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Youth sports organizations feel heat of COVID-19

Some offer refunds, others do not with survival at stake

The new coronavirus pandemic has exposed the delicate financial footing on which professional and college sports stand. Youth sports are no different.

While states such as Florida, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and South Carolina have said youth sports can begin to resume, that is not the case in Colorado and New Mexico.

Organizations around the U.S. struggle in the face of canceled and postponed seasons with no clear picture on when games can resume. A poll conducted by the Aspen Institute for Sports showed that nearly 60% of youth sports organizations expect to lose at least 50% of revenue this year because of COVID-19 related cancellations. The Four Corners is no exclusion, but the way individual organizations have handled the looming budget crisis has varied wildly.

Jacob Appenzeller received a full refund of registration fees for his two sons from the Pine River Youth Baseball Association in Bayfield. He and his girlfriend were perplexed when Durango Youth Softball and Baseball did not offer any refund for her child’s registration fee into its league.

Pine River Youth Baseball canceled its season May 7. In an email to parents, the league said it would issue full refunds to the roughly 200 families in Bayfield who had registered. It said it would issue checks the final week of May but gave families the opportunity to apply their registration fee for a 2021 season credit.

Parents of players signed up for the Pine River Youth Baseball Association, roughly 200 families this year, received a full refund when the 2020 season was canceled in early May because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

No such option was offered to those in the Durango league, which had 32 teams across all age divisions signed up for the 2020 season.

“We wish we were in the same position to give refunds,” DYSB Executive Director Emily Coker said. “Our situation didn’t allow us the same opportunity. Perhaps they get help from the city for fields, maintenance, etc. We do not and rely solely on registration fees and sponsorship from our local businesses.”

Coker explained that the cost of running the program is incredibly high and expenses are all paid up front before seasons begin. That includes costs for equipment, insurance, uniforms, safety gear, field maintenance and utilities, umpire training and coaches meetings among other expenses. She said it is because of the high cost that the City of Durango Parks and Recreation no longer offers the leagues. DYSB has been in operation for 12 years, and it added fastpitch softball in 2019.

“It would mean we wouldn’t have an organization offering softball and baseball for our youth anymore in Durango,” Coker said. “We know how hard times are right now for our families. Our board made the decision not to issue refunds so that baseball and softball in Durango could survive. We knew no refunds would be a huge sacrifice for everyone, but not nearly as big of a sacrifice as losing baseball and softball in our community for the future.”

DYSB did give the option to have registration fees written off as a tax deduction, but that doesn’t provide immediate help to families currently struggling for finances because of COIVD-19 who now will not have their children enrolled in baseball and softball this summer.

“It was gut wrenching, lots of sleepless nights,” Coker said of the decision to cancel the season. “We were looking forward to having a season, and we know kids and parents were, too. With all the uncertainty, stress and lack of social interaction that COVID-19 has inflicted upon everyone, we were hoping that baseball and softball would bring some fun and the ability to get back to some form of normal.

With the cost of field maintenance and utilities, insurance and uniforms, just to name a few, Durango Youth Softball and Baseball had already paid for the majority of 2020 expenses with player registration fees that will not be returned with the season canceled.

“It broke our hearts knowing that we couldn’t deliver this to the DYSB families. There were considerations of postponing in hopes of playing an abbreviated season, but we didn’t want to just keep parents hanging on. Ultimately, we thought it best to cancel the season and give parents a chance to plan the rest of their summer without being put on hold for a season that might not happen. We sought out legal counsel, followed Little League guidelines and waited until after May 11 to make our decision.”

Coker, who was furloughed after the league cancellation, said DYSB is committed to coming back stronger and more organized in 2021. It is seeking volunteers to help with field maintenance through the summer. DYSB will pursue options to field pick up games or clinics later in the summer, if possible.

“The majority of our baseball and softball parents have been very supportive,” Coker said. “They understand this wasn’t something we wanted to do and it was beyond our control. We’ve also had a few parents who were upset, and we completely understand their frustrations. We just hope we can all come together and make DYSB better than it’s ever been next season.

“Without taking the steps we’ve taken, it wouldn’t be possible to even consider having a 2021 baseball and softball season. Baseball and softball are important for our community as a whole. Healthy, happy active kids are a benefit for everyone. These events have refocused us as a board to be better and stronger in the future.”

Around the Four Corners

While Bayfield and Durango’s youth baseball leagues have already canceled, those in Cortez and Farmington have only postponed in the hopes of holding a season.

Southwest Colorado Youth Baseball in Cortez said it will continue to push back the season until games can be played. League president Chance Ozment could not be reached for comment.

New Mexico’s highly-popular Farmington Amateur Baseball Congress, which draws teams from around the entire Four Corners because of its competitive play and larger pool of an average between 100 and 120 teams across all age divisions each year, also has postponed with the hopes of getting back on the field this year. It will not issue partial refunds for early-season games that are postponed.

