Virginia schools preparing for small crowds at basketball games

Gate City and Union may have some intense basketball battles this season, but they won’t take place in front of the usual huge crowds because of the pandemic.

No one knows exactly what the high school sports landscape in Virginia will look like tomorrow, let alone a month from now.

Local school officials are hoping the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t cause it to change too much more before basketball season’s scheduled tipoff on Dec. 21.

The latest change came last week courtesy of Gov. Ralph Northam, whose executive order reduces the number of spectators allowed at a sporting event from 250 to 25.

Since Northam’s Nov. 13 announcement, schools in Southwest Virginia have been scrambling to change their plans to meet the limit of 25 for the winter sports of boys and girls basketball, wrestling, indoor track, swimming and diving, and competitive cheer.

“It’s the changes that are throwing us off,” Patrick Damron, Eastside’s boys basketball coach and athletic director, said Friday. “We had already planned for the limit of 250 spectators and now it’s been changed to 25.

“We’re just hoping that we can play in a month.”

Damron said Cumberland District officials now are waiting until sometime around the first of December before making any binding plans for dealing with the situation.

MORE CLARIFICATION

Adding to the difficulties was the unclear definition of who qualifies as a spectator versus who is defined as a participant.

The VHSL was still clarifying who fits — and who does not fit — into each group on Friday afternoon.

“The reduction in public and private gatherings to 25 individuals applies to ‘spectators’ and does not include participants at those events,” the VHSL said in a release. “The governor’s order defines ‘participants’ as players, coaches, officials, school event staff and school administration critical to the operations of the contests; media; law enforcement; and medical services.

“Cheerleaders, pep bands, etc., and other student support groups are counted as spectators in the limit of 25 allowed at events.”

NOW WHAT?

Without question, basketball games in Southwest Virginia will have a very different look and feel for 2020-21.

“Basically, in the Mountain 7 District, the 25 tickets will go to home fans only,” Gate City athletic director Brent Roberts said Friday.

How the tickets are distributed beyond that will be up to each individual school in the Mountain 7, he said.

Those lucky 25 will get to purchase a ticket for $3 because each is for a single game only.

No concession stands will be open, and in addition to temperature checks, there’s another feature that will take some getting used to.

Basketball nights in the Mountain 7 will consist of a junior varsity game and a varsity game. After the conclusion of the JV game, the gym will be emptied for about a 30-minute cleaning/sanitizing of the facility, Roberts explained. The gym will then reopen to the 25 ticket-holders for the varsity game.

Game scheduling also diverges this season. Instead of Mountain 7 and Cumberland girls varsity and boys varsity games being played at the same site, the teams will play at opposite venues. When boys jayvee and varsity teams are playing one another, the same schools’ girls jayvee and varsity teams will play on the same night but with the home site flipped.

YOU CAN STILL WATCH

Virginia high school basketball fans will still be able to catch their teams’ games even if not in person.

Roberts, Damron and Union athletic director Elijah Helton all said Friday that most schools in Southwest Virginia have joined the NFHS network, which will livestream their schools’ games on computers and smart TVs.

“We got involved with it late last year and I was a little skeptical,” Helton said of livestreaming. “But it was really great and worked rather seamlessly for us.”

Roberts said fans can purchase the NFHS service for $10.99 per month or $69.99 for a year.

“That’s going to open it up for a lot of folks to watch the games,” he said.