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Door cracks open for outdoor sports, fans

Isotopes Park can host games, and fans, for both the Albuquerque Isotopes baseball team and New Mexico United soccer team, per conditions set by the amended state public health order on Wednesday. (Marla Brose Albuquerque Journal)

Thanks, but no thanks, Sod Poodles.

The Lobos are going to stay in Albuquerque this week, after all.

While the news Wednesday of loosened public health order restrictions around New Mexico covered plenty of ground, in the sports realm, the headliner was clear.

For the first time in 347 days, live sporting events – under certain circumstances and in certain venues – are allowed again in New Mexico.

In some cases, much to the delight of college and professional teams in the Albuquerque area that are dependent on the revenue generation of ticket sales, fans can even return to cheer on their teams.

And for the immediate future, it means UNM baseball coach Ray Birmingham won’t need to gas up his pickup to follow the team bus to Amarillo, Texas, on Thursday for a “home” series against Air Force, which was set to be played at HODGETOWN Stadium, home of the minor league Amarillo Sod Poodles. Now it will be played Saturday (a doubleheader) and Sunday at home.

“It’s fantastic,” Birmingham said of the news on a conference call, moments after demonstrating his initial reaction to the news that consisted of a loud scream and a fist pump.

The prospects for high school sports, meanwhile, didn’t change as the day’s news was venue-based, not making any specific changes to the health order.

Said Birmingham, “We’re excited. We want to show off a new ballpark (UNM renovated its baseball stadium this past offseason). We want to show off the new team. We want to kick some butt in our own field and we love playing at home. Ask the Yankees. They feel the same way.”

The coach was also emphatic in thanking Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for the amended health order, noting the difficult decisions she has felt are in the state’s best interests throughout the coronavirus pandemic – even in the face of growing public outcry from parents and those in the sports community.

“This is a big responsibility not to mess this up,” Birmingham noted.

New Mexico did report on Wednesday 448 new cases statewide and 13 new deaths connected with COVID-19.

UNM Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez and UNM President Garnett Stokes – as well as both high-profile Albuquerque-based professional sports programs – all took to social media to express thanks to the governor and all involved in the decision. Baseball’s Albuquerque Isotopes and New Mexico United soccer both have seasons starting later this spring. Their teams are all required to test three times a week for COVID-19 just to even practice.

“Our student-athletes have successfully followed COVID protocols all year, and we pledge to continue that effort to assist New Mexico as we continue progressing together in the fight against the pandemic,” Nuñez wrote in a prepared statement. “We have been preparing for this moment all year and will be ready to host.”

UNM relocated its football team to Las Vegas, Nevada, in the fall for its season and has had its men’s and women’s basketball teams out of state most of their seasons for practices and thus far for all games. UNM will release details on how fans can attend games, and what restrictions may be in place, later this week.

What’s in a name?

There are no changes to the health order as it pertains to sports or athletes in terms of testing requirements for college and professional athletes.

Instead, it set up parameters for sporting events and fan attendance based on both the category of the venue and the case-count status of the county it is in.

The state clarified to the Journal that both professional and college sports venues fall under the “Large Entertainment Venue” category for the purposes of the public health order. High school and youth sports venues fall under the “Recreational facilities” category.

For neither venue does anything change if the county is in the “red” status, which Doña Ana County (and all New Mexico State University sports) returned to on Wednesday after having spent the previous two weeks in the “yellow” distinction. A “red” county is one with a 14-day average daily case count higher than eight per 100,000 population and a test positivity rate higher than 5%.

Bernalillo County – home to UNM sports as well as the Isotopes and United – is in the “yellow.”

Here is the color coded breakdown for pro and college sports:

  • Red: Large sports venues may not operate
  • Yellow: Outdoor sports can happen with 25% fan capacity; Indoor sports cannot
  •  Green: Outdoor sports can happen with 50% fan capacity; Indoor sports 25% fan capacity
  • Turquoise: Outdoor sports can happen with 75% fan capacity; Indoor sports 33% fan capacity

For “recreational facilities”, which is where many high school and youth sports will fall under:

  • Red: Facilities may operate outdoors up to 25% capacity; Indoor sports cannot
  • Yellow: Outdoor sports can happen with 33% fan capacity; Indoor sports cannot
  • Green: Outdoor sports can happen with 50% fan capacity; Indoor sports 25% fan capacity
  • Turquoise: Outdoor sports can happen with 75% fan capacity; Indoor sports 50% fan capacity

Back in business

John Traub, Isotopes Vice President and General Manager, called the amended public health order a “a game-changing announcement” to allow baseball again, and he expressed appreciation to the governor and her Chief of Staff, Matt Garcia.

