March 12, aka COVID Thursday.
That’s the day sporting events, like so many dominos, started to fall victim to the coronavirus pandemic.
From professional to college to high school and youth sports, organizing entities called a halt to games as the nation tried to get the pandemic under control.
The NCAA canceled winter sports championships, including March Madness. The Colorado High School Activities Association canceled the state basketball playoffs, then paused spring sports, eventually canceling the season.
The phrase “postponed/canceled due to COVID-19” was used by virtually every team, league and organization.
On March 16, the NJCAA announced it was canceling spring sports and championships, scrubbing the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series, the biggest single sporting event on the Western Slope.
In Grand Junction since 1959, the JUCO World Series has a huge economic impact, bringing in more than $1 million every year.
“It will definitely have an impact on sales tax, lodging tax, restaurants, the hospitality industry,” Diane Schwenke, the CEO of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, said of the cancellation of JUCO. “It’s going to be big.”
JUCO Tournament Chairman Jamie Hamilton said sponsorships and ticket sales account for nearly a half-million dollars a year. That not only covers the cost of running the tournament, but part of the gate proceeds are sent to the NJCAA for the right to host the 10 qualifying teams. Other proceeds pay for stadium improvements and JUCO donates to several organizations.
Hamilton and Schwenke agreed that the $1-1.5 million economic impact numbers are conservative. Some calculations say each dollar generated multiplies five to 10 times.
When the NCAA started canceling championships, Hamilton figured the NJCAA would follow suit, although the junior colleges held out the longest of the college governing bodies.
“Our leadership, our executive team, when the NCAA announced it was shutting down Omaha (the site of the Division I College World Series), we pretty much felt that was going to happen with JUCO, primarily with the perception of the pressure that would be pushed on them anyway,” Hamilton said.
“Everything as far as reaching out on contracts for sponsorships, we put on a two-week hold to get a better sense, maybe the middle of March they’d make a better commitment, and obviously they did.”
The JUCO executive committee has kept roughly $1 million in reserve as a “rainy day fund,” which became a “COVID-19 fund,” allowing Hamilton to make the $300,000 annual payment toward the stadium renovation bond. As interest rates fell, the City of Grand Junction in November approved refinancing that bond, which was set to be paid off in 2035, and was extended another 10 years.
That coincides with the 10-year extension to host the tournament through 2045 that was secured in 2020, one of the bright spots of the year. The additional $7.5 million from the refinance will pay for improvements that will include replacing the outfield and the main grandstands behind home plate and down the third-base line. The city will start the bid process for the project in January.
The City of Grand Junction and JUCO will continue to pay $300,000 annually, with Colorado Mesa pledging an additional $100,000 per year for the improvements.
It was a summer of limited events — local Little League baseball games were delayed, but finally got their seasons played because COVID cases were low at the time, and the Western Slope Open tennis tournament was among the events that went ahead as scheduled.
The majority of community events, though, fell victim to the pandemic. All recreation leagues and classes through Grand Junction Parks and Recreation were canceled, and basketball, tennis and pickleball courts had times that they were closed to players.
Golf was one sport that, in Grand Junction, escaped relatively unscathed. Courses remained open. Most of the fundraising tournaments were canceled, but the big tournaments, the men’s Colorado West Amateur and Rocky Mountain Open and the women’s Triple Play, survived, although with several adjustments.
As the calendar moves to 2021, Ben Snyder, the new executive director of the Greater Grand Junction Sports Commission, predicts a big bounce-back year. He’s confident instead of postponing and eventually canceling events, his staff will be busy helping promote and run events again, even if they’re different than usual.
“We’re absolutely moving forward with with our events,” said Snyder, who took over the commission on Nov. 2. “We plan for them to happen in 2021. Again, that’s a very optimistic approach, and we’ll have contingency plans in place. However, we’re planning that 2021 is going to be a turnaround year for the country, and certainly Grand Junction.”