It's nearing decision time for the Minnesota State High School League regarding fall sports and activities.

Will there be football and Friday Night Lights? Will volleyball and tennis teams be on the court, soccer squads on the turf, swimmers in the pool and runners on the trails?

Prior Lake-Savage Area School District Athletic Director Russ Reetz, who is also on the MSHSL Board of Directors, said school districts have been asked by the Minnesota Department of Health to create a plan by July 27 for what fall sports could look like.

The board meets virtually Aug. 4 to make final decisions. Falls teams are scheduled to start practicing Aug. 17.

Mike Shebuski, head coach for the Prior Lake boys soccer team, said he's tried this summer to keep his student-athletes and their families informed about their options and opportunities for summer activities, as well as planning for the fall season.

"We've encouraged players to continue to check in on their teammates, help motivate each other to keep putting the work in, and continue preparing for the fall season as we await future announcements," Shebuski said. "Throughout this process we've really refocused on our goals and our mission, which is to continue to help our student-athletes become better people, better leaders, and better Lakers.

"We feel we can accomplish this in the fall, whether we have our typical schedule, or if things need to look completely different," Shebuski added.

As of July 23, according to the National Federation of State High Schools Associations, 19 states and the District of Columbia have delayed the start of their fall sports season. New Mexico has moved football and soccer to the spring. In California, football and other fall sports won't start until December.

Texas, which has the highest high school football participation in the nation with roughly 170,000 players, will delay the start of its football season one month for its two largest classes (5A and 6A). That's about 500 schools in mostly the larger urban areas.

Meanwhile, in the upper Midwest, Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan, South Dakota and North Dakota are all forging ahead to start their fall seasons as scheduled. In Wisconsin, football, soccer and volleyball will start practicing Sept. 7, while the other fall sports will start Aug. 17.

The Minnesota Department of Health has classified sports and activities into three categories: high, medium and low risk based on contact, confinement and crowds. For the fall, football is in the high risk category, as are wrestling, hockey and group dance and cheerleading for the winter.

Medium risk sports include basketball, soccer, volleyball, doubles tennis, swimming relays, gymnastics, running in a close group (cross country) and cycling in a close group (mountain biking).

MSHSL directors met virtually July 13 to discuss return-to-play options and to try to match the three return-to-school options. Those are continue distance learning, a return to full classrooms or a hybrid of both.

Revenue

Eighty percent of the MSHSL's revenue comes from state tournaments, including ticket sales and television revenue. In the July 13 meeting, if there's no fall sports, the league board members projected a $466,000 deficit.

If winter activities are canceled, the deficit goes to $3.2 million. The boys state hockey tournament is the MSHSL's biggest revenue generator.

Back in February, before spring sports were canceled due to COVID-19, the league directors unanimously approved raising the annual league membership fee for its 500-plus member schools from $120 to $160 for this school year.

The league also raised its activity fees from $120 to $160 per activity, and will be charging $1 per student enrolled for each school, which is adjusted for free and reduced lunch numbers.

Football is the biggest revenue generator for high school sports. If fall sports are allowed to play but with no fans, what will the financial cost be?

"The financials are too difficult to predict at this time," Reetz said. "We aren't sure which sports and activities will be allowed to participate and what crowds will look like at events. Both school districts and the MSHSL offset costs of administering programs by generating revenue through gate proceeds."

A safe return to sports right now is more of a priority than league and school athletic budgets. Shebuski would rather let the experts determine what's safe and what's the best path forward for fall and then winter sports.

"I think the work that various groups and local clubs have done throughout the summer has shown that we are all willing to adapt and adjust as needed in order to provide opportunities, while keeping the environment as safe as possible," he said. "But obviously we have to acknowledge there is risk in any gathering or athletic environment.

"Our first priority is the health of our student-athletes, their families, and our entire community," Shebuski added. "If the state and the MSHSL allow us the opportunity to operate this fall, we will make sure that remains our first priority and follow all necessary protocols and guidelines to provide a safe environment."

Tom Schardin covers sports for Savage and Prior Lake. He is dependable, sarcastic and always joking around. Tom enjoys running and swimming and is often busy coaching his two kids' sports teams.

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