Florida County OKs return of youth sports tournaments

The Brevard County (Fla.) Commission says it's time to play ball again at the USSSA Space Coast Complex in Viera — starting this weekend with a 70-team youth baseball tournament.

Commissioners this week unanimously authorized the Viera-based U.S. Specialty Sports Association to resume tournament play at the complex.

County Commissioner Curt Smith, whose district includes Viera, made the request during Tuesday's commission meeting, just after Florida Sen. Debbie Mayfield got word from Gov. Ron DeSantis' office that the county could take such action without the state getting involved.

This weekend's event could draw 1,500 people, including players, coaches and family members.

USSSA is instituting a number of safeguards to help prevent the potential spread of the coronavirus, including:

  • Social distancing, including by spectators.
  • Cleaning shared equipment between uses.
  • Changing out game balls more frequently.
  • Having only online ticket purchases to eliminate lines at entrances and the exchange of cash.
  • Having limited concessions areas, with only several food trucks and beverage stations.
  • Adding more hand sanitizer stations.
  • Staggering game times to limit several teams congregating at one field area.
  • Eliminating handshakes and high-fives between players.
  • Not having an awards ceremony.
  • Banning use of shared water coolers.
  • Banning use of sunflower seeds because players spit them on the ground.

"We're excited that some of our states are opening up for sport competition," USSSA Chief Executive Officer Donny DeDonatis said in a video message on USSSA's Facebook page. "While we want our athletes to get back on the field and able to play, we want to ensure everyone takes necessary precautions to remain safe. We are encouraging social distancing, limiting attendance and providing sanitation needs, but still require every tournament to be in compliance with their state and local governments."

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Smith said he sees this event as an "icebreaker" for the potential return of other youth sports activities in the county.

Smith said he weighed the safety issues vs. the economics of resuming tournament play at the USSSA complex when he decided to make his proposal. 

"None of us have lost sight of the fact that, if we're not careful, this could be bad, because the virus is not going away any time soon." Smith said. "And we don't want this to become New Jersey or New York. So we're going to have to be very, very careful. And Donny DeDonatis and his organization are very much aware of that."

Smith said USSSA tournaments provide a big financial boost to local hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

And Smith said he has confidence in USSSA, because it already has run tournaments in recent weeks in three other states — Louisiana, Missouri and Oklahoma — using protocols it will use in Viera.

"It's tried and true," Smith said.

Smith noted during Tuesday's County Commission meeting that the Viera complex is even better suited for social distancing than the venues USSSA has used in the other three states because it has more fields and larger dugouts, allowing the players to spread out more.

County Commission Chair Bryan Lober said that, "as long as they follow the guidelines, I'll support opening anything."

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Florida County OKs return of youth sports tournaments

Smith said one of the reasons he wants businesses like USSSA to resume operations is he is concerned about the impact of the coronavirus on the national and local economies.

"As our country struggles to reopen and find its footing, I realize that we have to do something to get back to some sense of normal before we lose our country," Smith said. "Because, if our economy continues to go downhill, we may never recover, and, as I said from the dais, what we've done to the economy is more damaging to far more people and lives than the virus ever could."

According to USSSA's website, the Florida USSSA East Coast State Tournament in Viera on Saturday and Sunday will have 70 teams in seven divisions, ranging from teams with players ages 9 and under to teams with players ages 14 and under.

DeDonatis said he expects about 25 of the teams will be staying in local hotels. The others will be commuting here, because they are based in or near Brevard County.

In noting some of the changes resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, DeDonatis said: "While we are eager to resume some sense of normalcy, we understand the next few months will be a gradual adjustment for all of us."

In all, DeDonatis said, six USSSA events in Viera were canceled because of the pandemic, among the roughly 7,500 USSSA-sanctioned baseball and softball events that were not held throughout the country.

The event cancellations cost USSSA about $4.5 million in lost revenue, DeDonatis said. USSSA's annual revenue typically is $22 million to $25 million.

DeDonatis said USSSA was forced to furlough 13 of its 35 employees in March, although it has brought four of them back on the payroll as it resumes tournaments.

In addition to Florida, USSSA is resuming events in three other states this weekend — Arizona, Tennessee and Utah.

DeDonatis said, after this weekend's boys' baseball tournament in Viera, there will be a girls' softball tournament there next weekend, with more than 50 teams registered so far.

"We're excited for the opportunity" to resume tournaments in Viera, DeDonatis said.

Smith said he appreciates the support of the other county commissioners, as well as DeSantis and Mayfield, in helping pave the way for resuming USSSA tournaments.

Smith said his office has received a number of calls from Little League teams wanting to know how come they can't restart, if USSSA is doing so.

"My thoughts on that are quite simple," Smith said. "They haven't gotten the approval from the governor or the County Commission. So, from my point of view, the event this weekend with USSSA is the icebreaker. We have to move forward with baby steps. The USSSA event will give us perspective on many levels. Not only will they get to showcase their efforts to safely open the door to sporting events, but the 1,500 to 2,000 folks coming into town will fill businesses, motel/hotels, and give them opportunities to prove themselves as well."

Smith said, if USSSA "can pull this off in a safe and regulated manner, then I think we have an argument moving forward to get Little League teams started up, too. Once we get the governor and the County Commission on board, we can make that happen."

Dave Berman is government editor at FLORIDA TODAY. Follow him on Twitter @bydaveberman.

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