School is back in session. Last week, UC San Diego welcomed 5,730 undergrads to campus, including hundreds of new athletes. But it’ll be months before we can see these new Triton athletes in their first games. In fact, they may not be able to practice or even meet their new teammates until much later in the year.
Since mid-March, UCSD Athletics have been put on pause because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. On Mar. 12, the athletic department, along with the Big West conference, UCSD’s new Division I conference, and the California Collegiate Athletics Association, its old Division II conference, announced that all athletic activities would be suspended in response to COVID-19. The NCAA and the CCAA would go on to cancel all remaining winter and spring championships. The men’s and women’s basketball teams could not cap their season with visits to the Division II NCAA tournament, and the men’s volleyball team were unable to play out their first winning season in 14 years. And with that, the 2019-2020 season came to a disheartening close.
UCSD originally planned to have athletes come back to campus in early August. But as coronavirus cases have remained steady with few signs of slowing, they’ve since pushed that return date back to the end of September, having athletes return with the rest of the student body.
So, when will sports be back? Probably not anytime soon. On July 29, the Big West Conference announced that all fall sports would be postponed until at least the end of the calendar year. This puts the season on hold for cross country, soccer, golf, tennis, and women’s volleyball. UCSD has not made additional comments on the status of the athletic season since they suspended sports back in March.
But not all hope is lost. In the announcement that delayed all fall sports, the Big West made sure to note that one winter sport was still on track to return: basketball. Basketball was singled out because it is the most popular and profitable college sport, second only to football. It reflects a national push for college basketball’s return. Though they may have mishandled the return of college football, the NCAA has taken a more proactive role in restarting the basketball season. On Sept. 25, the NCAA released guidelines for the upcoming season, with details on scheduling, safety standards and March Madness.
March Madness is a big reason why college basketball is coming back. It’s the most profitable college sports event — over three quarters of the NCAA’s yearly revenue comes from the men’s tournament alone; schools want a shot at the tournament, and the added visibility and prestige it’ll provide their programs. The Big West also stands to get a cut of “the basketball fund”: a pool of over 60 percent of March Madness profits — in 2019, that was about $560 million — that is distributed to conferences based on their tournament success. UCSD is not eligible for participation in March Madness until the 2024-2025 season, as part of their transition to Division I. Nonetheless, as a full member of the Big West, UCSD will be included in the efforts of the conference and other member schools to get to the tournament.
Nov. 25 is the first official day of regular season competition. So far, the Big West has not released details on the 2020-2021 basketball season. But there’s still plenty of time for the Big West to schedule and plan a season in time for March Madness. As it stands, it’s more than likely that we’ll be able to see the Tritons take to the hardwood in early 2021.
If there’s any silver lining for UCSD, it is that there is no risk of sports being cut due to budget shortfalls, which many schools faced after the cancellation of big-ticket sports seasons like football. UCSD athletics are 90 percent funded through the Intercollegiate Athletic Fee of $259.04 per student per quarter, securing it from the majority of COVID-related losses.
Outside of basketball, some sports seem set to come back later in the year. The NCAA Division I Board of Directors recently approved a plan to allow fall championships to be held in the spring, which makes the prospect of fall sports being rescheduled for later in 2021 seem more probable. Women’s volleyball has already officially moved their championship to the spring; for sports without clear plans to return, like soccer and tennis, shifting their seasons to the spring also seems like the most probable route.
Like everything else in 2020, UCSD sports are going to be radically different this season. For now, most sports are looking to resume in the spring, but the situation is extremely fluid. But even if many of the plans to return are driven by money, whatever plans are drawn up should ultimately prioritize the health and safety of players and the student body.
Photo by Steven Calista / UC San Diego Athletics