It’s major progress from a week ago, when the announcement of the 2021 minor league schedules was tempered by the reality that the Isotopes wouldn’t play here unless the club could bring fans to Isotopes Park.

The Isotopes’ scheduled season opener is at home in April 8, a date “circled in big, bold marker on our calendars,” Traub said. That’s assuming, however, Major League Baseball starts its season on time in April as well, and only then would it send its labor supply of Triple-A players.

“We continue to play as though April 8 is going to happen,” Traub said. “We are doing everything to prepare until Major League Baseball says we’ll be delayed – finalizing our COVID-safe operating plans, a seating manifest, all the things we ordinarily would be preparing for. We’re at the five-week point.”

Traub said announcements on ticket sales will happen once the Triple-A season gets a green light from MLB. Contact has been made with the seasonal workers hired for 2020 who didn’t get to work because of the pandemic, giving them priority for 2021.

The Isotopes, who also sub-lease the city-owned Isotopes Park on a per-game basis to United, figure they could allow roughly 3,000 fans in for an event and comply with the 25 percent threshold. Schematics for soccer and baseball viewing could be different, but still under a COVID-safe protocol, Traub said.

A statement from United said, in part, “We will continue to partner with the Albuquerque Isotopes and the City of Albuquerque to ensure that every New Mexico United match is safe, and follows the Statewide Public Health Order and COVID-safe practices.”

United expects a schedule for 2021 in the coming weeks.

For UNM women’s basketball, Wednesday’s news seemed to present an outside chance that the Lobos could play at home for the first time this season. The Mountain West this week rescheduled UNM’s series against first-place Colorado State for March 3 and 5 in Albuquerque.

Nuñez, however, said UNM cannot currently host basketball or volleyball under the guidelines. Unless that changes, the UNM-CSU women’s basketball series would likely be played in Las Vegas, Nevada, where the Lobos would remain through the ensuing Mountain West tournament.

“We haven’t been able to practice in the Pit all year,” UNM women’s basketball coach Mike Bradbury said, “so at this point it doesn’t really matter if we play there without fans or in Las Vegas. There’s no real advantage either way.”

No changes yet

The New Mexico Activities Association’s varsity sports calendar for the 2020-21 school year begins on Saturday morning. In the metro area, that means a cross country meet at Bosque School on the West Side that will also feature several other small, private schools in the city.

But Wednesday’s announcement from the state doesn’t demonstrably change things for the NMAA going forward, executive director Sally Marquez said. Volleyball matches, for example, can be contested starting as early as Monday. All athletes, coaches and officials will be in masks, and no spectators, including athlete parents, are going to be allowed for now.

The NMAA, Marquez said, is not tied to the color of a particular county’s health status. Rather, she said, the guidelines fall under the umbrella of the Public Education Department’s re-entry procedures.

But any school in New Mexico that hopes to play any varsity competition must first be in a hybrid learning model, and they must have a 14-day period that meets the state’s health protocols as it relates to COVID-19.

Soccer games can commence starting Saturday, March 6; varsity football games will begin on Friday, March 5.

Meanwhile, New Mexico Ice Wolves owner Stan E. Hubbard spent some time Wednesday scouring the public health order updates for game-changing news.

“It appears that maybe there is an opportunity in green,” Hubbard said.

The Ice Wolves are part of the North American Hockey League, a developmental league for players trying to get college scholarships or professional opportunities. In a pandemic-free world, their home is Outpost Ice Arenas in Albquerque. This season, the team has been playing at “home” at NYTEX Sports Centre in North Richland Hills, Texas.

The team has about 30 matches left in a season that extends through May.

“Our expenses have doubled and our revenue is zero,” Hubbard said. “Our plan is to play at home as soon as we can.”

The Indoor Football League’s Duke City Gladiators are hoping that time is on their side, since their home opener is scheduled for May 29, said owner Gina Prieskorn-Thomas.

“We hoping we’ll be able to have at least 25 percent capacity,” she said, which would be the rule for an indoor facility in a “green county.

Which indoor facility is in question. Prieskorn-Thomas said the club could end up playing at the Convention Center, “even though the ceilings are low,” rather than Tingley Coliseum, which is being used for vaccines.

“We’re exploring all our options,” she said.

Journal Sports Editor Randy Harrison and Staff Writers Bob Christ, Ken Sickenger and James Yodice contributed to this report.

 




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