Sports

Sold-out state swim championships have parents and fans furious

The Harvard women’s water polo season is in full swing and with a 4-1 record the team is looking forward to its Feb. 22 rematch with Wagner, the only team to have beaten Harvard this season. The next day the Crimson face Villanova and Iona, part of a busy weekend at Blodgett Pool.

If they only knew the problems those matches were causing.

It’s February and for the second straight season high school swim parents and fans are frustrated and furious. With the boys and girls high school swim finals scheduled for Saturday and Sunday at MIT, many parents, possibly hundreds, won’t be able to watch their sons and daughters compete in the state championship because the event is sold out. Despite the MIAA’s repeated efforts to warn schools about the situation and warn parents without tickets to stay away, MIT is bracing for the worst.

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“I am very concerned that spectators aren’t getting the message,” said Tim Mertz, MIT’s Director of Recreational Sports, in an email to the MIAA and posted on the association’s website. “MIT cannot accommodate everyone and if pushed beyond capacity, to where safety and fire code are threatened, we will shut down the facility.

“We are now rethinking our security, event management, and crowd control measures. In short, we are anticipating the worst case scenario. If non-ticketed parents and family members show up expecting entry, we will refuse.”

While last year’s frustration came from a massive winter storm that forced cancelation of the sectional meets, this year’s frustration comes from being forced to put too big an event at too small a venue. It’s all because the Harvard women’s water polo team needs to use Harvard’s pool, for four matches the weekend of Feb. 22-23, the days normally scheduled for the Ivy League school to host the MIAA swim championships.

“They [Harvard] have to take care of their student-athletes first. It’s their facility and we completely understand,” said MIAA swim director and former Weston swim coach Pete Foley. “They hosted us in the fall. They’ve tried to make it work for us in the past.”

With the number of pools able to handle a state championship event and the crowd it attracts limited, the loss of Harvard and its seating capacity of 1,100 created a domino effect. MIT, which normally would host the North and Central/South sectionals as the college with the largest spectator capacity (550) after Harvard, was only available this weekend. That meant MIT was now hosting the state final and the sectionals had to be moved a week earlier and to different locations.

“I don’t know where we would have gone to run the state meet if MIT hadn’t allowed us to flip the meet,” said Foley, who called the pool at the Zesiger Center one of the best facilities on the east coast.

With swimming’s postseason altered, the MIAA was forced to look for pools. The boys’ North and Central/South Sectionals were held at WPI (325) last Sunday while the girls meets were held at Wellesley College (350) Saturday, both before sold-out crowds.

With emails that started with subject lines, “Parents can’t see their children compete in the MIAA High School State Swimming Championships,” much of the protest has dealt with the ticketing system.

To avoid turning away fans at the door on the day of the meet, the MIAA sold tickets online. Schools were notified in January of the situation and asked to spread the word about Monday’s sale. Each person was allowed to order two tickets maximum per credit card. Swimmers’ parents were on equal footing with anyone wishing to buy a ticket, and they went quick, with tickets selling out in less than an hour. Many parents were shut out.

“We didn’t anticipate they would sell out that fast,” said Foley, who explained that a ticket distribution system was discussed but deemed impossible to implement from a logistical and safety perspective.

Many parents believe some schools found a way around the ticketing system and that those schools will have many more in attendance than they should have, while others will be shut out.

One frustrated parent wrote, “I am certain that if an investigation was conducted during the meets, MIAA would discover that there were large cheering sections for certain schools primarily made up of other students and not parents. I am certain this is where the tickets went."

One parent even went so far as to call MIT to see if there was a school auditorium available at which the meet could be simulcast with parents being allowed to watch. His efforts didn’t go over well.

“His proactive attempt at finding an alternate site for viewing actually made things worse,” said Mertz.

In a letter emailed to every swim coach in the state last Tuesday, the MIAA explained the situation and asked for their help.

“Contrary to public perception, the postseason was not just thrown together on short notice. There was a lot of energy expended lining up sites when we learned in early September that Harvard would not be available for the two weekends we had hoped to have states.

“We have to be respectful of the facilities that are willing/able to host our postseason meets. Last week many parents called WPI to vent their frustration, and more than a few have been calling MIT since late [Monday] afternoon. Please ask your swim community to cease and desist or we could lose a facility. All of the sites that have hosted us don’t need us; but we certainly need them!”

But with another storm, this one measured in seats not inches, the need for another pool option has never been greater. It helps that all four meets, with approximately 1,200 total competitors, will be streamed live on the NFHS network (www.nfhsnetwork.com/massachusetts) but there’s nothing like being there, especially when your child is competing.

“We know it’s not perfect,” said Foley. “We’re just trying to make the best out of a less-than-perfect situation.”

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