Even for optimists, it started out as a tough week. IRONMAN cancelled its Muncie, Indiana event. COVID-19 kicked enough sand in the face of the North American Sand Soccer Championships that it dumped its August plans for its Virginia Beach-based tournament and is now mentioning only the 2021 event.
But there is plenty of reason for optimism – and it's emanating from the Midwest, the proverbial heart of America. The Heartland Soccer Tournament Series has announced a new pre-season soccer tournament, on the schedule for July 31-August 2 at GARMIN Olathe Soccer Complex.
The inaugural Heartland Fall Friendlies event guarantees featuring three games for all teams, as well as what it terms “at a massively reduced registration fee” and is being marketed as a tune-up for the fall season.
“We are excited to have the players and coaches return to play. We created this tournament as our return to play event. Normally, the first week of August would mark the start of league play,” explained Executive Director Shane Hackett. “We have moved the start of league back to mid-August allowing opportunity for this unique friendly style competition.”
The Midwest has come through several times this summer. In Iowa, three months of inactivity came to an end with the first state association-sanctioned softball and baseball games being held at the high school level.
In late May, an announcement from Governor Kim Reynolds gave Iowa high school baseball and softball programs clearance to begin using school facilities to prepare for their signature “summer” seasons. With game schedules that typically run from the beginning of May through the third or fourth week of July, Iowa is the only state that plays its high school baseball and softball campaigns primarily during the summer months.
“It’s exciting to have the opportunity to be the first to play,” said Thornburg Tri-County High School baseball coach Scott Edmundson. “The kids talked about that quite a bit. It was pretty special.”
There were some signs that not quite everything in Iowa was back to normal, however. Outside the fences, fans were strongly encouraged to bring their own chairs and were even barred from the bleachers entirely at some ballparks. Pre-game messages explained that aiding in the retrieval of foul balls was strictly prohibited and that onlookers from different families should adhere to appropriate social distancing practices. On-site concessions stands were not allowed at any playing facility across the state. But the players were there, indicating a return was also being driven by a demand.
As the nation gradually reopens, says Ashley Whittaker, vice president of business development and marketing for SFA and SFM, the organization is responding to “pent-up demand in the market for kids and families to get back to play.”
Nationwide, events are dipping a toe back into the waters. The AAU Junior Nationals Volleyball Tournament, previously scheduled for May, has been moved to July 14-22 at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, with multiple precautions in place.
Recently, a five-hour-long high school basketball showcase was held in Glendale, Arizona – ironically, the state that has become a COVID-19 hot spot.
“This might have been the first organized basketball games in the country for high school and college basketball players,” noted one newspaper report, “since so many saw their athletic lives abruptly halted.”
The fact that the games were intended to allow college coaches to see the athletes made them particularly valuable. Games were all live streamed on Baller TV (which also partners with AAU on its volleyball events), giving many administrators, currently impacted by travel restrictions and funding cutbacks, the opportunity to view players.
Robb Floco, head coach of SAGU American Indian College, was quoted in the local newspaper as being optimistic that the hastily-organized event would provide players with a chance to be seen.
"Everyone has been locked up for the last 60 days, 90 days," he said. "I don't think you'll see their best. But you'll see their athleticism. It at least puts a pair of eyes on them. The good thing about basketball, with technology, and film, it's better to see them in person. How they're going to figure in your system. Their demeanor. How they fight through a 60 or 90-day layoff.”
Another event being live streamed is the U.S. Junior Nationals, a girls’ basketball event, currently taking place in Indianapolis, another Midwestern hot spot. (In fact, Indy will be hosting youth basketball events through late July). Other USJN events are scheduled for destinations including Denver, Milwaukee, Chicago, Philadelphia and Kansas City – as well as others. Recognizing the demand, the National Federation of State High School Federations (NFHS) recently announced it will offer up to two free Pixellot automated-production units for schools that lack production capabilities to stream events on the NFHS Network. The offer has been extended to all 19,500 high schools in the 51 NFHS member state associations. The marketing of equipment and services is indicative an expectation that sports will be played at the youth level. And that is a sign that sports are wanted - desperately.
Around the country, said Whittaker, SFA and SFM facilities have been taking in bookings, and in holding events in accordance with CDC guidelines.
“So far we’ve hosted several national events such as Perfect Game’s 13U and 14U Elite National Championships at the Hoover Met Complex, regional events like Ball Parks of America’s 2020 Hometown Heroes Salute, community recreation programs, and non-traditional events such as a drive-in concert “Concerts from the Car” a concert series put on by the Black Jacket Symphony, also in Hoover, Alabama. The SFM team has embraced the ‘new normal’ of social distancing, enhanced sanitization, and facial coverings. We’re here to bring back sports and recreation safely, serving our guests and communities with a smile – hidden behind our masks, of course.”
Other events are moving forward – or finding new homes where they can. The AAU Junior Olympics, previously scheduled for Hampton Roads, Virginia, have been rebooked for Florida’s Space Coast. According to the AAU website, the event will bring the Space Coast a badly needed economic impact of at least $3 million to $3.5 million from upwards of 10,000 hotels room nights, restaurants and other local businesses benefiting from an influx of 2,000 to 3,000 athletes, coaches, parents and their families to the area from in-state and out-of-state.
The Hampton Roads area, it was noted, could not provide the facilities due to COVID-19 restrictions – the same restrictions that shut down the North American Sand Soccer Championships.
Overall, industry members say, there is a strong interest among youth athletes and their parents – and it is important to respond to that interest.
"There is a great deal of interest to get their kids active again, get them back playing what they love, but doing so responsibly," said Sandeep Hingorani, who is part of the founding team of BallerTV, which began four years ago with the aim of allowing parents and coaches to see youth and high school games. "What is holding back is that they were waiting for the first domino. How did that event go? What precautions were taken? These are good points. I think there is some power in making the world aware that basketball is back."
Heartland Soccer, for its part, is capitalizing on the fact that there is additional interest, and is soliciting for sponsors, touting its numbers: it is the largest youth soccer league in the country with more than 1,500 league teams per season, 21,000 league youth players, 2,600 tournament teams each year, 44,000 tournament players each year, 4,000 coaches and 2,000 active referees.
And right now, one very hot tournament.