Opinion: Why the OUA canceled the season to save their future

Disclamer: This is an opinion piece submitted by Michael Sun

The OUA’s decision to cancel the 2020-21 season was one they had no choice but to make – for financial just as much as health and safety reasons. 

Ottawa, ON- One of the darkest days in Canadian university sports came and went on Thursday, Oct. 15. The decisions were firm and bold – and so was the reaction. The Ontario University Athletics (OUA) and Canada West conferences cancelled their 2020-21 winter seasons. They had already cancelled the fall ones earlier this summer. Meanwhile, U SPORTS cancelled the winter national championships for winter sports.

(Benjamin Steiner)

The reaction was – as our own Ben Steiner pointed out – widespread. There was understanding, and acceptance. There was also frustration and anger. Overall, as Steiner noted, there was disappointment everywhere. Disappointment in the timing of the decision (some felt it was too early), the lack of clarity in U SPORTS reasoning for cancelling but more than anything else, in the sadness for the student-athletes and coaches and the opportunities and season they’ve lost. For some senior athletes, they may never get that season back.

U SPORTS and the OUA cited health and safety as the primary reason for the cancellation. While that is certainly a main factor – after all, COVID-19 has affected and conditioned every part of society – there is another one, related to COVID-19: money.

To understand the OUA’s decision to cancel, one must first understand how university sports in Ontario are funded – and how that differs from the NCAA and professional sports.

In Ontario and across Canada, athletics fees are the financial lifeline for university competition. They are often the most stable form of revenue (compared to ticket sales, alumni donations for example) and cover the operating costs for not only each school’s athletic facilities but varsity sports. The fees cover the costs for games, travel, food, hotels and everything that goes into making competition possible.

When COVID-19 hit and facilities closed, some schools waived their athletics fees for the summer semester and even the fall one. When the second wave hit and athletics facilities closed, some schools – like Carleton – slashed part of their fees. Add in the fact many schools also rely on summer sports camps for revenue – which were gone – and that financial lifeline was being depleted.

To provide an example of how precarious those athletics fees are to university sports, one has to look no further than what was happening behind the scenes merely 12 months ago. In Premier Doug Ford and the Ontario government’s initial plan for the Student Choice Initiative (which made certain student fees optional), athletics fees were deemed to be optional.

That understandably sparked reaction from those inside the OUA community. OUA CEO Gord Grace sent a cryptic, since-deleted tweet with the words “Save OUA Sport”. It became clear that if the stability of full student athletics fees was threatened, the survival of certain sports programs was too.

“It was going to be a major challenge on campus at Western, but also a significant challenge for Ontario universities in the Canadian sport system,” Western athletic director Christine Stapleton told the Globe and Mail in an article. “As things progressed we didn’t have to make any of those decisions. But we would have had to take a look at our sports and services and understand which would be the most important to students at Western.”

Sources told the Globe and Mail they feared if the fees became optional, millions of dollars would have been at risk – dollars needed for varsity sports. Eventually, the decision was reversed as athletics fees were deemed mandatory, as those around the OUA breathed a collective sigh of relief. OUA sports was saved.

Given how essential those fees are to running university sports, the loss of fees and camp revenue for schools meant challenges in running varsity seasons across multiple sports this season – even without a pandemic.

Some will point to return to return of professional sports leagues and NCAA football as a reason for the OUA to play. That is understandable, especially given the lower COVID-19 numbers in Canada compared to the States in general. However, one must also consider the financial nuance of how those sports leagues operate.

While the bubble formats and constant testing is costly for the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and WNBA, it is ultimately worth it in the attempt to play a season and salvage as much revenue as possible. Not playing would have put certain leagues’ CBAs in jeopardy and would have meant losing the most money possible. These leagues have sponsors and TV contracts to live up to as well as other financial incentives.

Let’s take NCAA football for example. The reality of NCAA sports is while athletics fees are also important, the money generated by football (and some men’s basketball programs) covers the losses of all the other sports programs – especially when athletics fees are suspended or cut. Most of the time, all the other sports programs are expenses on the school and the athletics department that can operate because of the money football brings in.

