It was a spring sports season that never even got out of the starting blocks.
High school baseball, boys' soccer, softball, tennis and track and field teams in Tennessee were less than one week into their 2020 schedules when concerns over COVID-19 forced the TSSAA to postpone play. This past Wednesday, the Volunteer State joined neighboring Alabama and Georgia in canceling outright the season for those spring sports, prematurely ending the athletic careers of thousands of high school seniors.
"I hate that it came to this, but ultimately it was the right decision," TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress said. "Knowing how hard all the kids and coaches had worked to play their season, we felt like it was our obligation to them to hold out hope for as long as possible to see if things improved to the point that we could play. But once the governor made the call to keep schools closed, everybody knew what that meant for us.
"Your heart just hurts for all of the young people but especially the seniors. I sat and thought about the fact that the great majority of the kids who play in high school won't have the chance to go on and play again. We owed it to those kids to do everything we could to salvage the season, but we also had to do what's right for society. If the seniors can take anything away from this it's that they are saving lives by not playing, and that's bigger than any game they will ever play."
Besides the emotional toll on players, as well as their families and coaches, the decision also left a gaping wound in the TSSAA's operating budget. The state's high school sports governing body didn't just lose revenue from the spring postseason — including the week-long Olympic-style Spring Fling championship event in Murfreesboro — but also the boys' and girls' basketball state tournament games that were canceled.
Childress said the absence of state championship events for basketball as well as the Spring Fling will leave the TSSAA with an estimated $1.1 million in lost revenue from gate receipts, contractually guaranteed money from host sites as well as corporate sponsorships.
"You don't recover that, but that's why you try to build up a reserve over the years, which we've been fortunate to do," Childress said. "Revenue from state tournaments is a major part of our operating budget, so it's never ideal to lose any postseason tournament but especially not those.
"But again, I go back to the fact that any dollar amount pales in comparison with what these young people lost."
Childress said the TSSAA's reserve fund will allow the organization to overcome the seven-figure financial loss that resulted from the cancellations of state tournaments for basketball and spring sports. Although he would not elaborate on the amount in the reserve fund, the TSSAA's 2019-20 budget was nearly $3.8 million, according to the audited financial statements given to the organization's Board of Control members.
Besides the TSSAA's financial losses, the city of Murfreesboro will also suffer without getting to host the state tournaments. According to the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce's Barbara Wolke, the economic impact of not having TSSAA events to host will cost the county nearly $4 million in lost revenue.
None of the TSSAA directors knew what Gov. Bill Lee's decision would be prior to his news conference Wednesday, during which he announced a recommendation to keep public school campuses throughout the state closed for the remainder of the school year.
Childress added that until that decision came about, TSSAA staff members were still working on contingency plans to salvage both the basketball state tournaments and the Spring Fling. Even after Middle Tennessee State University, the host site of the public school basketball state tournaments as well as a portion of the Spring Fling, announced it was closing its campus until July 31, TSSAA staff members began looking at alternative sites.
"We were discussing three high school gyms that could have hosted the basketball tournaments for the different classifications, and we had a few mid-state schools with nice facilities that could have hosted the track meet and baseball championships," Childress said. "We knew if we were able to play again that the events would not bring in the money they normally would, but our only concern was trying to find a way to play out the seasons for the sake of all the kids who had worked so hard.
"Obviously that wound up not happening, but the way we look at it, the reason we have a reserve is for difficult times like this. Finances were never a part of any decision during this."