The 2020 fall high school sports season was largely a success throughout Vermont, balancing the new normal of COVID-19 risks while allowing most sports the opportunity to compete.
Fans — although limited to a maximum of 150 — were even allowed to attend games. Something that looked bleak at best during parts of the summer.
The winter sports season presents even more challenges for the Vermont Principals Association (VPA) and state health officials. The most glaring issue: competition is moving inside.
With positive coronavirus numbers reaching all-time highs throughout the state, and no longer having the luxury of playing outside, the VPA has banned fans from attending winter sporting events.
The sports themselves remain on hold. The season was set to begin Nov. 30 before being suspended indefinitely. As of now, the Jan. 11 start date for games has not moved.
If/when the winter sports season is given the green light, local schools have a plan in place to allow fans to watch the games.
Burr and Burton will stream its hockey games using LiveBarn, a monthly subscription of $18. All other sporting events will be available to watch on the National Federation of State High Schools streaming service, which costs users $10.99 per month.
Tickets to Burr and Burton home games typically cost adults $4 and $2 for students.
Playing in front of no fans is something fall sport Mount Anthony athletes have already experienced. The school initially prohibited fans from attending fall sporting events, before reversing that division early into the shortened season. CAT-TV live streamed varsity games for the Patriots, something they plan to continue if winter sports get off the ground for the 2020-2021 season.
“If they do happen we do plan to stream the games,” wrote the CAT-TV Facebook page in a message.
Both LiveBarn and NFFS are familiar to BBA.
“Last year was our first winter with NFHS,” Burr and Burton athletic director Dave Miceli said. “LiveBarn has existed in the rink for a number of years.”
The programs will be more important than ever before with no fans allowed at sporting events.
Also important, the atmosphere within the games themselves. Miceli said that was one area of concern fall BBA athletes expressed.
“They did recognize that that was one of the things that really makes playing a sport for your high school really exciting; That your friends and family and your community all get to come out and share.”
The Bulldogs are getting creative with how they plan to improve that for the winter season.
“We’ve got a student-athlete leadership team, and one of the things that they’re working on is figuring out a way that fans can show their love and support for the athletes,” Miceli said.
For the athletes, playing in an empty gym could be eerie. The student-athlete leadership team has a few ideas to make the experience a little more fun.
Ideas include filling the stands with “big heads” — enlarged cardboard cutout heads of athletes. Many professional sports franchises have gone this route to fill its stadiums while not allowing fans into its venue during the pandemic.
Another idea is to fill the gymnasium/rink with banners.
“Just so you’re not in an empty gym or an empty rink,” Miceli said.
Along with the two streaming services, BBA can also produce livestreams themselves and post them on their website — something they did sparingly during the fall season.
“We actually have the ability to livestream using camera equipment from our cinema program,” Miceli said. “The difficulty is always finding people willing to actually run the cameras.”
Miceli suggested that the in-house broadcasting may be saved for outdoor sporting events like skiing and snowboarding, since the other sports will be covered by LiveBarn and NFHS.
“We may end up trying to livestream some of the games directly as well, in which case people wouldn’t necessarily have to pay,” Miceli said. “It also gives us the ability to livestream our nordic events or alpine events, so we may save that programming for those outdoor venues.”
Live Streaming during the fall sports season allowed opposing team’s fans the opportunity to watch their team play, as Miceli said most of the local BBA fans were able to attend the games in person.
Miceli described a particular instance during a BBA boys soccer playoff win over Rice where a Rice parent expressed their gratitude for being able to watch their son’s final high school soccer game.
“They had been to everything else, they couldn’t get to Manchester on that particular afternoon,” Miceli said. “So being able to see their son play his final soccer game meant a lot.”
Making games available to stream also opened the door for family members that are not local to Vermont to get a chance to watch their loved one compete.
“I hadn’t realized (that possibility) — it makes sense if you stop and think about it,” Miceli said. “Relatives of our own athletes who live out of town or across the country were now able to tune in and watch their kids play, and had not previously been able to do that.”
Miceli called it “an added bonus” for the family members and friends of athletes who normally never got to see the game.
There may not be fans in the stands this winter, but as long as there are games — they will be watching.