Like the professional sports, this was all about financial damage control. Programs have already been cut (even at a big school like Stanford); this was about recouping as much money as possible from TV networks, sponsors and even ticket sales by having fans. This meant enhanced testing protocols for the BIG 10 and PAC 12 to return. It may be costly but that beats the alternative. Even given those protocols, is it totally safe for the athletes? Probably not. However, it is necessary for the survival of those athletic programs and even athletic departments – and that’s something I’m sympathetic to.

In U SPORTS, it’s the inverse. While the NCAA and professional sports are trying to play official games- and taking on the costs – to salvage and save their financial situation, U SPRTS schools in general are not playing to salvage theirs. This is sometimes unfortunate reality of U SPORTS and their financial situation compared to the NCAA.

The universities ultimately fund these varsity sports that, while important to the athletes, coaches, media and those around it, are simply not money makers. The athletics fees and camp revenue often times is needed to just cover the operating costs to have games and a season. Furthermore, unlike the NCAA, there is no financial gain for playing the games. No TV contract to live up to (except for RSEQ football) and no ticket revenue can really make it up. Playing sports – even without testing and bubbles- is an expense some OUA schools cannot or have difficulties affording.

The joys of winning the Critelli and Wilson Cup won’t be experienced and on display in 2020-21. (Tim Austen.)

There are two ways in theory that the OUA could have had a season. Both are of them are explained below. For what it’s worth, I don’t necessarily support or oppose either of them – I’m just laying out how I think it would play out.

1. Follow the thoughts of those who disregard the virus’ significance and feel the government is engaging in fear-mongering and just play on without testing or a bubble. Even if positive cases come up (through individuals testing on their own), just have those athletes isolate and everyone else continues playing – don’t worry too much about contact tracing of stopping spreading. Teams and athletes can follow social distancing regulations if they want. Unlike the NFL, which is busy with retesting, contact tracing and rescheduling, there’s little need to worry about that here since a positive test doesn’t mean shutting down team training, travel and games (unless the whole team tests positive). If athletes don’t want to participate in the season, then they can opt-out. Fans can even be allowed in. This is the mindset that people should just live their lives like normal (or what used to be normal) without worrying about having to shut things down. If the virus spreads, it spreads.

2. Engage in what the NCAA, NFL, NBA, WNBA and other leagues have done. Pay up (and find the money somehow) for a bubble environment and regular testing. Oh, and the testing has to be high enough quality. For example, testing 1-3 times a week with a 24-hour turnaround time. Be prepared to pay for extra testing in the case that athletes get positives and be prepared to cancel practices and games if necessary. The solution to safety is money – and even more money if complications come up. For both situations, have the students, coaches and staff members sign waivers. If those waivers are not bulletproof, be prepared to fight the legal battle in terms of lawsuits brought up.

Both of those scenarios – while plausible in general – are unlikely and unrealistic in the OUA’s case to say the least. For the first one, this plan seems the simplest and most cost-efficient but, as explained before, they would have to first figure things out financially for some schools who can’t afford the operating costs. In that case, some sports programs may not participate in the season.

(Benjamin Steiner)

The main flaw in that plan is that’s simply not the schools’ line of thinking. These decisions are not just made solely by U SPORTS, the OUA or athletic directors and those involved in athletics. The real power in decision making lies in the school presidents – many of whom sit on these conference-wide athletic boards. Remember, it’s their school’s money that’s coming out of their pocket. They’re responsible for making guidelines for the rest of the school activities. They’re the ones that ultimately consider whether or not it’s worth it financially, health and safety wise and legally to have a season. They’re the ones that have to answer to their board members, their different organizations across their universities and even the provincial and federal government if they were to sanction athletics to go on regardless of positive tests. The consequences could be severe. Plus, ultimately, the government can step in and enforce those guidelines and shut down facilities – ending the games. The key fact with the CEBL and CPL restarts is that those were government-sanctioned.

