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COVID Challenges: College Lacrosse’s Uncertain Immediate Future

Colleges & universities face a precarious future due to the COVID-19 crisis, how will that impact college lacrosse?

Coronavirus Pandemic Causes Climate Of Anxiety And Changing Routines In America Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

I had an idea for this post after the UFC 249: Ferguson vs. Gaethje pay-per-view event in Jacksonville, Fl back on May 9th. I wanted to explore & breakdown some of the challenges college sports faced in reopening as opposed to professional sports due to the COVID-19 crisis. I wanted to show why those challenges were going to be much more difficult for college sports and how those issues might negatively impact college lacrosse.

There has been a lot of talk recently regarding how to restart professional sports. MLB has been making plans to reopen this summer. The NBA & NHL have both had internal discussions on how to restart their leagues and finish off their 2019-2020 seasons. Additionally, the NFL released 2020 schedules for its 32 teams and now is trying to figure out a safe way to open team sites for training camp in July.

While we are far from being able to declare victory over this deadly disease, there have been some encouraging health numbers as of late and reopening professional sports would help us return to some normalcy after these awful months of shutdown.

I lumbered through this post last week and I considered scrapping it entirely because I was afraid I was being too alarmist. Colleges and college sports are definitely facing some challenges, more than professional sports, but I thought maybe the tone of the post would be too pessimistic in implying that this was a really dire situation for college lacrosse.

However, any doubt I had evaporated after the news on Monday that Furman University cut its men’s lacrosse program, I realized that dark clouds were definitely swirling and that college lacrosse fans could be in for a very bumpy ride over the next few months.

While the country might be starting to recover from the COVID-19 crisis, colleges and universities face many difficult issues on a myriad of fronts and restarting their institutions after shutting everything down back in March will be even more difficult than it will be for professional sports to reopen.

Indeed, it is a very precarious time for colleges in general and college lacrosse has some significant hurdles on the horizon, most of which are outside of its control. Ignoring the issues or not being realistic about the situation wouldn’t do any good. Below are some of the issues I believe are the most pressing problems facing colleges and their athletic departments right now and how these issues might impact college lacrosse’s immediate future.

When To Open

One of the biggest issues colleges must contend with is whether or not they will be able to even open in the fall and what would reopening look like. Inside Higher Ed laid out 15 fall scenarios for how colleges could reopen in August/September and they range from everything back to normal, to fully remote, to limits on the size of in-person classes, to a structured gap year for their students. Answering this initial question is imperative as NCAA President Mark Emmert said that he did not see colleges being able to play college football or other fall sports unless students were back on campus in the fall. Which would also mean that there wouldn’t be a college lacrosse season next spring year either if schools do not reopen until the fall of 2021, .

Schools opening in the spring would be better than not opening at all, but it would still have a deleterious impact on college lacrosse. That would mean no fall ball and a truncated preseason.

While you could have a 2021 college lacrosse season if schools delayed reopening until the spring semester, the product would take a hit, as players would not have had organized practices for roughly 9-10 months. It would be akin to one of those strike-shortened seasons in professional sports where everyone is playing their way back into shape during the season and the product on the field suffers accordingly.

Financial Armageddon

Most schools make an overwhelming majority of their money from tuition, money from the state if they are public universities, on-campus fees (housing, meal plans, etc), donations, and their endowments. However, right now I don’t know of any school that isn’t feeling the pain from the fact that most of their main sources of income are drying up.

Indeed, schools are hurting big time right now, in fact they are straight up hemorrhaging money. We all know about all the money schools lost because March Madness was canceled, well the 3-5 million dollars each school lost because there was no NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is a drop in the bucket compared to all the other losses they have had to endure (and are still enduring) since March.

Most universities refunded a portion of the money students paid for room and board, meal plans, and other related on-campus costs for the spring semester. However, an increasing number of schools are also facing class action lawsuits from students demanding tuition reimbursements as well.

These suits began in early April and have increased ever since then as more and more students are alleging they are not receiving the same level of services in their remote classes as they would otherwise enjoy on campus and that they should be reimbursed for the difference.

Additionally, many states made immediate, deep cuts to funds previously allocated to public universities. This is most prevalent at state flagship universities like Rutgers & the University of Michigan, and the like, as many have reported huge losses in revenue because of having to shutdown in the spring.

But its not just large state schools leaking cash like a sieve, as private universities like Johns Hopkins, Duke, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and others have all reported staggering losses of revenue these last 8-9 weeks.

Additionally, not being able to offer summer school is also going to be a major financial drain for many schools. If the current financial condition doesn’t stabilize soon, many schools will face serious financial risks going forward, which could result in deep cuts to their athletic budgets.

