Hopes For a 2021 College Season Dimming

Travel, club sports restrictions could torpedo the spring season.

Colorado defeated Cal by a comfortable margin in the prequarterfinals of the 2017 College Championships.
Colorado Kali. Photo: Brian Canniff — UltiPhotos.com

The 2020 college ultimate season was abruptly cut short in March as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the United States. Now the 2021 season also looks increasingly in doubt.

Colleges and universities have been operating with remote teaching, limited on-campus student populations, and significantly curtailed extracurricular programs, including club sports, for most of the year in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. Non-essential university related travel is prohibited or heavily restricted, and many schools are not allowing student clubs to gather in person.

While major varsity sports like football and basketball have returned to competition at some schools, hardly any have permitted club sports teams to compete.

That sets the stage for a heavily limited 2021 spring college season.

A former long-time club sports director at a US university speaking on condition of anonymity told Ultiworld that the out-of-state travel that typically defines the college regular and post season is very unlikely to be permitted. They shared screenshots from a Facebook group populated by club sports directors from around the country that showed pessimism about a return to competition in the spring. “The decision isn’t going to come from the club sports or athletic departments,” they said. “It’s going to come from the universities.”

An analysis of the travel policies of the schools that sent teams to the 2019 D-I College Championships shows that every school has significant travel restrictions in place. Some colleges — like the University of Texas and Cal Poly SLO — have already announced restrictions through the end of May 2021. Many others have yet to announce spring semester plans but are currently prohibiting domestic travel. A handful are permitting in-state travel, though any travel still requires administrative approval. It is unclear whether student extracurricular groups would be permitted to travel under such rules.

A USA Ultimate survey of college teams did show that some teams have begun to practice, said USAU Manager of College Competition and Athlete Programs Tom Manewitz. “There are a lot of teams practicing with social distancing and/or mask rules in place,” he said. “There are very few teams traveling to play.” Organizers don’t seem to be optimistic either: no major spring tournaments have been announced or listed on USA Ultimate’s website.

USAU’s College Competition Working Group will be meeting in early December to discuss the upcoming season. No decisions have been made yet about next year, but “everything is on the table,” said Manewitz. An announcement about the 2021 season is expected by mid-December, which could include another look at eligibility rules. Rostered fifth year players were granted an additional year of eligibility for the 2021 season after this year’s cancellation. Varsity college athletes are also getting the chance to prolong their careers: after extending eligibility for a year for spring and fall athletes, the NCAA announced that winter athletes would get an extension as well.

This year, USAU considered a postponed late fall College Championships event before eventually cancelling it. Similar rescheduling could be on the table in 2021, given that the organization has strong financial incentives to hold college ultimate events next year. College students are the largest single group of USAU members, representing 31.5% of full-year members in 2019 (and likely a much larger share in 2020). The NCAA just today announced plans to hold a “bubble” March Madness men’s college basketball tournament next spring. The tournament brings in approximately 75% of the NCAA’s revenue each year, according to the Wall Street Journal.

One potential outcome in 2021 is state-based ultimate competition. “Some universities may allow in-state travel, so there may be teams that try to put together their own tournament,” said the former club sports director.

Even if they are allowed to travel, teams may face additional hurdles due to financial cutbacks. Club sports departments have seen their funding slashed as universities face decreases in student body populations: fall freshmen enrollment is down 13% nationwide this semester, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Recent positive news about vaccine development — drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna both have early phase 3 trial results showing a 90%+ efficacy for their vaccines — does offer a glimmer of hope. Barry Bloom, a professor of public health at Harvard University advising Massachusetts on vaccine distribution, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that “the hope is most people who are willing or keen to take a vaccine, we will have vaccines for them by the end of spring, before summer.”

Still, colleges were some of the quickest institutions to restrict operations due to COVID-19 in the spring, and it is unlikely that they will be on the leading edge of full reopenings.

“I still foresee that people are going to be rigidly wearing their masks and physically distancing six feet from others, washing their hands regularly with hand sanitizer, soap and water, wiping surfaces and avoiding crowds. I still see that happening for the foreseeable future,” Gerri Taylor, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 task force, told Inside Higher Ed. “Until we have a very high level of immunization coverage in this country, I think we’re going to have to be very, very careful, especially with our at-risk population.”

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld.You can reach him by email ([email protected]) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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