I count myself among the 4 or 5 American sports fans excited about the growth of the State Champions Bowl Series, a nationally-broadcast tournament for exceptional prep football squads. Last year’s event showed once again that (contrary to popular belief) Texas, Florida, and California are not the only 3 states spawning superior teams on the HS level, as Saint Louis School of Hawaii fought bravely in a 16-point loss to St. Thomas Aquinas of Miami, Florida.
Who was shown that outcome in real-time was arguably the more-significant story. In olden days, it would have been up to a handful of alumni to brag about 4 quarters no one else saw.
There was a minor backlash in the 1990s when prep pigskin began to get cable airtime. Something about the “corruption” of High School sports that would ensue if teenage student-athletes earned broad viewership and recognition beyond friends and family. It was an absurd argument on its face. Most prep athletes don’t get a chance to play for a major college team, so a handful of Smilin’ Jack sportswriters were opposing the kids’ only shot at scoring touchdowns on national TV.
High School scrums deserve a wider audience because prep football is the purest version of the game that we have. FBS and FCS teams look alike because coaches are afraid to run exotic playbooks, fearing recruit X will be unhappy that recruit Y might more touches during the season. No such limitations exist for public prep rosters comprised of volunteers from campus. Their game plans can always be reduced to a pithy phrase – whatever it takes to win. Clashes of styles are more fun than watching a pair of generic Read-Option teams mimic each other for 3 hours.
If there’s any “keep it off TV” sentiment left out there, it can’t help that the State Champions Bowl Series has taken place in Las Vegas, where high-rolling speculators will bet on the weather if somebody offers it. That’s where the beauty of online sports wagering comes in. There were no bookies in trench-coats creeping around the Bishop Gorman gridiron when the SCBS kicked off over the 2019-20 holidays. Wiseguys are allowed to gamble discreetly while bookmakers in Costa Rica set the odds based on DVR footage and national computer rankings. As is the case with bizarre betting markets on the Little League World Series, none of the players ever have to know.
Speaking of which, the LLWS has been sadly cancelled in 2020 due to the lingering threat of coronavirus. That’s a decision cloaked in “safety for the youngsters” rhetoric. But it’s still a weird development, considering that summer baseball is going to happen even if fans are not allowed to pack into MLB ballparks. Surely it would have been possible to COVID-19 test every Little Leaguer in the tournament before they took the diamond. Fundraising could have paid for private buses or airplanes to eliminate the threat of infection in public transit. Children are all but invulnerable to life-threatening cases of COVID-19 anyway. The messy truth of the matter is that there isn’t enough money in the Little League World Series to make a mild risk “worthwhile.” MLB and NHL clubs will be back in action soon only because of the immense sums of cash they generate.
Cancelling the LLWS also creates an ominous headline for prep football fans. Arguably, the sport would be better-positioned to survive 2020’s pandemic if it had somehow developed into a worldwide cash cow.
Unless the coronavirus is a distant memory by August (unlikely) the schedule could be forced into limbo with no big-business interest in keeping High School football active. If faced with a potential crash in ticket sales, prep sports associations may be moved to say things like,
“We’d really rather not lose 15 dollars on this” “We have to put the safety of our student-athletes first,” and cancel an entire year’s worth of kickoffs.
What can boosters, alumni, and superintendents do to try to save the season in pandemic-threatened states?
We can start by presenting state athletic bodies with contingency plans. Lots of them.
Ideas to Protect the 2020 Prep Football Season
First, a list of the potential problems to solve. Prep football begins earlier in the year than NFL or in some cases FBS pigskin. Some Midwestern and southern states begin playing football in August for reasons unknown to mortal humankind – Missouri for-instance takes part in an annual experiment to see if a student-athlete will collapse from heat exhaustion before a school bus melts under the brutal summer sun. Other states have good reasons for starting early. Alaska, for instance, plays its football games in late summer and early fall, because at some point the sun is going to go down…and not come up for months.
If a prep league can’t wait until September or even October if necessary, precious weeks could be lost in which to flatten or even eliminate the coronavirus “curve” in each gridiron locale.
I kid around on the Gridiron Geek blog about prep associations grubbing for as many ticket-sales as possible. But it’s no joke in 2020. Ticket sales at High School games are not a profit-generator as much as a survival mechanism. The money keeps football programs alive. If social distancing is still a thing as of late summer, attendees will not be able to cram into the tiny bleachers that still pass for “luxury” seating on many campuses.
