College football has always been a bit of a disaster behind the scenes, despite all of its pomp and tradition, woofing alumni, and strange and wacky mascots. But it's never been this horrible in the name of Knute Rockne. Ever.
In the fall of 2020, college football is on the edge of a dramatic, if not yet catastrophic, collapse. And the repercussions could be felt for years.
"I can't fathom anything worse than what's going on right now, or how you're dealing with it," says Steven Rackley, a former athletic director who is now a professor at Rice University in Houston's department of sport management. "Right now, the biggest challenge is that you simply don't know."
What is going on right now?
Here's a quick rundown of the situation, which unfortunately replicates what's ailing the country as a whole:
Those who prefer postponing the 2020 college football season and hunkering down until it's safe to play again have been set against those who want to get back to normal as soon as possible because to the coronavirus outbreak. (Does this sound familiar?)
Conferences are torn because they are doing it alone without any top-down supervision (again... ring a bell?). Some smaller conferences, such as the Mid-American Conference and the Mountain West, have already announced that autumn sports, including football, will not be played. The Big Ten, which includes football powerhouses such as Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, Nebraska, and others, joined them on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, by postponing the whole 2020-21 autumn sports season. The PAC 12, which includes powerhouses like UCLA, University of Oregon, and University of Southern California, followed suit shortly after.
Other leagues, notably the influential Southeastern Conference (the 14-team SEC includes Alabama, Georgia, and defending national champions Louisiana State) appear dead set on playing until the cold, dead pigskin is yanked from their grasp. (We contacted numerous athletic directors from Power Five conference schools, but none of them were willing to go on the record about the autumn season's future.)
Presidents and chancellors of universities are openly feuding with their athletic directors and coaches. Politicians are getting their feet wet in the muck. And money is smack dab in the heart of it all, much to no one's surprise.
Money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money
What's on the line?
Coaches want to coach, players want to play, fans want to watch, vendors want to sell, advertisers want to sell alcohol, broadcasters want to talk about it, restaurants want to fry wings, students want to let off steam... who doesn't want to watch college football in 2020?
But there's also the issue of a highly contagious virus that has infected over 5 million people in the United States and killed over 160,000. That's what's got the "let's sit this one out" faction worried.
On the other hand, a return to normalcy, if such a thing is even possible, is very appealing. A little college football could help to heal the psychological wounds left by the coronavirus.
"Sports has always been that arm around a person's shoulder during a tough moment," says Michael Veley, director and chair of Syracuse University's department of sport management. "Sports provide that pleasure, diversion, and escapism, and it's incredibly important for individuals mentally, especially since our social relationships have been gone." Sports unite people of all generations. It also has a common thread.
"Are sports have to be played?" Yes. But at the cost of putting people's health and safety in jeopardy? "Clearly, the answer is no."
There's a reason why so many people are clamouring for a return to play at the heart of this issue. According to a recent Sportico analysis, the top tier of college football programmes in 2018 attracted:
Ticket sales for football totaled $1.1 billion.
Donations totaled $1.6 billion, the majority of which were related to football.
Media rights revenue of $2.2 billion
The Big Ten Bill Beekman, Michigan State's sports director, informed a local economics club that if the season is cancelled, the school will lose between $80 million and $85 million. He predicted that as a result of the cuts, "we wouldn't be playing most, if not all, other sports."
"With the loss of our main cash generator, sports departments are in a terrible bind: how do we stay going, how do we create opportunities and give scholarships for our athletes?" Veley explains. "Until a vaccination is developed and people feel safe, I don't believe there is an answer."
Financial Consequences Outside of Sports
The financial consequences of a failed football season will reach far beyond athletic departments. Without a season, local companies could lose "tens of millions" of dollars in income, according to Dave Brown, an economics professor at Penn State, who told the student newspaper. "These college communities are reliant on football events and the crowds that accompany them," Rackley says. "Those individuals are going to be harmed." "A lot of their business is driven by football."
For example, Texas A&M University, which is member of the SEC, raised $43.5 million in football ticket sales and $85.2 million in donations in 2018. However, according to a 2012 estimate by Oxford Economics, Texas A&M home football games brought in $140 million in 2011 for College Station, Texas, where the school is located. The majority of the money — $107 million — came from college football fans spending money during games. According to the research, losing those games would cost College Station $63 million in direct business activity.
But, yet again, what about those pesky health concerns? With infection and fatality rates in the United States higher than they were in April, and recent studies indicating that COVID-19 could cause major heart problems, college administrators have reason to be concerned. And it's about more than just their pupils' and communities' health.
With the money once more. Alternatively, the risk of losing even more of it.
"The greatest hurdle to playing this fall will be presidents and chancellors holding firm in the face of liability," ESPN's Chris Low writes