Back in January, things looked bright for Charlotte 49er athletics for 2020. The football program just came off a record-breaking season which included a bowl appearance, the women’s and men’s basketball teams were in the midst of winning seasons and spring sports were on the horizon with mostly new coaches at the helm.
For the first two months, things went smoothly. Then the world turned upside down. As the coronavirus pandemic put a premature end to spring sports back in early March, the last nine months has been a continuous roller coaster for Charlotte athletics.
With 2021 nearing, the virus and the issues it presents won’t go away but there is hope brighter days are ahead for Charlotte’s athletic program and college sports in general.
"I can't wait to resume a normal rhythm," said Charlotte athletics director Mike Hill. "I think that when we do, we will pick right up from where we left off and see more growth from our sports. I think we are going to see tremendous growth in our championship pursuits."
The first two months looked promising for Charlotte. The men’s basketball team, who was projected to finish 12th in Conference-USA, finished fourth and was ready for a deep C-USA tournament run. That was cut short due to the pandemic as was the women’s teams title run hopes. The 49ers won their first round game against North Texas in the C-USA tournament until that was cut short due to coronavirus. The women's team finished 21-9 on the season.
Right as the pandemic started to flare up, spring sports were just getting their seasons started. The 49er softball team won 14 games to start their shortened-season with big victories against both Pittsburgh and Appalachian State under first-year coach Ashley Chastain.
The baseball team just got their season rolling with series sweeps against St. Johns and UMBC under first-year coach Robert Woodard. The 49ers’ season ended with an impressive 9-8 victory against NC State, who was ranked ninth in the country at the time.
Both Charlotte tennis teams were enjoying success during their non-conference portion of the season. The men’s team went 6-7 with a signature win at Clemson until the season came to a halt. The women’s team went 11-6 with a big win against Appalachian State.
A busy summer...sorta of
With no sporting events during most of the month of March, all of April and into the summer, things were quiet when it came to 49er athletics as the world was adjusting to a socially distant lifestyle.
In June, however, Charlotte made a splash with their announcement of a rebrand for the athletic program named “Bold-rush.” The campaign consisted of a new primary logo and other secondary marks that involved the city of Charlotte more than the previous logos. It was the first rebranding for Charlotte in 20 years. With the new branding came new jerseys for Charlotte’s teams, a new court inside of Halton Arena. Charlotte plans to install a new turf field for the football team which will showcase the new logo on the 50-yard line, according to Mike Hill. Plans to replace the turf are already a year behind due to the pandemic.
The summer ended on a somber note as the fall seasons for the volleyball, men’s and women’s soccer teams were postponed to the spring of 2021 due to the coronavirus. That left the football and cross country teams with seasons for the 2020 season.
Roller coaster fall
After months of no events, Charlotte athletics was back on Sept. 15 as the football team played at Appalachian State. In a 35-20 loss, the 49ers were able to show off their logo in front of a nationally televised audience on ESPNU.
The season didn’t get better for the 49ers. Just that next week, Charlotte had to cancel their game with UNC-Chapel Hill due to COVID-19 concerns. The coronavirus ended up affecting nine games for the 49ers, with five being canceled by the other team. The football team even had to shut down in-person activities due to the large outbreak of COVID-19 on the team after little to no COVID-19 cases throughout the summer.
“What transpired is what we feared might happen when we were preparing for the year this summer,” said Hill. “As I reflect back on it, Coach Healy and I have talked a lot if we regret attempting, we don’t. In the end we did it for our players. They really wanted to play.”
Losing so many games was quite the blow to not only the football team, but the athletic program as a whole. The athletic department announced temporary furloughs for employees who make $50,000 or more. Employees could start taking the furlough days Nov. 23 and until June 30, 2021.
"We were really excited with how it's taking root," said Hill. "We look like a big-time program and that was apart of the goal."
The men's cross country team, however, won a C-USA championship in October in what was a bright spot for the fall season.
A busy 2021
Given three fall sports will be playing their seasons this spring, there's a lot to look forward to in 2021. The women's and men's soccer teams will be playing in the spring as well as the volleyball team. As of now, those seasons will be playing on time this spring.
"It's gonna be chaos with all those sports on campus," said Hill. "But I welcome that because that means we are playing."
As teams get back to the field and court, Charlotte will also look to rebound financially as the pandemic has slowed the money flow. Less fans for football games and no fans for basketball games means Hill and his team have had to adjust the budget.
According to Hill, the athletic department has had to reduce their budget by ten percent and will also have to take on new expenses, most notably coronavirus testing and more scholarships for athletes. The NCAA has allowed an extra year of eligibility for athletes which means extra scholarship money coming from the budget.
"I think we all are experiencing financial loss," said Hill. "I don't know if we will be able to recoup those losses right away but we have had to alter how we operate."