When the Pac-12 announced late Friday afternoon that it was moving to a conference-only format for fall sports, the focus was on football, and with good reason.
Football in the Pac-12, as well as the rest of the Power Five, is tied to tens of millions of dollars in media rights, donations, licensing and sponsorships among other factors. Revenue generated by major college football often helps athletic departments fund other so-called “non-revenue” sports.
With football at the forefront of decision making inside athletic departments with the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, Friday’s Pac-12 announcement affects two other sports at the University of Utah, women’s soccer and women’s volleyball.
“To be honest, I’m still processing it, I’m not sure I even had an initial reaction,” Utes women’s soccer coach Rich Manning told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this week. “I was surprised at the timing of it. I thought they might wait a couple of more weeks, but other than that, we’re supporting the move and trying to figure out what to do.”
Added Utah women’s volleyball coach Beth Launiere: “There was obviously some conversation about that happening, so we were prepared for it. I think the Pac-12 has done as good a job as possible, as has Utah with the testing protocols and return-to-play protocols. The No. 1 priority remains keeping the kids safe.”
Under Utah’s multi-tiered plan to bring student-athletes back to the Salt Lake City campus for voluntary workouts, Manning has roughly 30 of his 33 women’s soccer players in town, while Launiere is in the same boat of having nearly everyone back. Having the players on campus is one thing, but being able to work out in an official, in-season capacity may turn into quite another.
Women’s soccer is penciled in to begin training on Aug. 4. Women’s volleyball has a practice start date of Aug. 7. With no non-conference competition happening, neither Manning, nor Launiere know if those dates are going to hold up. Guidance from the Pac-12 is forthcoming, but exactly when is unknown, so the two coaches are essentially in a holding pattern.
Both coaches told The Tribune that the Pac-12 has asked all coaches in their respective sports for different scheduling scenarios they believe would be feasible. Manning took that a step further, noting that the Pac-12 women’s soccer coaches were slated to meet via Zoom on Wednesday to discuss the situation.
The Pac-12 plays 11 conference games in women’s soccer and 20 conference matches in women’s volleyball. Launiere, whose program advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2019 and finished ranked No. 9 in the AVCA Coaches Top 25, lamented the fact that what she viewed as a strong non-conference slate went by the wayside.
The Utes were slated to host 2019 national finalist Wisconsin, as well as face Minnesota, Michigan State, Missouri and BYU. The Badgers and Golden Gophers both advanced to last season’s Final Four and finished in the top four of the AVCA poll.
“It’s disappointing, but it doesn’t outweigh controlling what we can control,” Launiere said. “The Pac-12 is one of the top volleyball conferences in the country, so playing in that conference is pretty great in and of itself. We play in some big-time environments.”
Launiere’s opinion on what a conference-only schedule should look like is simple. She would be on board for keeping it at the normally-prescribed 20 matches, but also tossed out 22 as a possibility. Twenty-two would allow a double round robin in which everyone plays each other twice, one at home and one on the road.
As a point of reference, 22 has also been bandied about as a solution for Pac-12 basketball if non-conference schedules end up being altered or canceled.
Manning’s thoughts on conference-only scheduling continue to be open-minded, but he voiced concern about recent case spikes in Pac-12 strongholds like California and Arizona. Those things could make scheduling difficult being that Pac-12 soccer road trips include multiple games. In 2019, the Utes faced the Los Angeles schools on one road trip and the Washington schools in another.
Of note, Manning says he was told last week that there are still plans to hold an NCAA Tournament for soccer, which runs from mid-November through the Women’s College Cup in early-December. The logistics of such an event are obviously fluid, and could only happen if at least some semblance of a season took place, which is certainly up in the air at the moment.
“We understand there is a lot at stake and there are important decisions that still need to be made,” Manning said. “I’m honestly prepared for anything at this point. I don’t know when we can start. If we start, but have to stop, what does that do to everyone? To me, that’s the hardest part. We could get halfway through and stop, and that changes things. There is a lot of uncertainty.”