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Pandemic Stirs More Uncertainty For ISU Athletics

Redbird Arena
Jeff Smudde
ISU Athletics Director Larry Lyons said the fate of winter sports will likely be decided in September.

Illinois State University Athletics Director Larry Lyons said coaches and athletic department staff are reinforcing the need for mask compliance and social distancing after seeing a rise in coronavirus cases among student-athletes.
Lyons said many of the 31 athletes who tested positive in the last week had tested negative before students returned to campus.

“It changed in the last week,” Lyons said. “There were more kids on campus, there was more social interaction. There was more interaction among those student-athletes that we had tested more than once.”

Those positive cases contributed to a sharp rise in cases among young adults in Bloomington-Normal as thousands of college students returned to campus.

Lyons said was surprised the number of positive cases was so high after so few cases were seen among student-athletes over the summer.

“Some of it was innocent, just student-athletes getting back together not knowing that maybe somebody was a positive and infecting some other student-athletes,” Lyons said. “I think we ended up with a perfect storm there.”

ISU Athletics' recent testing of student-athletes showed a positivity rate of nearly 12%. Testing prior to that was less than 1% positive.

Lyons said only a few of the athletes who tested positive showed any symptoms and those were minor.

ISU has suspended all practices in five sports after the spike in cases.

Pandemic costs

Lyons said it’s likely single-game tickets won’t be available for what would likely be an abbreviated football schedule next spring.

Last month, the Missouri Valley Football Conference announced plans to suspend its season until next spring. The Missouri Valley Conference later announced it was moving all of its fall sports to spring.

Lyons said 20% seating capacity limits, which are currently called for under the Restore Illinois guidelines, would likely leave no single-game tickets once the university meets ticket allotments to season-ticket holders and tickts to visiting schools are distributed.

Lyons said he anticipates a season of only conference games in the MFVC, likely starting in late February or early March. He said it’s likely the Football Championship Subdivision would have fewer schools in the postseason, noting that suspending fall sports isn’t ideal, but at least it provides hope that student-athletes will get to compete.

“It gives them a carrot to continue to do well academically and then you are going to turn this fall into more of a conditioning, individual instruction kind of period,” said Lyons, adding he expects decisions about winter sports to be made in September.

While indoors sports such as basketball could create greater health risks because health experts say the coronavirus spreads more easily indoors, Lyons said Redbird Arena is well suited to host events because of the quality of its air filtration system.

“We are filtered at a level that’s the same as a hospital and every campus facility, including Redbird Arena, is receiving the highest percentage of fresh air that it can receive. So, we are ventilated really well in this building,” Lyons said.

Lyons said the uncertainty of sports this season will likely mean budget cuts in athletics, but he said it's something officials think they can absorb without job or program cuts, or without bailout funding from the university.

“Right now, the campus has not discussed that and we have not discussed that,” Lyons said. “We don’t think we are at a point that that’s an issue. I’ll anticipate the next question that’s been asked before. Are we looking at sports cuts? That’s not anything we are considering.”

Lyons said athletics is losing revenue from all games being canceled, but also is saving on travel and other game operation costs.

Lyons said student fees have helped stabilize the athletics budget as enrollment projections are on par with previous years. He said student fees make up close to half of the department’s budget

Lyons also said athletics will reach out to fans and supporters for financial help.

“Is there an interest in the Redbird faithful helping Redbird athletics ease some of the financial issues we are dealing with?" Lyons said. “We are working on those plans right now.”

Lyons added the university is working on ways to fulfill its marketing agreement with Learfield IMG College during the pandemic. ISU signed a 10-year, $19,8 million multimedia rights contract with the agency in 2017. He said the Athletics Department has looked for ways to fulfill sponsor obligations when there haven’t been any games.

“We are going to become very creative as we go through the fall and to provide those exposures and those positive touches to the Redbird fan base,” Lyons said.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.