Since the suspension of all competition on March 12, the coronavirus pandemic has sent shockwaves through the athletics world. On July 17, the America East Conference (AE) officially announced that fall sports will be postponed, meaning Binghamton’s soccer, volleyball and cross country teams will not be competing until at least the spring semester.
While the fall sports season was originally scheduled to begin this week, the majority of the mid-major conferences in the country have postponed their seasons to the spring, perpetuating an unprecedented period in the history of college sports.
“It’s been completely chaotic,” said AE commissioner Amy Huchthausen. “I think just like everyone, [during] the first few weeks after things shut down in March, I don’t think anyone really thought we’d still be sitting here in this unusual position today. By mid-April, I think several people started to realize that was gonna be not just a crazy summer, but it was gonna bleed into this next academic year.”
With NCAA distributions down substantially due to the cancellation of last season’s Division I men’s basketball tournament, and many colleges and universities facing budget crises due to online classes and decreasing enrollment, many athletics departments around the country are making difficult decisions to cut sports. However, the AE has been able to avoid canceling sports thus far, as none of the conference’s ten schools have cut sports throughout the pandemic.
“I feel glad for our student-athletes that that hasn’t happened yet,” Huchthausen said. “I think it shows that our schools have been operating in a pretty fiscally responsible way … but this is going to be a crazy year yet, so I’m hopeful that our schools don’t have to make those decisions moving forward. I know no one really wants to be in that position, but with the uncertainty around higher education, that has a trickle-down into athletics more than anything.”
One factor that has contributed to the stability of the AE is that nine of its ten schools are public institutions. In general, private schools have been facing more financial hardship throughout the pandemic than public colleges and universities.
“Public institutions are major university centers, major research land-grant institutions,” Huchthausen said. “There’s some steadiness and permanence to those type of schools, rather than some of the smaller private [schools] … I think being state-supported, serving the state community for our public institutions means something, and I think those schools in particular do value Division I athletics. I think, whatever happens this year, I’m hopeful that we’ll still be steady in a way because of the tie to the state and the constituencies that they serve.”
Huchthausen also noted that the AE’s lone private member, the University of Hartford, is not in as vulnerable of a position as other private schools due to its larger enrollment.
In the spring, the Ivy League was the first conference to postpone its fall 2020 sports season, making the decision on July 8. Before Aug. 1, the Patriot League, Atlantic 10, Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) and Northeastern Conference (NEC) all followed suit along with the AE, effectively shutting down mid-major Division I athletics in the northeast.
“The group of us that [is] based here in the Northeast, we’re pretty tight, we speak a lot,” Huchthausen said. “Take the fall sports decisions, we all got there at a little bit different timeline, but from a nonconference perspective we all play each other a lot. As teams and leagues were already trying to focus more regionally before everything sort of shut down, we were in even closer communication because our nonconference teams of course overlap so much.”
None of those conferences have outright canceled their fall seasons, and all of them hope to compete in the spring semester. How it will operate will be determined in the coming months.
“We know this season will probably be a little bit shorter,” Huchthausen said. “I’m hopeful that we can have at least a conference season, and maybe have space for a couple nonconference games, depending on the sport, but that’s still up in the air. We just want to have enough, honestly, that it’s still good experience for our student-athletes. We don’t want it to be something that they feel isn’t worth their time or isn’t a good experience. I think we can put together a robust enough schedule for them.”
Huchthausen said that the conference will likely first figure out when its fall conference tournaments will be held and how many teams will be in the bracket, and then work back from there to create schedules for every sport.
Although the AE does not sponsor football, four of its member schools, Stony Brook, Albany, Maine and New Hampshire play in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) as associate members of the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA). On the same day as the AE’s announcement, the CAA postponed its conference football season, with the hope of holding a season in the spring.
“As we sit, right now, those schools all had planned to play guarantee games, where they get some revenue from playing those games, and then by not having games they’re losing out on ticket revenue,” Huchthausen said. “Conversely, operating any sport, but especially football, has high operating costs, so by not playing they’re saving money there. I don’t know all the details, but I know that that was not a determining factor for them pushing forward for this fall semester like we’re seeing in some of the bigger conferences. I think there was a reality to what we’re doing from a health and safety perspective.”
With the fate of fall sports determined in July, the conference’s attention has now turned to deciding on the status of the basketball season. No decision has been reached as of now, and Huchthausen stated that the conference is waiting on guidance from the NCAA’s Sept. 16 Division I council meeting on how the season will proceed.
“It’s hard to say [whether the basketball seasons will start on time],” Huchthausen said. “I’d be personally surprised if there’s not a little bit of a delay, but I don’t really know enough about what that’s gonna look like just yet. There’s so much that has to be settled here; we’ve gotta get through these next couple of weeks when most universities will have started class by then.”