SOUTH KINGSTOWN — Fields and courts at the University of Rhode Island will remain quiet this fall, as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic seep into another season on the sports calendar.
URI will not play football, soccer, volleyball or any other fall sport as scheduled, following Friday announcements by the Atlantic 10 Conference and the Colonial Athletic Association that fall sports competition would be postponed.
Both leagues are hoping to shift competition to spring if the landscape allows.
"At the end of the day, I feel like we came to the right place. I feel very good about that, making sure the health and safety of our students, our coaches, our staff and our fans are really what drove these decisions,” URI Director of Athletics Thorr Bjorn said. “I wish we didn’t have to end up there. It’s not a fun day. It’s not why we got into this business.
"I did meet with our coaches this morning by WebEx and our student-athlete advisory group by WebEx. They all understood. They’re supportive. All I promised them is we’re going to do everything within our power and work really hard to get our fall seasons played in the spring.”
The A-10 left open the possibility of an abbreviated fall season if a mid-September check of the situation indicates positive trends in the pandemic. The league will also wait on a determination for basketball season in the winter, with no changes currently in place.
The CAA is allowing teams to pursue independent football schedules, but URI will not exercise that option.
In Kingston, the decisions impact men’s and women’s cross country, men’s golf, women’s tennis and women’s rowing, in addition to football, soccer and volleyball.
No fall season will take place for baseball or softball, spring sports which typically hold several weeks of fall practice and scrimmages. Teams in all sports will be permitted to practice during the fall season, with the same precautions in place that had been sketched out for a full fall season.
“Everyone’s going to be practicing,” Bjorn said. “That’s the gameplan. Coming back to school when the regular student body comes back and having regular practices.”
Football players were set to report July 24, but will now return with the rest of the student body and pin their hopes on spring. Bjorn said the possible spring campaign would likely be conference-only, though there could be room to play a few additional games.
URI won’t play its buy game against Northern Illinois, a $400,000 guarantee game that would have netted around $300,000 for the athletic department.
James Madison and Elon are reportedly exploring independent schedules, but Bjorn said URI didn’t want to go in that direction.
“For us, it just doesn’t make sense. We couldn’t do that in a way that would allow us to have our student-athletes and staff and coaches practice and compete in a safe way,” Bjorn said. “At the end of the day, we want to be good partners with the university and feel it’s very important to bring the general student body back in safe way.
"The fact that we would possibly be sending 100 people off, landing in Chicago on Labor Day weekend and then back again, there was too much risk. We certainly felt it’s in the best interest of the entire university to continue to push this off.”
The Atlantic 10 had previously created reduced and regionalized schedules for its fall sports seasons, while also shrinking tournament fields. Those plans were put to the side amid rising COVID cases across the country and decisions by other conferences to make adjustments.
The conference and institutional leadership have agreed to a “look-in window” in mid-September, allowing for a potentially truncated competitive schedule among conference opponents if the COVID-19 risk has substantially been reduced.
“The look-in window, any decisions will be dictated by the COVID status, nationally and regionally,” A-10 Commisioner Bernadette McGlade said. “There would have to be a significant upward trend in all of the impacts that we’re seeing right now, in regards to ensuring the health and safety of our student-athletes and our campus communities as well.
"It allows us the opportunity to put together a conference-only regular schedule. It’s a slim opportunity but we felt like we should keep it on the table.”
With official practices for basketball still months away, the league opted to hold off any decisions. Bjorn hopes to see the Rams on the court come November, if possible.
“Obviously, the A-10 is a basketball-centric league,” Bjorn said. “I think it’s important, like with everything else, to plan like we’re full-steam ahead in a safe way. That’s everybody’s intent. We certainly hope we continue to learn a lot about how to conduct practices.
"What do games look like? I don’t know, in terms of fans, etc. Those are things we’re going to work on over the next few months. We do have time to be able to make some of those decisions as to what the Ryan Center will look like on game day. I think the intent is to play our full basketball season. If that changes, just like what happened today, then we’ll adjust.”
Every decision has financial effects, like the loss of the football buy game. Revenue will be significantly impacted by what crowd sizes will be permitted, especially for men’s basketball.
“We don’t know exactly what the numbers look like yet, because we don’t know how many we can play in front of at the Ryan Center, how many people we can bring out for spring football competition,” Bjorn said. “I don’t anticipate playing a buy game in the spring. I anticipate that being a conference-only type season. Maybe we have flexibility and find ourselves to keep our game with Bryant, just using that as an example. There is a lot in the air about what it looks like.”
As the news broke, Bjorn was also concerned about how URI’s student-athletes are feeling. The athletic department will send letters and FAQs to all its athletes, and Bjorn is planning to host an all-athlete virtual meeting to hear their questions and concerns.
“It’s been an emotional rollercoaster. But I feel so strongly that we made the right decision for the right reasons. I don’t think our coaches or student-athletes were surprised. I think they were disappointed, and we were all hoping there was a chance. But I don’t think any were surprised,” Bjorn said. “Now we just need to deliver on what we’re promising, which is a spring season. We’re going to keep working, just as we did in the summer as though we’re going to play in the fall.
"Now we’re going to keep doing the same thing for the spring, and hopefully we find ourselves in position to do that in a safe manner.”