Finally, there’s the awful potential for COVID-19 opportunism.
History has shown that a slim minority of parents and coaches aren’t above playing dirty when trying to eliminate local or regional opponents from a bracket. If a school is expected to lose by 5 touchdowns to a hated rival, and even 1 student at the latter campus is known to be infected with coronavirus, parents of kids on the former team may churn-up a controversy. “Forfeit that school, you’re jeopardizing
our undefeated win-loss record the health of our students!” could be an unfortunate-if-predictable battle cry.
The timing issue could be solved with a flexible schedule. Midwestern fans can remember bundling-up for icy playoff games before prep football became a state vs state race to see who can finish earlier. Later-starting schedules worked then, and they can work in 2020. Administrators will raise all kinds of potential problems if a 3 or 5-week delay is required to safely kick-off the season, like overrun into winter/spring sports such as basketball.
Boosters must be prepared to point-out that the upside of saving scholastic pigskin is worth any conflicts on the calendar. Think of the alternative – cancelling all football just so that a few preliminary hoops tournaments are easier to produce in December. Basketball coaches must be willing to delay or simply give-up a small handful of games. Football can repay the favor next time a pandemic or a teachers’ strike postpones things on the hardwood.
As for paid attendance, remember that demand is the crucial component of any business model. If people want to see the kids play, they’ll pay to do so even if the stadium can’t be filled safely. PPV streams are somewhat of a scourge in High School sports, as profiteers extort grandparents for “One Month All-Access Passes” at $39.99 when everyone knows they’re only looking to purchase a single stream for 2 hours so that they can watch their namesakes on the field. But the technology can work in schools’ favor in 2020 if internet live streams are locally-produced and priced reasonably.
Suppose residents in a tourist-heavy town still under threat of pandemic are social-distancing, and are allowed to sit 6+ feet apart on Friday nights. Individual or family seats could be sectioned-off at the proper length, and if demand for live-game tickets exceeds the number of seats available, the tix could be raffled-off in a lottery, with unlucky members of the pep squad promised a seat at the next game and/or a free pass to watch online.
Opportunistic forfeit-seeking can be quashed by strong, definitive rule-setting. If schools are back in session as of the fall semester (they’ll have to be in-session in some form for sports to take place under by-laws) then the campus medical staff will have exact protocols for dealing with potential COVID-19 cases. The same standard operating procedures can be applied to sports. If a student-athlete tests positive for coronavirus, it may be that anyone on his team that they’ve had contact with will not be allowed to play unless tested and confirmed negative, or simply not allowed to play regardless. For that reason, many coaches could choose to run non-contact practices, or wrap players in gloves, protective gear, and sturdy face-masks prior to contact drills.
Whatever the state’s rules are, they must be followed to the letter, with no favoritism or exceptions. Politics are rampant in High School sports. It will be important not to let a student’s touchdowns-per-touch numbers affect the more-important number “0,” as in – if all goes well – the number of kids who contract the virus from playing in a game.
Friday Nights Under Stars & Stripes
There’s a silver lining to every dark cloud. Perhaps the fall of 2020 will be a time of rebirth and renewal in the United States as citizens enjoy the activities we too-often took for granted prior to the spring lockdown. Maybe the national coronavirus curve will be so flat by August as to be a lesser threat to a given student body than a potential outbreak of measles.
It’s still possible that we won’t need any of the precautions or advice offered above in order to celebrate yet another prep gridiron season…even in New York or California.
But it’s never a bad idea to prepare for the worst. Public relations and the threat of litigation has caused too many sports-governing bodies to cancel and postpone local contests at the slightest hint of a calamity. We can’t let that happen this time.
Remember, when people say “it’s just sports, it’s not life and death,” they’re only half-right. Saving lives is always top priority. But for devoted student-athletes, sports are a big part of life if not worth risking death.
Life won’t be the same if there are no Friday nights under the Stars & Stripes this year. That’s true no matter how meager the TV ratings are.
High School boosters and parents can sit around and keep their fingers crossed that everything will be OK, but a better option is to get out ahead of the curve (so to speak) and produce a plan to help ward-off the panic before cancellations become the norm in an autumn like no other.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.