The fallout for those presidents (and those other board members) that cosign playing in spite of government regulations could cost them their job and reputation. That’s too big of a risk for them to take. Also, to have a season under these considerations, enough schools will have to agree to go ahead with this – another unlikely thing.

(Benjamin Steiner)

The second scenario, which seems more complicated but more plausible is also just as unrealistic. The problem, once again, is the money. Where does it come from? If OUA schools are indeed so cash-strapped that they would be planning to make cuts from a reduced athletics fees from the student-choice initiative, where is the money to not only pay for operating costs without full fees but also a bubble, testing and retesting? It’s not there, at least from the university itself and what it’s willing to spend.

The easiest solution is to simply to get a government handout – a quite rich one at that. It would be probably have to be a handout since even an interest-free loan would be too costly. However, given the Ontario government’s initial plan to make athletic fees optional, I don’t suspect they’ll be too willing to simply give schools money to play sports. It would be a lot of money as well as they would have budget for more than expected given the strict retesting policies. Ultimately, for governments (provincial, federal) already deep in debt, the appetite to spend on university sports isn’t there. For them, every dollar spent towards that is one less dollar spent elsewhere.

That leaves the other alternative for covering these costs. These schools would have to overspend their budgets to make it happen. They would have to try and raise student fees and athletics fees – not an easy decision. For them, paying out their own pocket simply isn’t logical. There’s no financial gain and no gain in general other than letting students play university sports (which is important but it doesn’t trump the financial aspect). Plus, there’s also the risk of spending too much or too little. If they cut corners on paying for testing and following regulations, they face the risk of the consequences from those in the university community and government. If they spend as much as they can for safety measures, they put themselves in more of a financial hole. It’s a lose-lose situation.

One must also consider the risk factor of the second situation. If the schools are going to be as stringent as they say they are on monitoring COVID-19, the truth is that they might pull the plug once some outbreaks happen (they’re already happening within university teams) for health and safety reasons as well as financial relief. It would cost them more and more to keep going. At same point, the question is whether it’s worth it. The analogy is someone putting their future earnings (because they’re broke right now) towards buying something when they can’t guarantee will come and they get no financial benefit from.

(Benjamin Steiner)

This money spent now to attempting to have a season also comes with consequences from the athletics side. It may not seem fair but it’s reality. For one, if the athletics fees increase, they’ll be opposition and possible calls for the government to make it optional – re-opening another can of worms as discussed before. Even if the increase in athletics fees can cover some of the testing, bubble and operational costs, there will have to be cuts elsewhere. COVID-19 has already forced – and will force – program cuts even without the cost of playing games (Lethbridge hockey for example). Schools have cut sports teams due to finances in pre-COVID days, in less dire financial and health circumstances so if indeed pinched financially, they wouldn’t hesitate (and may not have much choice) but to do the same. As mentioned before, even the NCAA is not immune to it either – before (North Dakota women’s hockey) and during COVID-19. Once again, it’s not fair but simply reality.

There are athletes, family members and supporters online who have called for the OUA and U SPORTS to reconsider their decision. There have already been petitions signed. These are many of same people who expressed frustration and signed petitions when the fall season was cancelled. It’s completely understandable the frustration and anger they feel at not being able to play. It’s even more harsh since they see a plethora of other sports leagues playing and they’re not. It’s especially difficult for those seniors who may never play university sports ever again.

However, their voices should be directed in the right places. There are two things to understand. One is that these conferences and U SPORTS are not that powerful. By that, I mean the people directly working for them. They answer to the university presidents and the schools since they have the financial backing to make things possible. U SPORTS – which already has little to no control or power to implement certain regulations across all member schools – is essentially a paper tiger. They “run” the national championships – and even then, a majority of the workload falls on the hosts schools to do so (U SPORTS provides the branding and guidelines). It’s not their fault but just a reality of the money and resources they have (or lack). If the schools and conferences aren’t playing, they have no choice but to cancel their national championships. Protests and petitions towards them are fruitless since even if they want to play and even if they don’t think the pandemic is that serious, the power brokers (universities) they answer to don’t allow them to. The same applies to OUA and Canada West as well to an extent.

