When the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, what innovations will remain for area high school sports?

The answer is likely digital in nature, and has been met with enthusiasm from athletic departments and spectators alike. Ticketing and event viewing are viewed as a permanent change for the better.

The shift started in the fall, when state and Ohio High School Athletic Association guidelines limited the number of spectators allowed at sporting events to 15% of a stadium or gym’s capacity.

In the effort to give as many people as possible a chance to watch an event, schools started live-streaming games on various platforms, some for free and some for a small fee. For those that were able to secure a seat to watch in-person, tickets were moved to a digital format, purchased through a website and scanned by school staff at the gate instead of the old, germ-friendly model of paper tickets and money changing hands.

Schools aren’t going back.

“I think that some version of digital ticketing will be here to stay, as it does make it easier for athletic directors, treasurers and others (to stay organized),” Westlake athletic director Tony Cipollone said.

At no cost to the schools, online services like HomeTown Ticketing were implemented, allowing buyers to get tickets via their computer or smartphone, which they could either save on the phone itself or print out, to be scanned at the venue prior to entry.

Back in September, Fairview High School athletic director Joe Dianetti said that digital tickets were on the way regardless of COVID-19, but the onset of the pandemic certainly sped up the process. Digital tickets also became available at middle school sporting events, and could even be extended to school concerts and theater events.

“We were looking to do it back in the spring (of 2020), just as an alternative option to ticket purchasing,” Dianetti said at the time. “With everything that’s transpired over the spring and summer, it kind of was convenient and became a way for us to offer pretty much contactless ticket purchasing.”

Another trend that picked up steam in the fall was the live streaming of games. Schools used platforms like YouTube, Boxcast and others to give spectators a chance to see anything from football to swim meets without leaving home. Many of the broadcasts came complete with live commentary, oftentimes provided by student broadcasters.

During the recently-completed winter season, those streams came in handy as the specter of the coronavirus and increasing cases across Cuyahoga and Lorain counties made attending a live sporting event indoors feel like a risky proposition. It was also a useful tool for interested viewers who didn’t live close enough to attend a game.

The broadcasts received rave reviews across a variety of sports.

“The live streaming options for out-of-towners or alumni was a big attraction,” Avon hockey coach Kyle Botos said. “We’re working to make sure that it’s something that stays around for good.”

Locally, the Great Lakes Conference was an in-season innovator, launching GLC TV in February to coincide with the start of the league’s inaugural boys and girls basketball tournaments. Powered through weebly.com, schools from across the conference, including the Fairview Park City Schools Broadcast Network, Rocky River High School Broadcast Network, Lakewood Sports Channel, and others like Bay that used Boxcast for games, were able to combine their streams in one location, giving the viewer the opportunity to see every game.

Schools from other conferences like Avon and North Ridgeville also began popular streams that featured live play-by-play during home games.

“I hope for our players’ families’ sake that live streams stay in place and allow family members who can’t attend games to watch live,” said North Ridgeville girls basketball coach Amy Esser. “We had a great play-by-play announcer (Dave Grednzynski) that made watching games even that much more enjoyable.”

For individual teams, training and schedule tweaks forced by the pandemic’s presence made for attractive options once it fades. For one, the GLC basketball tournament, which crowned a regular season league champion in a year where its 10 schools played an uneven number of games due to the virus, was a hit with all involved, and is slated to take place again next year as North Olmsted and Westlake are set to move over from the Southwestern Conference.

“I really like the GLC Tournament,” Rocky River boys basketball coach Mike Murray said. “I think in our coaches meetings with the ADs, we found a way to still keep the integrity of the regular season and crown a champion while also having a tournament.”

For Bay wrestling coach Ryan Cover, the decrease in large tournaments in favor of more dual matches was a welcome sight that could also prove to be more fan-friendly in the future, should the change last.

“We had 33 duals,” Cover said. “I still think tournaments are needed, but dual meets get the casual fan into the gym. Those types of fans aren’t going to go sit in a gym for 12 hours just to watch someone they know wrestle for 15 minutes.”

In the pool, Rocky River boys swimming coach Mark Harris lamented the loss of some of the usual team bonding activities of seasons past like team parties he’d grown accustomed to hosting, but thought that COVID protocols led to a pair of positive changes to the way practices, meets and even the state meet in Canton were conducted.

“I really liked assigned warm-up times and space for teams at championship meets,” Harris said. “Usually we’re battling for lane space to get a proper warm-up. It was so easy, safe and peaceful this season. I can’t imagine we’ll be going backwards. Many teams were pleased with how meets were run...We also liked having less people per lane in our groups. It helped reduce stop time during workouts.”

In the strangest high school athletic year in a century, changes were necessary, and may end up advancing sports in the area well into the future.

Contact this reporter at sports@westlifenews.com or 440-871-5797.

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