Run It Back: The Potential Impact of COVID-19 Cancellations

To say that this past week has been crazy would be an understatement.

Within the span of a few days, we have gone from preparing for the National Championships to cancelling all national meets across all divisions and effectively losing an entire spring season of competition. All of this was done in an effort to slow the spread of the Coronavirus.

However, recent reports indicate that the NCAA will offer additional eligibility for spring athletes while extra winter eligibility is still being discussed. The news is a silver lining on what has been a very dark cloud.

There are so many questions that we still don't have the answers to, but the revival of missed spring eligibility is the most recent news that at least answers some of our current questions...and maybe even sparks a whole set of new ones.

* * *

Admittedly, the additional eligibility seems to be somewhat moot for most of these elder collegiates. In most cases, these seniors were scheduled to graduate at the end of this spring semester. A handful of seniors that I have spoken to already have jobs lined up starting this summer which are contingent on receiving a degree at the end of the semester.

While it is certainly possible that some current seniors return to the NCAA in 2021, attempting to shift a majority of post-collegiate plans that were only a few months out seems unlikely (at least for most current seniors).

But what about the best of the best? The top-tier athletes? The ones who will be looking for sponsorship opportunities? How will they affected by the discontinuation of a spring track season?

While certainly not the be-all-end-all, a lack of individual national titles can hurt an athlete's value when it comes to contract negotiations. This means that top collegiate elites such as Joe Klecker (Colorado), Tyler Day (Northern Arizona), Devin Dixon (Texas A&M), James West (Oregon), Katie Izzo (Arkansas), Whittni Orton (BYU) and Nia Akins (Penn) will enter the summer sponsorship market without NCAA gold around their necks (assuming they don't return to the NCAA next spring).

Of course, to suggest that these shoe companies wouldn't take the recent championship cancellations into consideration during contract negotiations would be misleading. It would be near impossible (or at the very least, unfair) to ignore the accomplishments of these athletes and use a lack of national titles against them. Any reasonable shoe company can look at the resumes of these athletes and understand that they of the same caliber as national title winners.

Still, trying to decipher which athlete has an edge over the other will become increasingly more difficult for sponsor scouts. As a result, we could see the pro contract market find an equilibrium of sorts. Without championship races and an entire season of competition to define the boundaries of good athletes, great athletes and elite athletes, sponsors may be more hesitant to offer big-money contracts to certain individuals unless other brands are willing to get into bidding wars.

This, of course, is only speculation. Time will tell how future professional contracts will unfold. However, with racing opportunities becoming increasingly more scarce, and the Olympics in jeopardy of being postponed (or worse, cancelled), shoe brands may become more risk adverse to invest in certain athletes.

* * *

However, one group of soon-to-be-graduated seniors that could face significant challenges when obtaining post-collegiate contracts are steeplechasers.

An event that only happens in the spring, many talented distance runners often shift their focus to the obstacle-based event during the spring months. However, by not being able to contest the steeplechase this spring, it is highly possible that we will see a very limited number of steeplechasers enter the pro circuit.

Current senior athletes who were at the end of their eligibility such as Charlotte Prouse (New Mexico), Erica Birk-Jarvis (BYU) and Steven Fahy (Stanford) have likely already done enough to earn pro contracts this summer.

However, guys like Brian Barraza (Adidas) and Obsa Ali (ASICS) probably wouldn't have received sponsorship deals had they relied on just their non-steeplechase accolades. Had those two men been competing in the NCAA nowadays, they wouldn't have had the opportunity to make a name for themselves like they did just a couple of years ago.

In other words, their futures could have looked wildly different.

* * *

While the professional contract market will certainly have more ambiguity than most, there is one group of current collegiates who will be thrilled to have yet another year of eligibility.

In this case, I'm talking about graduate students.

Every year, there are seniors who prepare to transition out of undergrad and into graduate school. However, with an extra year of eligibility now on their side, it's possible that some of these student-athletes could extend their athletic endeavors into graduate school - an opportunity that doesn't happen often, especially for fifth-year undergraduate students.

More so, if a senior was expected to enter this spring season with junior eligibility and then go off to grad school, then you're looking at the first-ever scenario where an athlete in a two-year graduate program could compete in the NCAA during both of those spring seasons.

It's still unclear what details or technicalities will be associated with this additional eligibility. However, if enough athletes opt to use their additional year of eligibility, we could be looking at a scenario where the spring of 2021 is the deepest and most talented season of competition that we have ever seen.

* * *

There is, however, one crucial caveat that we have not yet mentioned - the possibility of winter eligibility. Per latest reports, the NCAA is still discussing the idea of granting athletes an additional year of winter eligibility in addition to the spring eligibility that we have already discussed.

Should the NCAA move forward with granting extended winter eligibility (which is by no means a guarantee), then certain athletes may have a greater incentive to return to collegiate competition knowing that they wouldn't have to wait until early April to start competing again.

And if that were to happen, collegiate track athletes would quietly literally be "running it back".