Though coronavirus vaccine immunizations are ramping up around the country, the virus continues to reshape the sports landscape.
The latest event to be impacted: the Southeastern Conference gymnastics championship.
The SEC announced Tuesday it is moving its championship meet from New Orleans’ Smoothie King Center to the Von Braun Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The meet is still scheduled for March 20 and will be televised on the SEC Network.
"We enjoyed an electric environment with an SEC-record crowd in New Orleans' Smoothie King Center when it hosted this event in 2019 and we look forward to returning there when we can provide our student-athletes a similar experience in the future," SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement from the conference office. "A geographically central location is appropriate in the current COVID-19 environment. We appreciate the support from the Huntsville community and the Von Braun Center to provide an excellent venue for this year's Championship."
It’s official: Friday’s gymnastics meet between LSU and Florida will be a No. 1-versus-No. 2 showdown.
The SEC gymnastics championship drew 10,505 fans in 2019 in its first visit to New Orleans, with the LSU Tigers capturing their third straight title.
But with restrictions on gatherings in New Orleans because of COVID-19, this year’s championship was going to be limited to less than 1,000 fans at the Smoothie King Center. That made the event financially untenable for the SEC and the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation.
“The last number I heard was 800” fans," LSU coach Jay Clark said. “The SEC and the sports foundation had no choice. They’re not in the business of putting on things that suffer massive (financial) losses. So, they started looking for alternatives.”
The SEC statement did not specify how many fans will be allowed to attend in Huntsville. The Von Braun Center has a maximum capacity of 10,000, compared to 17,791 at the Smoothie King Center.
Jay Cicero, president and CEO of the GNOSF, called the 2019 SEC gymnastics championship “a resounding success. But when you can’t duplicate or come close to duplicating that, we mutually agreed with the SEC that we wouldn’t host it this year and would look for a year that would work in the future.”
The earliest the meet could likely return to New Orleans is 2024, Cicero said. The 2022 and 2023 championship sites have not been announced, according to the conference office.
The 2020 SEC championship meet was slated for Duluth, Georgia, but was canceled along with all NCAA spring sports championships in March because of the pandemic.
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Clark said it’s imperative to have the championship resume this year.
“Our understanding is it will come back to New Orleans very soon, hopefully in the next couple of years,” he said. “Meanwhile, the important thing is to have the championship.
“It’s disappointing for our fans and teams because they like it in New Orleans. But if there’s no fans the atmosphere is not there. If we can have fans in Huntsville this will be a great stopgap measure for us.”
This will be the first SEC gymnastics championship meet for Huntsville. The meet was held at on-campus sites from 1981-2000, the inaugural event at LSU. Since 2001, it has been held at seven neutral sites: Birmingham, Alabama; North Little Rock, Arkansas; Nashville, Tennessee; Jacksonville, Florida; St. Louis; New Orleans and Duluth.
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