MINNEAPOLIS — With the full-on arrival of COVID-19 in the public consciousness in the middle of March, sports around the planet came to a sudden halt and a million heartbreaking stories of “what could have been” played out in every corner of our region.
In Grand Forks, the North Dakota hockey team was ranked atop the college polls and barreling toward what could have been a showdown with Bemidji State, Minnesota Duluth — the Bulldogs were seeking a third consecutive NCAA crown — and Minnesota State, Mankato, all of which were red hot in the second half of the 2019-20 season. None of them got a chance to prove what they could do on the ice, and there was even a thought that the Fighting Hawks should consider hanging a black banner in their rink in memory of what could have been the program’s ninth national championship season.
In Eden Prairie, Minn., the boys basketball team was 28-0, ranked first in Minnesota and in the top 10 nationally, and headed for the state tournament. Then they learned that just like that, the season was over as the state and the nation locked down due to the pandemic. The Eagles gathered in their gym a few days later to cut down the nets, symbolic of a title run, and share hugs, tears and memories from a magical season with a most unsatisfying conclusion.
After a few weeks of eerie spring silence on the sports scene — no March Madness, no early season baseball, no NHL playoffs, no NCAA Frozen Four — it became routine to read tweets highlighting some of the day’s big plays from the Korean Baseball League. In May, NASCAR ratings shot up because it was the only major American sports league with live events happening. It was a perfect encapsulation of just how much sports mean to our society. Having something to cheer, and a team to break your heart, is a need for many. Like myriad other things, to lose all of that for a time had an impact on our lives.
Spuds and siblings
A few of those million stories are being told on a residential street in south Moorhead, Minn., where the Walthall family has been seeing an up-close version of how the pandemic affects every element of sports in the Red River Valley. Chad is the men’s basketball head coach at Minnesota State, Moorhead. His daughter Brooke is a sophomore volleyball player for the Dragons. Twin sons Blake and Brady are seniors at Moorhead High School and starred for the unbeaten Spuds football team in the fall. The boys, and their parents, didn’t get a chance to go to Minneapolis and play for a state title in the Minnesota Vikings’ home stadium.
READ MORE: The 2020 Project
“This team may be remembered more than any other, because they were so terrific under such different circumstances,” Chad Walthall said of the Spuds, admitting that the kids handled the adversity of a season played during a pandemic much better than most parents. “Everyone is going through the same things, but for seniors and parents of seniors, it probably hurts a little bit more.”
The amount that has been lost is staggering. Hundreds of high school events and tournaments were cancelled. Pro baseball and soccer played abbreviated seasons without fans. The Vikings, Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Gophers played in empty venues. When the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic, the city of Minneapolis was one week away from hosting the NCAA Wrestling Championships, which they had pursued since 2013 and had planned for several years. The 40,000 fans expected to fill U.S. Bank Stadium — three-quarters of them from outside the region — and all of the dollars they would spend in the city, disappeared overnight.
“That’s a day we will never forget. It was devastating for us,” said Matt Meunier, director of Sports Minneapolis. “To get that close and have the bottom fall out, it was a rough day for sure.”
A year that started out so well for sports in the region’s largest city, with a successful hosting of Hockey Day Minnesota and the announcement of the NHL’s Winter Classic coming to Target Field, ended with them losing 30 sports events, including the X Games. Minneapolis is hoping to get the Winter Classic back when the NHL resumes some kind of traditional schedule, possibly in the 2021-22 season.
With Minnesota initially putting virus-prevention measures in place that were more strict than those of the Dakotas, there was also a phenomenon of sports events jumping the Red River, or the South Dakota border, and setting up in less-restrictive environments.
“Once things started to open back up in May, North Dakota was a little bit more fast-moving and on the Minnesota side they were a little more conservative with the pace that they opened things back up,” said Kali Mork, director of sports for the Fargo-Moorhead CVB. “So on the North Dakota side ... we did host a fair number of events, especially in baseball. Some even saw a bump in the number of teams that wanted to come to Fargo and play, because they couldn’t play in Minnesota at that time.”
This meant teams that had never before played in North Dakota were visiting for the first time, and four hockey tournaments normally played in the Twin Cities were relocated to Fargo. Mork said that in all, the additional events meant around $500,000 in new direct visitor spending in the community. But that good news was minor ray of light compared to the losses felt in town with NDSU football only hosting one game, with few fans, in the 2020 season. Each “normal” Bison home game brings around $500,000 into the community. With that gone, and the virus-related cancelation of other big events like the Fargo Marathon, Mork estimates that Fargo-Moorhead lost around $6 million in sports spending in 2020.
Among the many NCAA restrictions put in place in this strangest of seasons was an extension of their “dead period” when college coaches on the Division I and Division II levels were not allowed to recruit. For coaches like Walthall, this means uncertainty about the future. But he got a break in that his sons were playing summer basketball, so that meant getting to see players at tournaments that were restricted to parents only. In places like Sioux Falls, there were few other restrictions in place, at least initially.
“I couldn’t watch some of their tournaments in Minnesota because nobody was allowed in, not even parents. When I’d go to the Pentagon, nobody cared. You would try to do some social distancing, but in the spring and summer, a lot of people weren’t even wearing masks,” Walthall recalled. “(Coaches) were not allowed to go out and watch and recruit players unless you had your own kids playing. That’s the only reason I got to go watch a little bit, and even then I wasn’t allowed to watch games unless my kids were playing in them.”
The level of restrictions at sporting events has changed as the pandemic has hit much harder in the Dakotas, later in the year. At the Sanford Pentagon, the major sports and event venue in Sioux Falls, there were initial layoffs of around 200 staff for lack of sports there. Today some of those people are back on the job and the games go on, with tournaments like the college basketball Dakota Showcase happening in an empty arena. But even to those few lucky people who get to see sports in person, something is missing.
“I miss the fans, and I miss the energy that comes with fans. I miss the excitement of a team going on a run, sometimes because of the momentum of the crowd,” said Steve Young, president of Sanford Sports. “When you can hear every single play called or every single adjustment made, you almost feel like you’re in an illegal environment. It’s heartbreaking, but at the same time I understand it and I get it. I’ll be the first one cheering loud in a full arena when we can.”
Counting on a comeback
The arena on campus at MSU Moorhead is empty as well. The fall volleyball season was canceled for Brooke Walthall’s team. Chad Walthall’s Dragons are practicing, in advance of an abbreviated basketball season scheduled to start in early January. They have already had COVID-19 run through their roster, and the hope is that with immunity and a vaccine in 2021, they can just play, and the sports world can finally return to some kind of normalcy. That would be a good thing for the players, the fans, the parents, the coaches and the businesses that rely on all of them.
“I can’t wait until next year, because I think people are going to appreciate sports in general,” Chad Walthall said. “It’s certainly a big part of the fabric of our country, and I think everybody is going to embrace and appreciate sports maybe more than they ever have.”
This story is part of a 13-day series that looks at all the ways 2020 has changed us. From now until 2021, expect stories on workplace and education, sports, economics, politics and everything in between. Jess Myers (@JessRMyers) can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.