“Of course, it’s all governor mandated,” FABC president Martin Bayless said. “If we can get it to where (New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham) will allow groups of 20 or 30, then our hope is to get kids on the field. We’ve even thought of the idea of say if only 15 can get together and we can play five-on-five games with the younger kids 12-and-under, we would look at that opportunity to get the kids to play at some sort of level.”

Players such as Durango’s Casey Dunlap have walked onto Ricketts Park in Farmington for the famed Connie Mack World Series. With that event already canceled, the Farmington Amateur Baseball Congress hopes to still field a season sometime in 2020.

Bayless hopes to start seasons by July 1. But, with warmer weather in northwest New Mexico through October, Bayless said he wouldn’t count out the chance of baseball seasons playing into the fall this year. He knows that could interfere with football for coaches and players, but he believes enough teams would be willing to play baseball in the fall.

Because the annual Connie Mack World Series, put on by the FABC’s parent company the American Amateur Baseball Congress, has already been canceled, Bayless said the FABC is already worse off financially even without issuing any refunds yet. A portion of the league’s funding comes from billboard advertisements on the outfield wall of Ricketts Park, the host diamond of the CMWS. With local businesses hurting for advertising money and without the marquee event to show off the field, Bayless doesn’t anticipate bringing in those dollars this year.

“I’m pretty set on trying to have some sort of season for these kids,” Bayless said. “If we are not able to have some sort of season for whatever reason, we have discussed what refunds could look like if we were able to do them at all. We’re in the same boat as a lot of other leagues. Our operating costs occur every month, and we gotta be able to cover those costs. We don’t make any money on this. We use everyone’s registrations to survive. I really don’t know what a refund would look like, and I hate to even speculate.

“I get it. People are struggling right now. That $110, $120 could put food on the table for the week. But if we gave people a refund now, then that kid is not on the team anymore. If three kids on a team get refunds and drop out, then that team could be down to eight kids, and now they can’t play. And if we were to give back every penny left in the bank account and give it as a refund, we would essentially be bankrupt at that point ourselves. We wouldn’t be able to buy anything next year to get a season started. No deposits on uniforms, no team insurance. I don’t know if the FABC would be in existence.”

The FABC frequently draws teams from Bayfield, Cortez, Durango and Mancos as well as the surrounding New Mexico towns. Bayless has been in contact with teams in Gallup who have had their seasons canceled and said there is interest for them to join their league if there are games this summer. The same is true with Shiprock, though the Navajo Nation has been one of the hardest hit regions in the nation in terms of COVID-19 cases.

“If we can play games, I’d love to see the teams from all around the region come play if we are able to get open,” Bayless said. “People don’t realize it, but it’s pretty important to play, especially in those age groups right before they get to high school. The kids need to be out throwing, hitting and building up their strength if they are going to get to that level.”

Youth Soccer

The Rio Rapids Durango Soccer Club, formerly known as the Durango Youth Soccer Association, had to cancel the 26th Durango Shootout tournament normally held Mother’s Day weekend. That tournament is the club’s largest fundraiser and contributed $2.3 million to the Durango economy in 2019 with out-of-town teams staying in hotels, filling up restaurants and local businesses. All registered teams in the tournament received a refund.

The Durango Shootout soccer tournament brings more than 2,000 people to Durango each Mother’s Day weekend for the last 25 years. But that wasn’t the case in 2020, dealing a big financial blow to the local soccer club that issued refunds to each team that was registered.

The remainder of the soccer club’s season hangs in the balance with on-field programming canceled for the spring. There is hope that games can be played this summer, with directors coordinating online activities for athletes to work on their skills and fitness. The club has continued to pay its staff and will not issue any partial refunds from registration fees because of the spring cancellation. It will, however, offer a registration credit toward the 2020-21 season.

“Our budgetary vision did not factor in the effects of a pandemic that would shut down all team activities for our club,” the club’s board of directors said in a news release. “Historically, we’ve designed program revenue to cover program expenses, leaving little additional operating revenue to support such disruptions in cash flow. ... Our commitment is to ensure that our club can continue to serve the Durango community long into the future. Providing a partial refund at this time would change this calculus.”

PLAY Sports Coalition

With youth sports organizations around the country in peril, the PLAY Sports Coalition banded together in a nation-wide effort to lobby congress for stimulus package relief so that leagues do not go bankrupt if they do offer refunds to families.

It seeks the creation of an economic stabilization fund in congress’ fourth stimulus package. With the backing of hundreds of sports organizations, including the FABC, four congress members addressed a letter to the leaders of the House of Representatives and Senate.

“They’re going after congress to help get money to help with the league-fee situations to where they can give parents full refunds and still be able to operate and do everything they were going to do,” Bayless said. “That may be something that helps save other places where parents want refunds but leagues aren’t giving it to them. If the leagues in Durango can get in on the train of getting stimulus money from congress, they may have a better chance.”

jlivingston@durangoherald.com

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