.

“I hated doing it. I hated telling people they couldn’t play this year. People were saying, “But I’ve played in this tournament for 20 years – but they generally always ended up by saying “I understand; we’ll see you next year.” They were good about it because they know everyone is going through this.”

Another big change was the matter of accommodations. Whereas the event normally draws an enormous number of teams that camp, either in RVs or tents, Galecke and his staff saw that as a potential health risk.

“You can say there’s a limit of six people per campsite, but a lot of these people are college kids and we knew they’d want to pack 20 people onto a campsite because that’s how they are.”

Instead, designating the Hawthorne Suites in Oshkosh as the official host property generated some much-needed economic impact to the area which, Galecke said, had suffered tremendously in the pandemic.

“A lot of their large music festivals and big events had dropped out. We were the only thing that went on this summer and we got the hotel to 100 percent capacity.”

Other changes included using food trucks (in other years, campers would cook their own meals on site), eliminating the grandstands and bands, and enforcing PPE requirements. Competitions among teams for best masks helped drive engagement. Hand sanitizer stations were set up throughout the area and instead of the plastic beer mug that had been the event swag for years, there was replaced by Waupaca Boatride Hand Sanitizer.

Heavy rains wreaked havoc with the schedule of the tournament and at one point, a small river wound its way through part of the tournament area. But once the area dried out, athletes could play and according to Galecke, the fact that they could was much appreciated.

“People were really happy. I think the overall response was just that they were so grateful to get out and do something again. The fact that this was a tournament that was being held on a large scale made it special to them.”

Not all events return to play successfully, however. A youth baseball tournament in Roseburg, Oregon, led to at least eight positive COVID-19 tests, and a youth basketball tournament in Wichita, Kansas, resulted in at least three positive cases. Both events took place in late June, as coronavirus cases were soaring around the country, and they each stand as cautionary tales.

“I do worry,” Jim Ginder, health education specialist at Indiana’s Hamilton County Health Department, told WTHR.com on July 10, as a boys’ basketball tournament was expected to tip off at four different sites in the county that weekend. “There’s a lot of people coming from all parts of the U.S., and I’m really concerned individuals can be bringing COVID. My personal opinion is a lot of people are becoming a little more lax with the [CDC] recommendations that keep people safe. The reality is, the more people we have, the higher risk we have of COVID being transmitted.”

At least two other major youth sports events were happening in Indiana that same weekend, including a USSSA softball tournament at multiple sites in and around Columbus and a Tournament of Champions girls’ basketball event at the Indianapolis Convention Center.

And even in areas that have been deemed COVID hot spots, there are tournaments.

The 47th AAU Volleyball Nationals, originally slated for May and then moved to July 14-22, was shortened from 13 to nine days, according to AthleticBusiness.com. The event usually takes place on 160 courts at the Orange County Convention Center and Disney’s Wide World of Sports’ HP Field House. But with the NBA moving into the Disney venue to complete its postponed 2019-20 season, the AAU tournament moved to the convention center and used use only 80 courts.

“Tournament organizers will implement a number of safety and health-related protocols,” AthleticBusiness.com reports. “The usual opening ceremony has been nixed this year, and spectators are not allowed. However, teams can have up to 10 chaperones per roster. … [A]nyone who enters the convention center in Orlando will have to have their temperature taken, and teams will be given staggered arrival times. International teams were not allowed to compete this year. Exceptions were made for teams from Puerto Rico, although [AAU officials] estimated not as many teams from outside the state wanted to join this year because of travel concerns.”

Florida lifted restrictions on youth sport activities in May.

In Texas, the that state set coronavirus hospitalization records 31 times in 33 days, a youth lacrosse event in Round Rock attracted more than 1,000 players and spectators.

As the Austin American-Stateman reported, “E.W. Bitter, the president of Bitter Lacrosse, the Vermont-based company that operated the Round Rock event, said spectators were required to wear masks and so were players when they were not competing. They were also required to stay six feet away from other people while on the sidelines unless they were from the same household.

The tournament, held at a city facility, was open to boys teams with players ages 10 to 18 and girls teams with players ages 14 to 18. Players and spectators were required to do self-screening for coronavirus symptoms before they arrived at the outdoor tournament at Round Rock’s Multipurpose Complex, Bitter said. They were also required to answer screening questions when they got to the event, he said.

“We had under 1,500 people across dozens of acres,” Bitter said. “Anyone who didn’t have a mask on was provided a mask and told to put it on.”

On the other hand, the Big Mountain Jam, the first of the two-part showcase in Sandy, Utah, took place at Mountain America Expo Center the previous weekend with nearly 200 teams, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.

“There [were] no problems at all,” Mike Killpack, an organizer for the event, told the newspaper. “We followed all of the COVID guidelines that the county health department put on us.”

Health and safety precautions are becoming the norm (or perhaps the new norm, if COVID-speak is employed), rather than the exception.

Jeff Ford is coach of the Staten Island Bulldogs’ U-14 and U-15 girls’ basketball teams, which were among the approximately 500 teams that participated in the Tournament of Champions event in Indianapolis in July. He told SILive.com that all players were required to sign waivers each time they entered the Indianapolis Convention Center. Masks were mandated (but were optional during games) temperatures were taken and only two courts were used to limit the number of people in the arena.

“Outside the facility, … it was a ghost town,’’ Ford said. “And at the facility, parents were allowed in, but they spaced them out. I’d say there were maybe about 40 people at each game and when the game was over, you left. There were no college coaches in attendance, but they were able to watch the games on video, and I was told over 400 [coaches] did so. … [I]t was a good experience, especially seeing what the protocols were and, of course, getting the girls back out on the court.”

Other events, including those serving an adult population, have announced their intentions to continue. Owners of the PlayGolfMyrtleBeach.com World Amateur Handicap Championship have noted the event will go forward as scheduled,from August 31-September 4, but will include changes:

  • Removal of “The World’s Largest 19th Hole”, which usually serves as the event’s social hub, providing players free food, drinks, live entertainment and more each evening.
  • All participants will have their own cart for each tournament round.
  • There will be no more than 72 golfers at each course (approx. 36 players per flight).
  • A tee time window in threesomes will be instituted.
  • Range balls will be provided on a complimentary basis and placed on respective ranges to eliminate touch points.
  • No spectators will be allowed at any course.
  • Golf courses will follow all federal guidelines as determined by the CDC at that time.
  • Individual courses may institute additional policies involving the touching of pins, bunker rakes, etc.

“We feel confident we can safely run a golf tournament with players following social distancing recommendations,” said Scott Tomasello, tournament director for Golf Tourism Solutions, the company that operates the event. “However, the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic make it impossible for us to move forward with plans for the World’s Largest 19th Hole in 2020, which is unfortunate, but we still anticipate providing players an unforgettable competitive experience.”

While thousands of players will participate in the event, they will be dispersed onto upwards of 35 golf courses each day to avoid the risk of crowding.

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