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Arizona Wildcats athletic director Dave Heeke is “realistic and optimistic” when it comes to a college football season being held during the coronavirus crisis.
Heeke said Arizona’s “full intention” is to have a college football season this fall, but immediately conceded that the data changes so rapidly that the UA athletic department has a day-to-day approach.
“None of us know what the college football season will entail at this point,” he said. “There are numerous hypotheticals and ideas out there. We’re focused on trying to preserve a complete season of football or as many games as possible.”
Because not having a college football season at all would “be devastating to the overall college athletics enterprise,” Heeke said. At most schools, the income from football ticket sales, media rights, and other revenue streams buoys the rest of the department.
“Healthy football, healthy basketball is really important for all of our programs,” Heeke said. “Otherwise, it becomes very difficult to manage the expenses that surround the individual programs that we have across the board. And that’s something that every campus will face, every athletic director and president will face if we lose a college football season. “
So far, Heeke said conversations with other conference officials have only centered on a modified season, not a lost season.
“Would it include a Pac-12-only game season? And then on top of that, a re-entry plan,” he said. “When would the re-entry start? Would we start the season in September? Could it be delayed? And then when you could bring student athletes to campus? So there’s a variety of plans out there. And I think it’s like everything else during the crisis here, we’re trying to develop as many options and plans as possible that make sense, so that when things become more clear, we can then begin to travel down certain roads and be ready to move.”
The state of Arizona has been one of the quickest to restart its economy, recently reopening non-essential business like gyms, salons and pools with some restrictions.
Likewise, Heeke said UA’s focus has shifted from reacting to the virus to planning for re-entry.
On-campus activities are prohibited until at least June 1, but for now the plan is to start reopening after that date.
On Wednesday, Heeke announced the formation of a Campus Re-Entry Working Group that will “pull together the best ideas from around the nation and the world to inform and devise recommendations to campus senior leaders on how the University of Arizona can optimally re-open its campus operations.”
“We’re beginning to develop those steps internally and those policies, the procedures that we know we’re going to have to go through to provide safe, healthy environments for our student athletes or coaches, the support staff,” Heeke said. “And then we have that whole other segment of creating a fan environment that allows people to come in and watch those games. So I think the uncertainty like with everything in this is the biggest hurdle and the challenge that we continue to face.”
According to the UA, the seven public health domains that should be applied to the campus re-opening process are:
- Test: Offer prompt and readily accessible viral (PCR) testing to all symptomatic individuals, as well as strategic sampling of asymptomatic individuals, and offer prompt and readily accessible antibody testing to members of the University of Arizona community.
- Trace: Actively trace contacts of all individuals who test positive for COVID-19 and offer information and testing to close contacts.
- Treat: Provide health care support, affordable housing and wrap-around wellness services for individuals with COVID-19.
- Offer flexible participation: Offer remote and hybrid learning, working, and teaching options for students, staff, and faculty to protect individuals vulnerable to COVID-19 and reduce crowding.
- Minimize contact and reduce crowding: Reduce instances of close physical contact among students, faculty, staff, and visitors during on-campus activities.
- Minimize transmission: Reduce the probability of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 during in-person campus activities.
- Communicate: Maintain an active COVID-19 Reopening Campus communication plan.
Six weeks needed to prepare for a football season
Heeke said the consensus around the industry is that college football teams will need six weeks to prepare for the season.
“Remember, none of these student athletes have had the opportunity to be training as they regularly would right now coming out of spring football practice, and then likely won’t have the full opportunity in the summer through weight training and conditioning and those things to be prepared,” he said. “So we’re gonna have to take some time to get them ready. … It isn’t just two weeks and let’s go play games when some of us older folks used to play. It doesn’t happen. You need much more lead time and obviously that’s very well documented by our strength and conditioning people and medical professionals how important that is.”
Students must be on campus for college sports to return
Heeke is in the camp that believes that in order for college sports to return, the student body must be on campus. Or at least parts of it.
UA president Robert C. Robbins announced a couple weeks ago that Arizona intends to have in-person classes in the fall, and Heeke added Thursday that it will likely be a “hybrid model.”
“Different learning environments may be spread out, whether that’s in the classroom, so there’ll probably be fewer students in the environment,” he said. “But bringing some of those back and some continuing learning online. And each state and each institution quite frankly are making their own decisions on how they can best address those and take measures to address that.”
When the UA reopens, it will do so in accordance with local and state governments as well as Pac-12 and NCAA protocols, Heeke said.
“We feel like we can look at June as an opportunity,” he said. “The next month and couple of weeks are going to open a lot of things up. As we see Major League Baseball, as we see other states roll out their plans, and we’ll see how it works here in Arizona. That will provide us some insight and some opportunity to look at, how we can latch on to that, how successful it’s been or some of the concerns.”
Altering the fan experience
When college sports do return, it won’t be business as usual. There will likely be limited capacity and/or social distancing measures inside each venue.
“People talk about 50 percent or 25 percent (capacity),” Heeke said. “That’s hard for all of us when we know how important those revenues are, but it needs to be a safe environment. We can’t go into this haphazardly. We have to provide an environment that we’re confident in and our fan base is confident that they’re protected and safe.”
Arizona is trying to be flexible as possible when it comes to ticket sales. The season ticket renewal deadline was already extended from May 1 to June 1, and another extension could be coming.
UA has also implemented a payment plan that spans through August and has assured fans they will be refunded if games are canceled.
“We’ve had good response to this point, although I will say that we’ve also had folks that are waiting in anticipation of hearing more about football,” Heeke said. “So I couldn’t be more clear that our intention all along is we’re going to play football and we’re going to have an opportunity for fans to take part in that in some way. It may be a modified approach to fans, but we’re moving forward with the hope that we can bring as many people in, including our students, into the games.”
International athletes returning will be a challenge
Heeke said “most” of Arizona’s international student-athletes returned to their home countries to be with their families during the coronavirus crisis. That could pose a problem if/when it comes time for them to travel back to Tucson.
The United States has implemented travel restrictions from Europe and Canada (and virtually every other corner of the globe) to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
Heeke said Arizona has been in regular contact with these student-athletes and local embassies to help facilitate an eventual return, but said it will “take a great deal of planning” for it to actually happen.
Heeke defended their decisions to return home.
“It was a very unsettling time for those individuals,” he said. “Like any young person, the majority of them wanted to be back with their families and those people that are close to them. And we worked very hard to get them again in a safe manner back to their countries. We also have a handful of internationals that remained here in Tucson because they felt that was their best option.”
Facility projects on hold
Heeke said all of Arizona’s facility projects are on hold because of the coronavirus crisis. Modernizing the west side of Arizona Stadium was the department’s top project.