Why a Division II conference in California was first to suspend fall sports

In mid-March, when San Francisco State closed its campus to help curtail the spread of the coronavirus, Gators women’s volleyball coach Matt Hoffman decided to spend his newfound free time scouring video and box scores for a competitive advantage.

Since taking over the Division II program four years ago, he has used an analytics-based approach to guide SFSU — a school that funds fewer scholarships than many of its conference rivals — from a 1-25 record in 2016 to a 16-11 record in 2019. No strategic nuance is too subtle for Hoffman to study. In recent months, he charted the more than 1,000 timeouts called in the California Collegiate Athletic Association last season to understand how they can best be utilized.

Now, after the CCAA became the first athletic conference at any level in the U.S. to suspend all fall sports, Hoffman has more time for statistical analysis than he might prefer. But unlike coaches from other leagues, at least he can start to plan for life without practices and matches.

Every conference in the country other than the CCAA still clings to the hope that sports can unfold as planned this fall. And though some athletic officials — including Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott — argue that players will be healthier on campus with their teams during a pandemic than social distancing at home, one doesn’t need to be an economist to understand that money is the biggest motivator to resume play.

Many athletic department budgets rely on football-related revenue to support the rest of their programs. Schools that don’t offer football tend to depend on men’s basketball as their primary money-maker, and they recognize that canceling sports for the fall semester could truncate their basketball seasons by two months.

This is such a difficult possibility to stomach that the California State University system’s nine Division I universities — including San Jose State, Fresno State and San Diego State, which have FBS football teams — remain insistent on playing their fall-semester sports as planned despite almost all of their classes being online only. What gives them hope is a literal interpretation of a recent edict from California State University chancellor Timothy White.

Three weeks ago, NCAA president Mark Emmert said in an interview streamed by the NCAA, “If a school doesn’t reopen, then they’re not going to be playing sports. It’s really that simple.” When White announced May 12 that the 23-campus system would operate almost entirely online for the fall semester, some schools focused on the small number of in-person classes that White indicated might be available.

Exceptions, which would require meeting local health and safety protocols, could include certain capstone projects or lab classes to finish science degrees. White stressed in his official statement that in-person courses would be rare arrangements rooted in “compelling educational and research needs.”

Though their Division I counterparts saw that as reason to believe that fall sports could still happen, the 12 CSU schools that comprise the CCAA interpreted the message more how White intended it. Within hours of White’s announcement, the CCAA indefinitely suspended fall sports, taking the suspense out of a topic that had caused anxiety for many of its coaches and players.

“It takes a lot of courage to be the first one to go there,” said San Francisco State athletic director Stephanie Shrieve-Hawkins, whose Gators are in the CCAA with fellow Bay Area schools Sonoma State and Cal State East Bay. “But as universities, we’re set to be ready if we can’t have sports all the way through the fall and the winter, perhaps.”

Added CCAA commissioner Mitch Cox: “When we made the announcement, we got hammered a little bit, and there were people saying, ‘Why are you making this decision so early?’ … But now we can say, ‘Here’s where we’re at. We know where we’re at.’”

Cox conceded that there’s a slight chance the conference could have sports in the fall, but that would require a dramatic shift in the landscape of the coronavirus in California. All of the CCAA’s university presidents agreed to suspend fall sports before the announcement was made. With classes almost completely online, they didn’t want to ask their student-athletes to take risks that the normal students won’t have to take.

San Francisco State’s Julio Gonzalez Ponce dribbles past his defender in the Gators’ 2-0 home win over Cal State Dominguez Hills on Nov. 9.

However, the CCAA wasn’t the first conference at any level to suspend all fall sports just because they value their student-athletes’ health. With UC San Diego’s move to Division I taking effect July 1, the CCAA counts all of its members among the California State University system, a luxury that the Mountain West — home to San Jose State, Fresno State and San Diego State — doesn’t boast.

There is also the fact that Division II has a far different business model than Division I. Though Division I schools depend on sponsorship deals, postseason tournaments, TV contracts, merchandise and ticket sales to make a profit, Division II universities have little expectation of finishing in the black.

Their budgets — most of which are south of $5 million — are funded through a combination of student tuition, campus fees, fundraisers, state revenue and donations. This makes it easier for the CCAA to endure an extended hiatus in sports than a Division I athletic department responsible for producing considerable revenue for the entire university.

Cox, one of just three CCAA employees not affiliated with a specific school, doesn’t anticipate having to resort to drastic cost-cutting measures anytime soon. That probably wouldn’t be the case for many Division I conferences if fall sports didn’t occur as scheduled.

“Division I athletics, they’re striving to make money, whether it’s through TV contracts and things like that,” Cox said. “At the DII level, I don’t want to sound trite or whatever, but it is the student-athlete experience.

“You’re not talking about ‘The Big House’ at Michigan with 100,000 people in it or TV contracts. It’s a whole different world. When folks say Division I, I just shut off because it’s not even the same planet.”

When CCAA officials began mapping out what they’d need to have volleyball, soccer, cross country and an on-time start to basketball this year, they realized that the coronavirus testing alone would take up much of their athletic-department budgets. The idea of fall sports being pushed back until the winter or spring has been discussed; in that scenario, the affected teams would likely be left to eye a CCAA championship, not an NCAA title, as their top prize.

Such a turn of events would be devastating for Cal State San Bernardino women’s volleyball, which returns the vast majority of a roster that went 33-0 last season to become the third team to win a Division II title in unbeaten fashion. The good news is that it’s possible the NCAA will give CCAA athletes an additional year of eligibility.

As Hoffman faces the prospect of his SFSU team going more than a year between matches, he tries to keep busy with numbers dives, contingency plans and conversations with players. His Gators are losing just one starter from a team that finished above .500 in conference play for the first time since 2015. Whenever play resumes, SFSU has a chance to contend for a division title.

“We try not to overreact about anything,” Hoffman said. “We just deliver the message to our players and say, ‘This is what it is right now. We’re going to see what the next step is, and we’re going to do everything in our power to be ready.’ At the end of the day, we can’t control when we come back.”

Connor Letourneau is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: cletourneau@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @Con_Chron

— to www.sfchronicle.com

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