University athletic programs are beginning to feel the cash and talent crunch as showcase events have been cancelled, revenue has dried up, and rosters have ballooned with extra athletes
Tara Wallack is lucky, on one hand. The Semiahmoo Secondary School standout will play NCAA basketball … somewhere.
Her ball-handling, scoring, rebounding and passing skills are obvious to any university coach with a Wi-Fi connection. Same with her athletic ability.
But it will be her ability to take a big leap — this one, strictly of faith — that will determine where she lands in her post-secondary journey.
Closed borders means no visits to the NCAA Pac-12 schools in the United States that are courting the reigning B.C. 4A girls MVP. Instead of face-to-face meetings with coaches and potential teammates, Wallack has to settle for FaceTime discussions.
“Yes, my recruitment has been impacted at this point,” said Wallack, who quickly pointed out her situation pales in comparison to the life-and-death struggles being played out around the world.
“I won’t get the exposure I was hoping to have this upcoming summer. It’s a lot more difficult, as I can’t visit the schools at this time. A huge part of my decision when choosing a school is being able to visit and see the team dynamics first-hand. Since I’m at home, the best I can do is FaceTiming with the coaches.”
Wallack had been selected to play in the massively scouted BioSteel All-star game in Toronto, which was scheduled for the end of March. That was around the same time as the U-17 national team tryouts, with Canada preparing for August’s FIBA World Championship in Romania. Her plans to play the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) circuit with B.C. United in the U.S. this summer have been kiboshed as well.
At least she got to finish her school season. Wallack had 29 points, 23 rebounds and eight assists in the Totems’ 114-62 demolition of the Terry Fox Ravens in February’s championship game — but many other B.C. athletes won’t get that opportunity. While there is a chance classes might resume, sports won’t, with the B.C. high school spring sports season getting cancelled on April 7.
The disruption has far-reaching consequences beyond scholarship-seeking athletes being able to make on-campus visits.
Seniors in spring sports hoping for a strong final season to grab an 11th-hour bursary will be out of luck. Online and self-isolating workouts are helpful, but skills development in various sports will stall. Scholarships, both in total number and in dollar figures, will take a hit.
And universities on both sides of the border are facing a cash crunch that could overwhelm athletics programs. The NCAA, already without the $600 million from its lucrative March Madness tournament, is staring down the barrel of catastrophe if the shared-revenue college football season doesn’t come off, and its governors have been firm in saying that no sports will occur until schools are reopened.
“We’re all effed,” an athletic director from one of the biggest football schools in the NCAA told Sports Illustrated this week. “There’s no other way to look at this, is there?”
For high school athletes looking at playing post-secondary sports, there are four options: head south of the border to the NCAA, play USports/CCAA at a Canadian university or college, or join the University of Victoria and University of B.C., which both have teams that also compete in NAIA — an alternate American association.
Simon Fraser University, meanwhile, fields teams in the NCAA’s Division 2 ranks.
USports doesn’t offer a spring season, but volleyball and hockey — like the UBC Thunderbirds men’s team, which was on an incredible post-season run — saw their championship tournaments cancelled.
But some athletes at UBC, UVic and SFU, who have teams competing in NCAA or NAIA seasons, are directly impacted. Those governing bodies have granted another year of eligibility for those affected, but this seemingly fair solution has introduced more problems.
One is NAIA roster size; the additional year of eligibility will create a squeeze on squads with an incoming class adding to the strictly regulated team size. The other is money.
“We have submitted … to our administration what we believe to be a four-year scholarship balloon,” said UBC track and field coach Laurier Primeau. “And the reason it’s four years is because it’s not just the seniors who got a year back — it’s our freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors … they all will get one more year.
“I’m of the position that if you make a commitment to someone, you honour it. As long as they are members in good standing of our team … we owe it to those athletes to deliver those scholarships.
“Our problem this year, of course, is that we have already promised a whole bunch of money to incoming freshmen. And we believe that we were going to be able to pay for that using the money that outgoing seniors would be vacating. And now they’re not vacating.”