Athletic departments around the country have already begun to try and save money, as directors, administrators, coaches, and staff have taken voluntary pay cuts to help avoid furloughs and alleviate the strain on their budgets, nevertheless, given the drastic economic conditions many schools are facing, it’s highly likely that some Division I institutions are considering more drastic measures like limiting travel next season or cutting programs entirely.

While I don’t think Division I lacrosse as a whole is definitely on the chopping block, as it does have a lot of things going for it, given the poor financial state many colleges and universities were in before the COVID-19 crisis even began, I think it would be unwise to think that the sport will be lightly affected or immune from this tsunami of red ink.

Indeed, we just saw Furman cut its men’s lacrosse program and last week the Mid-American Conference eliminated its women’s lacrosse conference tournament next year in a cost-saving move. I don’t think what happened to Furman and the MAAC are anomalies and if anything they may be the canaries in the coalmine.

Many non-revenue sports saw the writing on the wall once March Madness was canceled and were already trying to cut costs. But despite their efforts we have seen non-revenue college sports take some hits the last month. In addition to what happened to Furman yesterday, Old Dominion cut its men’s wrestling team, the University of Cincinnati dropped men’s soccer, and Bowling Green shut down its baseball program.

Given the present financial situation many schools are in right now it’s not outlandish to say that if schools can’t stop the financial bleeding soon and/or can’t reopen in the fall, that some may never reopen and the ones that do, will only be able to do so after having made some extremely difficult economic decisions to survive, which will probably include more cuts to their athletic budget.

What About College Football?

Another big issue that may impact college lacrosse’s immediate future is whether or not there is college football this fall.

Cancelling college football completely would have a calamitous impact on many university athletic budgets. While there are Division I schools that play lacrosse and don’t have football, there are many that depend on college football to carry their athletic budgets.

Indeed, canceling college football would be disastrous for lacrosse schools in Power Five conferences like the Big Ten & ACC, as football drives the bus when it comes to college sports and one can definitely see some dire scenarios at those schools if there is no college football at all next season.

There have been talks about having college football in the spring of 2021. While this would be much better than canceling it entirely, moving college football to the spring would certainly have a negative impact on college lacrosse, as many schools don’t have lacrosse-only facilities and have to use the football field for practice/games.

Lacrosse would probably have to take a back seat or have to make accommodations for football at many schools, which would at the very least mean a lot more mid-week games instead of Saturday games. Additionally, it could get really crowded at the gym or practice field if other fall sports have to move to the spring as well, as that would mean college lacrosse would have to share the limited resources with more teams beside football.

If You Open, Will They Come?

Colleges may re-open their dorms this fall and invite students to come back, but students may be forced to still take classes remotely from their dorms or there may be some hybrid where some classes are remote and some are in-person classes.

However, there are a lot of students thinking about taking a gap year until things have fully returned to normal or a vaccine is found, as many students are rethinking the idea of another semester or year of partially or fully remote classes and not getting to enjoy the complete college experience.

The idea of a gap year has gained more and more traction over the last few weeks, as a survey by the American Council on Education and the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers showed that about one in five current students is unsure of plans to re-enroll or has decided not to go to college this fall.

I am sure a lot of parents are also having gap year thoughts as I can’t imagine many are thrilled about the idea of cutting another full tuition check, plus room and board, just for their kids to be taking remote classes from their dorm room or apartments near campus instead of the living room couch at home.

But it is not just current students who are rethinking coming back to campus. Indeed, a growing number of professors have voiced concerns about returning to teach in-person classes. People over the age of 60 are statistically at a greater risk of getting sick from COVID-19 than other age groups, and there are a lot of professors in or close to that age group, and many of whom are not comfortable with the idea of going back to teaching in-person classes if there isn’t a vaccine available.

Schools are going to be in a tough situation if on the one hand they have students who don’t want to come back unless they get the full experience which means being taught by professors in-person and on the other hand they have professors who don’t want to teach in-person and want to continue to do remote teaching because of totally reasonable and legitimate health concerns.

Hesitancy about coming to schools is also coming from incoming freshmen as college admission officers and college counselors have seen a significant increase in the number of inquiries about deferring enrollment.

Many things could happen over the next 3-4 months and if we have a breakthrough soon we could see colleges reopen on time with all their resources available. That would certainly be great. But if there isn’t a major positive development soon, it’s a possible that many students choose to take a year off and not come back until 2021. There’s no way to tell how many of those are going to be lacrosse players but if some of these survey numbers are true, it could definitely be a not insignificant amount.

Anyway, sorry for the long and rather dour post. There are plenty of other issues out there that could impact colleges lacrosse’s immediate future that I didn’t address, including the high unemployment numbers in NY, NJ, PA, CT, MA, & MD (all big lacrosse hotbeds) because non-essential businesses were shutdown in those states, but I tried to highlight these four here today as I felt they were some of the most pressing issues facing colleges and universities right now.

What challenges do you think college lacrosse faces over the next year or so? Let us know in the comments section below.