Scottsdale will continue to host youth and amateur sports tournaments in January and February, potentially bringing thousands of players and spectators from around Arizona and other states to the city as coronavirus case numbers continue to surge.
A city spokeswoman confirmed the city had 10 tournaments scheduled at city parks and other outdoor facilities in January and February.
Some of the tournaments will include teams from out of state.
Those types of tournaments with competition from teams from different geographic areas are at the “highest risk” to spread COVID-19 of all youth sports activities, according to the CDC.
Despite warnings from public health experts, city officials confirmed they will push forward with these tournaments, including those with out-of-state participants.
“We will continue to monitor the health conditions and work closely with each of the event directors as those dates get closer,” Assistant City Manager Bill Murphy said.
Valley cities have adopted varying approaches to tournaments slated over the next few months.
Phoenix has banned such events through March while Mesa cautiously gave them the go-ahead, requiring tournament organizers to observe a range of safety protocols or risk cancellation. Mesa officials initially had been inclined to follow Phoenix’s lead until the city’s tourism officials warned a ban could cost local hotels hundreds of thousands of dollars in bookings.
A Progress analysis of publicly-available information about Scottsdale tournaments found that they could collectively bring hundreds of teams and thousands of players to area sports fields over the next two months.
That worries Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, because state and county health officials are still in the process of vaccinating high risk individuals.
Humble, the former state health director, said even small tournaments should press pause in January and February to allow enough time for new vaccines to be administered to vulnerable populations and allow those people to build antibodies.
“If that were the case, then I’d say ‘yeah, it’s going to cause some spread in the community, but it’s not going to cause deaths and it’s not going to cause a hospital crisis…” Humble said. “I’m not saying you have to wait forever, but geez, when it’s this close.”
Scheduled events in Scottsdale include adult softball tournaments and multiple youth sports tournaments, including events moved to Arizona from other states.
The tournaments range in size from a few teams to a few hundred.
All World Softball is hosting two adult softball tournaments at Horizon Park. The first tournament had 19 teams registered to attend as of Dec. 23, according to the tournament website.
The Surf Cup soccer tournament is typically held in San Diego every year but relocated to Arizona due to California’s restrictions on large gatherings, according to the tournament’s website.
The Surf Cup held a tournament for younger players in late December and older players in early January at Scottsdale Sports Complex and other Valley sports fields.
According to documents submitted to the city, the Surf Cup will have 500 to 800 attendees.
Another huge soccer tournament scheduled at Scottsdale Sports Complex in February called the Max Shacknai Invitational typically attracts hundreds of teams each year.
Representatives for the tournament, which is hosted by the Phoenix Rising’s youth organization, did not respond to questions about the expected turnout this year.
But, the tournament’s website says the event is expecting “close to 500 teams, including the more than 120 teams from other states, regions, and countries that participated in 2020.”
The Progress reached out to tournament directors for all 10 events scheduled in January and February, but only two responded.
Kyle Rogers, Arizona tournament director for Baseball Showcase America, shared dozens of safety measures mandated by the organization for its MLK Tournament in January, including following local mask mandates, abiding by social distancing and limiting spectators to immediate family members.
Rogers said only six teams will play on one field in Scottsdale during the tournament.
The tournament, which is spread across fields in Scottsdale, Chandler and Mesa, has also banned sunflower seeds and has cleaning plans in place for dugouts and restrooms.
“Our only concern is for those who do not want to follow the rules,” Rogers said. “We have the rules to keep everyone safe. Anyone not abiding by the safety guidelines we put in place with the city will be asked to leave.”
Nicole Fintell with the United States Tennis Association said the organization’s junior’s tournament, scheduled for January at Scottsdale Ranch Park, could include players from Nevada and southern California.
Fintell said the tournament will limit attendance to no more than 50 people and implement safety protocols.
“We only allow (player and a plus one) on-site, require mask-wearing, and only use up to 12 courts to abide by the no more than 50 people organized gathering,” Fintell said.
Anyone not wearing a mask will be asked to leave, according to the USTA’s safety protocols.
The decision by some cities to continue hosting tournaments has been criticized by some in the public health community, citing rising COVID-19 case numbers.
Even tournaments held only with teams from the same geographical area are considered risky, according to the CDC.
Humble said allowing youth sports tournaments, especially those with out-of-state teams, is “grossly irresponsible” considering the increase in COVID-19 cases in recent months that have pushed Valley hospitals to near-full capacity.
He said the lion’s share of spread within the school system is connected to athletics.
“I’ve talked to Maricopa County Public Health, and they said the contact tracing is pointing directly at club sports…” Humble said.
Humble said that spread is not just due to children playing sports in close contact, but is also due to the behavior of parents and other spectators.
Under orders issued by Governor Doug Ducey, events with crowds larger than 50 people are required to submit safety plans to cities, and the cities must publish those plans for the public.
Beyond that, the responsibility falls on cities to decide whether or not to allow these events to continue.
As the pandemic negatively impacts local economies nationwide, local sports has provided a welcomed source of revenue.
Youth sports are a $19-billion industry nationally, and it’s growing, according to report by market research firm Wintergreen Research.
Youth and amateur ports tournaments are big business in Scottsdale and other cities around the Valley.
They not only generate facility rental revenue for cities but have an expanded economic impact by driving traffic to local restaurants and hotels, which, in turn, creates sales and bed tax revenues for cities.
Right now, sports tournaments in Scottsdale are approved administratively by city staff and the safety plans required by the state are posted to the city’s website at scottsdaleaz.gov/special-events/safety-plans.
However, it appears some incoming City Council members are concerned about continuing to host these tournaments.
New Mayor David Ortega said spiking infection numbers and hospitals nearing full capacity “are of grave concern.”
“Even if the statistics flatten they are intolerable,” he said. “There is no upside to holding tournaments in Scottsdale. January and February field sports events will likely be canceled countywide.”
Ortega said he believes sports events in January and February will eventually be canceled countywide.
Councilwoman Betty Janik also said she would like to see tournaments postponed until the Spring, at which point the city can reevaluate the state of the pandemic.
“No need to add to the current crisis,” Janik said.
Councilwoman Tammy Caputi said she is concerned about hosting tournaments with out of state teams until the community has been vaccinated.
But Caputi said she believes the city must prioritize public health as cases rises while also rebuilding the local economy by adopting health and safety best practices, citing the work city staff is already doing to mitigate spread at these events.
“I support and will continue to promote solutions that achieve a successful balance for our community as we pull through this crisis together,” Caputi said.
Each tournament scheduled in Scottsdale has agreed to abide by safety measures, including enforcement of social distancing, mask wearing for all staff and attendees and implementation of cleaning protocols for restrooms, high-touch areas and other surfaces.
“All of these tournament organizers have agreed to abide by the ‘return to play’ protocols which include mitigation strategies, reduced number of available fields for the weekend and other public health best practices,” city spokeswoman Ann Porter said.
But, Humble said he is not convinced cities and tournaments have the enforcement mechanisms or staffing in place to make sure players and spectators abide by those rules.
The Surf Cup, for instance, told the city it will have six staff members on site for its tournament, which is expected to draw 500 to 800 people.
“So the organizers produce a document that they throw in front of the city staff and say, ‘this is what we’re going to do’, but then you go out there and the reality is they’re not following any of them and there’s no enforcement,” Humble said.
He said the relatively lax requirements imposed by Ducey’s office have given local governments cover to allow tournaments to continue.
“And so elected officials take comfort, I think, in that when the blame comes to roost, people are going to point fingers at the governor, rightly, which gives council members a free pass to make bad decisions,” Humble said.