NCAA teams have the option of offering the year of eligibility with various scales of financial support, from full all the way to zero. UBC athletic director Kavie Toor said the school is going ahead with the usual allocation process, but is planning for multiple scenarios.
While NCAA schools receive a share of the revenue from March Madness and college football, Canadian schools do not.
The Thunderbirds’ athletic department gets about $34 million in revenue — which would put them in the top 100 compared to NCAA — and around 45 per cent of their scholarship funding comes from endowment funds. The remainder is comprised of a combination of donations, fundraising and government funding.
“You look at the NCAA or the U.S., (and) obviously billions of dollars are generated through television contracts. That’s not our reality in Canada,” said Clint Hamilton, UVic’s athletic director and the current president of Canada West athletic conference.
“None of us are reliant on television revenues or big revenues coming from conferences. Each school has a unique funding model.”
UBC’s track team draws revenue from hosting various track meets, for example, while the Vikes’ Championship Breakfast is a huge driver of their department’s income.
And the investments the endowments are disbursed from will all take a major hit from the market downturn, meaning fewer dollars to be doled out.
The dominoes have already begun to fall. The University of Cincinnati — whose US$61.8M in revenue ranks 55th in NCAA — made the decision Tuesday to permanently close its 47-year-old men’s soccer program because of financial difficulties. It likely won’t be the last program to fall.
GRADING THE CURVE, FLATTENING IT
All seniors have been assured of graduating from B.C. high schools this year, but teachers have yet to be given guidance on what that will look like.
And universities haven’t relaxed their admission standards, meaning some student-athletes bound for college could see a prospective scholarship offer disappear.
If they’d hoped to improve their grades in the final term, this becomes difficult with classes migrating online and with teaching support more difficult to immediately obtain. And depending on demographic circumstances, taking courses by computer could prove challenging for many students.
“A lot of them are freaking out … if they didn’t do the unconditional acceptance route in the first or second term,” said Jeff Hodgson, athletic director at University Hills Secondary School.
“As I understand it, everyone is going to graduate and move on, but I don’t know how that acceptance is going to go down and how the universities are going to look at that.
“We still haven’t gotten any suggestions for us on how, as teachers, (student) assessment is going to look in the third term. Are we going to give full grades on the third term? Is it going to be a blend of the first two, and a pass/fail situation for the third? We haven’t been guided through that yet. We’re still working on that. It’s a s***show, to be honest.”
Physical distancing measures have also hampered athlete development in the majority of sports. Wallack might be able to go for runs and shoot baskets on her driveway hoop, but the skills improvement she’d been working on with her coach — like the difficult-to-master Euro step — becomes way more challenging.
“On top of that, not being able to get access to a gym to work out and lift weights has been really difficult,” she said. “Other than practising on my outdoor hoop and going for runs, I’m pretty limited with my workouts. (I’m) making the best of it.”
Whitecaps REX player Andersen Williams, who was supposed to head to Texas A&M this July, has seen her plans put on pause as well. She follows the individual online workouts and program designed for her by REX coach Chris Sargeant, and has been busy in Zoom meetings with the other Aggies freshmen.
“Nobody really knows exactly what’s going to happen … so, as of right now, we have our fingers crossed that stuff will continue as planned,” said Williams, who is currently in Calgary waiting out the pandemic.
“It’s hard to be motivated all the time, especially to go downstairs and turn on that treadmill. It’s a lot of personal motivation … if you make excuses, it’s just hurting yourself. You’re the one stopping yourself from getting better.”
The uncertainty will continue for weeks as countries, cities and institutions continue to adapt to the rapidly changing COVID-19 crisis. But the athletes and seniors will be added to the long list of ancillary casualties of the coronavirus outbreak.
“At the end of the day, I just feel bad for the kids who are in Grade 12,” said Hodgson. “And all of the kids in general, but the kids in Grade 12 are missing out on their last chance to play high school athletics.
“Luckily it’s only the spring season … but it’s sad to see that taken away from these kids.”
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