The second thing to consider for those wanting a season for understandably personal reasons: the unintended consequences. The money these schools sink in now to try to play a season is money they’ll ultimately have to recoup down the road. Programs and funding will be cut just because of COVID-19. If money is spent on trying to have a season, even more programs will be cut. For those not cut, there might be less funding (downgrade to club status for example) as well as a possible revision in athletic scholarship money. Athletes are still getting paid their athletic scholarships this season (rightfully so in my opinion) so there’s no money being saved there.

For athletes, especially younger ones with years of eligibility left, I ask this question: Is it worth it for this season to be played at a risk of sports programs being cut in the future? Is it fair to your fellow athletes and coaches that they won’t have a team to play for in 1-3 years?

The schools will have to try to balance the budget eventually and (more) programs might have to be sacrificed if they can’t find enough money elsewhere to make up the costs for playing and for COVID-19 in general.

The final hope – I feel – that the OUA was clinging to before making their decision was that the virus would subside by now. That there wouldn’t be a second wave. Maybe even that there’d be a vaccine by December. The schools know they can’t afford testing or a bubble. Once the second wave hit, it threw contingency plans aside. There’s simply not enough time to wait for the second wave and numbers as well as planning for a winter semester when the financials are unclear? How much money do they need to play? How many schools can afford it (even without testing)? Will they get government support – both financially and safety policy-wise? There’s not enough time for those answers and ultimately, they couldn’t drag their feet any longer.

That being said about the OUA, the Atlantic University Sports (AUS) conference is the realistic last hope for university sports (for what it’s worth, I don’t believe RSEQ can pull it off, given their COVID-19 situation). Atlantic Canada’s COVID-19 numbers are manageable and the fact that teams have been training already in makeshift “bubbles” already is encouraging. The fact that – for now – it appears that their only concern is making up some schools lost athletics fees and camp revenue is more manageable than having to worry about testing. Part of that is evident in their possible plans in winter such as regional competitions and other options with their return-to-play committee. That works better in their situation financially and health and safety-wise. There are fewer teams in the AUS (7-8 per sport) than OUA (16-20), making returning to play as a conference more manageable. They also have less worry about government intervention in terms of shut downs because of their COVID-19 situation. If the situation continues as well and even improves, I think there’s a good chance the AUS can pull it off.

(Benjamin Steiner)

As for OUA teams, there’s still a good chance games will be played – just not official OUA games. The appetite for having regional games and exhibition tournaments will be there. The programs that can afford it will have the best chance to play, not taxing their athletics program in general. If by January or February, the COVID-19 situation improves, they’ll likely get the green light from the government to train and play exhibition games.

For those saying what’s the difference between being safe enough to train and play exhibition games versus playing OUA official competition, it lies, once again, in the money. It’s not that playing official games is inherently more dangerous than training or playing pickup at the local park in terms of contracting COVID-19. It’s just the safety standard is higher given the sanctioning needed (from universities, conferences) as well as the legal backing needed (waivers, potential lawsuits). The idea of traveling to certain hot-spot cities is also a factor in getting clearance and having to shift the scheduling.

It’s not that official games can’t be played but the barrier to organize them is a lot more costly (testing, bubbles, contact tracing, dealing with outbreaks) in Ontario. Ultimately, the OUA and their schools can’t afford that and there’s no money to gain from that. They would be spending money they can’t afford. Financial survival seems to be everyone’s M.O. in this pandemic (rightfully so) and university sports in Canada are no different. They are doing this for their survival – cancelling this season to have seasons in the future. Plus, the health and safety reason is also valid. I won’t give the OUA too much credit for making the decision to cancel but they did make the right one and ultimately, it was the only decision they could realistically make.

Cover Photo: Benjamin Steiner

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