For all its pomp and tradition, for all its woofing alumni and weird and wild mascots, college football has always been a bit of a mess behind the scenes. But in the name of Knute Rockne, it's never been this bad. Ever.
College football, in the fall of 2020, sits on the verge of a spectacular, if not yet complete, collapse. And the aftershocks could be felt for years to come.
"I can't imagine anything worse than what's going on right now, or how you deal with it," says Steven Rackley, a longtime athletic director who now is a professor in the department of sport management at Rice University in Houston. "The biggest challenge right now is you just don't know."
What's Happening Right Now?
Here's a recap of the crisis, one that painfully mirrors what ails the country at large:
The coronavirus pandemic has pitted those who favor punting the 2020 college football season and hunkering down until it's safe to play again against those who want to return to normal as soon as possible. (Sound familiar?)
Conferences, going it alone without any top-down guidance (again ... ring a bell?), are torn. Some smaller conferences, like the Mid-American Conference and the Mountain West, already have said they're not playing fall sports, including football. And one of the top conferences in the nation, the Big Ten — home to football royalty like Michigan, The Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, Nebraska and others — joined them Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, and postponed all of the 2020-21 fall sports season. Shortly after, the PAC 12 — the conference home to powerhouses like UCLA, University of Oregon and University of Southern California — did the same.
But other conferences — namely, the influential Southeastern Conference (the 14-team SEC counts Alabama, Georgia and defending national champions Louisiana State in its ranks) — seem dead set on playing until someone pulls the cold, dead pigskin out of their hands. (We reached out to several athletic directors at the Power Five conference schools and none wanted to go on the record about the future of the fall season.)
University presidents and chancellors are publicly butting heads with their athletic directors and coaches. Politicians are jumping into the muck. And in the middle of this imbroglio, to not one single person's surprise, is money.
Lots and lots and lots of money.
What's at Stake?
Coaches want to coach, players want to play, fans want to watch, vendors want to hawk, advertisers want to push beer, broadcasters want to babble on, restaurants want to fry wings, students want to blow off steam ... who, really, doesn't want to see college football in 2020?
But there's the matter of a highly contagious virus that has infected more than 5 million Americans and killed more than 160,000. That's what has the let's-sit-this-one-out crowd spooked.
On the other hand ... a return to normalcy, if that's even possible, is awfully tempting. The psychological wounds of the coronavirus might be salved a bit with a little college football.
"Sports, historically, has always been that arm around a person's shoulder during a difficult time," says Michael Veley, the director and chair of the department of sport management at Syracuse University. "Sports provides that entertainment, it provides diversion, it's a form of escapism and psychologically, it's very important for people, especially since our social interactions have been lost. Sports crosses generations. And it has a unifying factor.
"So, do sports need to be played? Yes. But at the expense of jeopardizing people's health and safety? The answer is clearly no."
At the heart of this matter is a barely concealed reason that so many are calling for a return to play. According to a recent breakdown in Sportico, the top tier of college football programs in 2018 pulled in:
- $1.1 billion in football ticket revenue
- $1.6 billion in donations, mostly tied to football
- $2.2 billion in media rights revenue
Big Ten Michigan State's athletic director, Bill Beekman, told a local economics club that the school would lose between $80 million and $85 million if the season is canceled. The resulting cutbacks, he said, would mean that "we would not be playing most other, maybe all other, sports."
"The athletic departments are faced with a terrific quandary: How do we keep going and how do we create opportunities and provide scholarships for our athletes with the loss of our largest revenue generator?" Veley says. "I don't think there is an answer, until a vaccine is developed and people feel safe."
The Financial Fallout Beyond Sports
The financial fallout from a lost football season will affect areas far beyond athletic departments, too. Dave Brown, an economics professor at Penn State, told the student newspaper that local businesses could lose "tens of millions" of dollars in revenues from football fans without a season. "These college towns depend on football games going on and the crowds that come with that," Rackley says. "Those people are going to get hurt. [Football] drives a lot of their business."
Texas A&M, which is part of the SEC, for an example, took in $43.5 million in football ticket sales and $85.2 million in donations in 2018. But a report compiled by Oxford Economics in 2012 found that Texas A&M home football games generated $140 million in 2011 for College Station, Texas, where the school is located. The majority of that money — $107 million — was from fans spending money during college football games. Losing those games, the report found, would mean losing about $63 million in direct business activity for College Station.
But again, what about those nagging health risks? With infection and death rates in the United States greater than they were in April, and with new studies that show potentially serious heart problems from COVID-19, college administrators are right to be worried. And it's more than concern about the health of their students and communities.
Again with the money. Or the threat of losing even more of it.
"Ultimately," Chris Low of ESPN writes, "the greatest challenge to playing this fall will be presidents and chancellors standing firm in the face of liability."
What's Next for Fall Sports and Athletes?
The season is not wiped out yet. All eyes now are fixed on the Power Five conferences, with the biggest, most powerful, most-televised schools. The Power Five — the SEC, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Ten, the Big 12 and the Pac-12 — already had delayed the starts of their seasons until September. Most had moved toward, or settled on, conference-only schedules, so they won't have to rely on playing other conferences.
Now that the Big Ten and Pac-12 have broken ranks, the pressure will increase on the other conferences to follow. Though for now, the SEC, Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and Pac-12, plus Notre Dame, plan to move forward with their seasons.
For their part, a lot of players have pushed to get on the field in 2020 (#wewanttoplay). Some coaches, too, have been outspoken. Nebraska coach Scott Frost, without a schedule now that the Big Ten has bailed on 2020, has suggested his team join another conference, temporarily. Other schools have floated similar ideas.
Of particular note: Even if football is played in some form this year, fans almost certainly won't be at the games.
A lot of administrators and others are advocating for a simple delay of the season, until spring. That way, everyone would ostensibly be safer, some lost revenue might be recouped, and the schools could pick up with a 2021 season roughly on schedule.
If, that is, things stay about the same or actually get better.
If not, and the 2020 college football season is lost for good, it's not only sports programs and college towns that will feel the pain, but the theater department and the drive for that new engineering building, too.
"I think you lose that recognition that you get week to week in the news, I think you lose the connection with your alums who might be on campus and you might be asking for donations," Rackley says, "and that does hurt the chemistry department, that does hurt the business school.
"Those are people they need to keep connected to the school, and the best way to keep all of them connected — in my mind — is through athletics."
The whole situation, with less than a month to go before the season's supposed start, is an unqualified disaster. No one has any clear-cut answers, probably because none are to be had. Fingers are being pointed, most upward toward a lack of leadership at the highest levels of the sport, in academia and into the highest levels of government.
That sounds awfully familiar, too, doesn't it?