In the latest move to help schools save money and defray financial losses due to the new coronavirus pandemic, the Big Sky Conference announced Friday that the 2020-21 conference schedule for men’s and women’s basketball will be shortened to 16 games.
The Big Sky returned to a 20-game conference schedule over the last two seasons after the departure of North Dakota left the conference at 11 basketball members, creating a true round-robin schedule. But financial losses — the largest chunk coming when the 2019 NCAA men’s basketball tournament was canceled and expected TV revenue distributed across the country was slashed considerably — have led conferences to make adjustments to competition schedules.
The change is only for the 2020-21 season and, unlike in other sports for the Big Sky, the conference basketball tournament format will not change. The tournament will still feature all 11 teams and be hosted in Boise, Idaho.
“This one-year adjustment to our conference basketball schedules is an appropriate measure that delivers significant cost savings to our member institutions while providing our basketball programs with more flexibility in their nonconference scheduling,” Commissioner Tom Wistrcill said in a news release. “I applaud our schools’ leaders for striking the right balance between providing opportunities for our student-athletes to compete while recognizing the need to make changes for the upcoming year.”
The announcement said each team will reach 16 conference games by playing six opponents twice and the remaining four once, and that geographic proximity will be a key criteria in building the schedules.
The added nonconference flexibility could be used in various ways by basketball programs.
If possible, the most straightforward way would be to replace the four contests with nonconference games. That could include signing up for “buy games” with power schools to bring in revenue, or sign up for more games against local teams to fill a schedule with minimal cost.
For example, Weber State men’s basketball is scheduled to play BYU and Utah State each once in the upcoming season. If these programs end up needing additional games or are seeking nearby opponents that require a mere bus trip instead of airplane flights and hotel costs, an avenue to build a cost-effective schedule would be to add a second game against some of those opponents.
It also provides a greater ability to schedule new or different opponents on the fly in the event some schools cannot play due to state restrictions concerning the coronavirus.
For example, Utah is set to host three schools from California (Cal Poly, Fullerton, Fresno State) in Salt Lake City, but the status of in-person classes and campus closures in California is uncertain. Weber State is ostensibly also set to host Fresno State, which is a few seasons delayed in fulfilling the return trip of a two-for-one series with WSU.
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak told The Salt Lake Tribune it’s important for his program to have a backup plan to prepare for a scenario where those three opponents, for example, could not travel to Utah and compete in those games.
Utah is scheduled to play UVU and BYU next season and makes a tradition of avoiding scheduling Weber State but, in desperate times, WSU might land on its schedule in this backup scenario.
“We’ve reached out to some locals. We’re playing two Utah schools and you might end up playing more,” Krystkowiak told the Tribune.
Another option for basketball programs would be to leave some or all of those four available games unscheduled and save the costs in full — either by choice, or because finding willing scheduling partners could be difficult.
The Big Sky’s decision was recommended by the Conference Council, comprised of faculty representatives, athletic directors and senior women administrators, and was approved by the council of school presidents.
The change to basketball schedules follows a decision earlier this month to change 2020-21 schedules in five other sports. Those changes include:
SOCCER: After the usual nine-game conference schedule, the points leader will be named conference champion and qualifier for the NCAA Tournament. No conference tournament will be played.
SOFTBALL: After the usual 18-game conference schedule, Weber State will host the top four teams (down from six) in the conference tournament.
TRACK: Weber State, which was set to host the 2020 outdoor championship that was canceled, will host in 2021. Idaho State will host the 2021 indoor championships for central travel purposes.
TENNIS: To reduce travel, men’s and women’s tennis will be arranged in a divisional format, with top two teams from each of two divisions will advance to a four-team conference tournament.
VOLLEYBALL: Conference schedule is reduced from 18 to 16 games, with eight opponents each played twice in consecutive days. This reduces travel from nine road trips to four for each school. The conference tournament is reduced from eight teams to four.
NCAA GREEN LIGHTS
Two days after the NCAA approved the resumption of voluntary workouts for football and basketball athletes, it announced Friday it will allow for all Division I athletes to begin voluntary workouts on June 1. The NCAA previously shut down all practice and game activities to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Since the Big Sky also voted to allow individual schools to move forward with athletic activity independent of other schools’ ability to do so, and the state of Utah has moved to a yellow/low risk stage that allows gatherings of up to 50 people, the remaining determination for Weber State athletes being allowed to begin workouts is a decision from the university.
Weber State University opted to remain in orange/moderate risk through May 31 when the state announced it would enter yellow/low risk on May 16. Campus buildings remain closed in the orange stage.
“Assuming the state and local counties do not see a spike in COVID-19 cases, we anticipate moving operations to the Yellow-Low Risk Phase June 1,” a university statement said.