I have always thought the chances of the college football season being played in the fall was close to zero. Too many states still have measures restricting social and business activities, many of which impact the activities on college campuses. The idea that approximately 150 students, staff, and administrators needed to operate a college football team on campus would be allowed as an exception to the restrictions in place was always unlikely. Situations already exist where some schools in a conference have announced they will have online-only instruction in the fall with no students on campus, while others remain intent on having students on campus.
Today the Mid-American Conference became the first mid-major Division 1 conference to announce that all fall sports seasons were canceled, and options for playing those seasons in the spring were going to be explored.
The MAC schools share the midwest geography of the Big Ten Conference. University Presidents from the Big Ten are meeting today to discuss options with regard to the pending fall season. In early July the Big Ten announced that schools would play a “conference-only” schedule, which allowed them to push back the beginning of the season four weeks. The Pac 12 followed with a similar announcement. But what seemed clear then is now becoming more of a reality — that step only bought the conferences more time to consider the ability to actually play under circumstances where many universities were announcing that they were going to offer only online instruction in the fall, and no students would be allowed on campus. It seems very likely that today or tomorrow the Big Ten will follow with its own announcement that the fall season is being canceled and the conference is turning its attention to examining the logistics of playing a conference-only schedule in the spring.
Much of the online and sports-talk radio chatter over the likelihood of playing the season has centered on the statements and opinions of coaches and college athletic directors. All of that has been a waste of time and energy. This decision was always going to be made by university Presidents, and it is no surprise that the Big Ten is leading the way, followed close behind by the Pac 12. The universities in the Big Ten and Pac 12 are among the most prestigious research institutions in the country, and the science departments of those schools have better insights into the current status of the COVID-19 infection rate — and more importantly, the likely path the infection rate will take as we come into the fall “cold and flu” season when viral infections tend to spread every year. Independent of the nature of activities involved, with or without restrictions, the likelihood of an increased spread of the viral infection as the seasons change has always been there in the absence of a vaccine to limit the potential population of those who might still be infected.
It was a near certainty that even if games could be played they would be played in empty stadiums, as is the case right now with the recently resumed professional baseball, basketball and soccer seasons. There is a certain “attraction” to such a situation, as it would allow the schools to still realize substantial revenue on their television broadcast deals while minimizing much of the logistical planning that goes along with gameday operations. But the logistics of COVID-19 era travel with such a large group of people, effective isolation in the location where the game is to be played, and “quarantine” of the participants after they return to limit any possible new infections are all details that have never had to be encountered before by university sports departments. The nature of the game, and the inability to practice any kind of meaningful “social distancing” between players and staff means every team would be a Petri dish for new outbreaks of infection.
NCAA football and basketball season television revenues sustain most college athletics programs across all sports. They are the two “revenue sports” that generate income for the schools far beyond the expenses of operating the teams, with the excess revenue being available to fund other “non-revenue sports” for both men’s and women’s teams.
Playing football in the fall — even if it could be done — would raise a host of Title IX concerns would have likely forced the schools to arrange for women’s sports to be played as well. The NCAA and member institutions would have likely faced opposition and litigation if they tried to forge a path to play only college football in the fall because of the revenue it generates while canceling all other sports and/or attempting to shift their seasons to other times of the year.
Professional teams, their players, and their staffs have choices available to them in terms of whether they participate or not. It remains to be seen if professional teams can deal with the logistical difficulties of managing outbreaks among the players and staff as they begin to assemble for training camps. It seems quite likely that the NFL, if it goes forward with the season starting in September, will do so in empty stadiums. But the size of the NFL television broadcast deal is even greater than college football, and the hundreds of millions of dollars NFL teams are contracted to pay their players can only be funded if that television revenue is realized. It may turn out that the NFL becomes the great American sports “experiment” as to learning what works and what doesn’t work in trying to operate this kind of “business” in the midst of a pandemic.
The biggest complicating factor for the NFL is simply being able to find common ground with the state and local political structures in their hometowns as to whether they are allowed to operate. That becomes a difficult political question as to whether professional sports teams are “essential” businesses in the same manner as other businesses that are allowed to remain open as exceptions to “shut-down” orders in places like California and New York.
Personally, I’m not a big NFL fan, but I am a very big fan of college football. It will be a sad fall to not have my Saturdays consumed by watching games played across the nation.