The haze of the COVID-19 pandemic has clouded the picture for all sports, and few have been impacted more than college football.
While the NCAA did share some health and safety protocols on Aug. 5, it’s primarily been conferences and schools taking control — as much as one can in the middle of raging pandemic — of their destinies in an attempt to save football.
Teams have shuffled their schedules around and athletic directors have offered hopeful, yet vague comments about the prospects of playing football this season. The only thing to be certain of in the middle of the pandemic is uncertainty.
That said, the prospects of conference-only schedules and spring football are intriguing to many fans, largely because it offers the promise of live sports. These adjustments, seemingly shifting on a daily basis, breed questions, suggesting that many long-sought changes might be within reach.
The question is if the pandemic has done enough to foster significant, structural change with regards to scheduling, the bowl system and the future of the College Football Playoffs.
The answer, of course, is … maybe?
Nowhere has the discord in collegiate athletics been more apparent than when it comes to the scheduling decisions conferences and universities are being forced to make in the wake of the pandemic.
The Big Ten was the first to announce that it would pursue a conference-only schedule, with the Pac-12 following just days later. The ACC and SEC, according to who you believe, attempted to work out a system where some traditional cross-conference rivalries could be preserved, but that ended abruptly when the latter announced its own 10-game, conference-only slate.
Unlike many professional leagues like the NBA, which navigated its way through its league restart through a strong commissioner who enjoys a healthy relationship with the league’s players union, the NCAA until recently has played the role of a bystander throughout the pandemic, simply offering suggestions. Decisions on whether to play or not are made by the individual institutions, working through their respective conferences.
“The NCAA has been incredibly weak when it’s come to handling this pandemic,” said Jason Butt, a reporter who writes for Tackler Media, Rivals and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “If he wasn’t already, Mark Emmert has solidified himself as a laughingstock with no real power over the Power Five football teams.
“He’s done a whole lot of nothing while each of the conferences decided to do their own thing when it came to scheduling games for the season.”
Consider that, in the blink of an eye, BYU saw three of its opponents vanish when the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC went to conference-only schedules. There was no measure of recourse for the Cougars to take. Three games — three paydays — were unilaterally removed from their schedule.
The same goes for countless Group of 5 and FCS schools that rely on the lavish paydays that come with taking an annual beating from Alabama or Ohio State. While logistical challenges necessitate the importance of mapping out college football schedules years in advance, the economic pressures these cancellations will put on the Group of 5 and FCS today could throw several future plans into jeopardy.
“To me, the issue that could come into play is whether certain FCS or Group of 5 programs are able to survive this pandemic economically,” Butt said. “If Power Five schools don’t pay the smaller schools they are no longer playing — Texas A&M athletics director Ross Bjork hinted at this (last week) — then the small-school budgets are going to take an even bigger hit. If certain football teams fold, then yes, you’d obviously have to adjust accordingly.”
Richard Johnson, a college football writer and one of the co-authors of The Sinful Seven: Sci-Fi Western Legends of the NCAA, believes the SEC has proposed the most viable plan — given the circumstances — by pushing the start of the season back a month. It’s a stark contrast to other conferences that have held firm to the early September start date or, in some instances, even pushed contests up to the last week of August.
Given the level of COVID-19 spread in many Southern states, there’s a concern the ACC or Big 12 may not be able to avoid outbreaks, which would lead to significant disruptions in practice time or regular season play. By shifting the start of the season back, the SEC just might have the opportunity to observe what is going on elsewhere and make any necessary adjustments.
“The Machillivian, probably-shouldn’t-say-this-out loud thing that the SEC is doing is they are giving these schools their time to have their wave of the virus in early September when students return,” Johnson said. “That’s really what this is. You get the protocols right and stuff like that.
“What that time gives them — honestly, and if I’m speaking bluntly — is it gives everybody some time to figure it all out when schools open. I think in that way, the SEC’s plan seems like the smartest, best-of-a-bad-situation-type thing.”
And this assumes there even is a college football season. UConn, which plays an independent schedule, already has cancelled its season, as has the Big Sky Conference.
Regardless, the transition to a conference-only slate might be something that has staying power.
“The biggest takeaway from this new, temporary scheduling paradigm is that it may create an appetite among fans for more conference games per season,” said Jay Tate, the publisher of AuburnSports.com. “Power 5 schedules have been bloated with cupcake games for decades. If we get through this 2020 season intact, meaning all games played, I strongly suspect that SEC fans will clamor to re-rack it for 2021.
“They’ll want another 10-game conference season, perhaps with one or two non-cons to keep the regional rivalries going or for a few neutral-site extravaganzas. The networks have far more pull than fans, of course, but networks also must carefully consider what viewers really want. That’s where the money is.”
The Future of the Power Five
For all the talk about inadvertently creating a system of haves and have-nots through student-athlete compensation, the scheduling conundrum facing college football today is having a similar result. There long have been rumblings the Power Five would eventually opt to take greater control of its own destiny and establish its own premier championship system.
“The word is (the NCAA) is going to say we can’t (host fall championships) because of the pandemic,” said Chip Towers, the longtime Georgia beat reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Well, all that’s going to do is shift the power to the conferences.
“They’re called Power Five for a reason, and more than likely the SEC and the Big Ten and the rest of the Power Five, they’re going to keep on keeping on because they can afford to do the testing to proceed safely, so they could proceed with their own championships.
“When you get to the end with conference champions, what’s to stop them from taking it from there, right? What do you need the NCAA for?”
A quick plug for our newsletter
Signing up is free and easy, and we promise we won’t overload you with emails! By signing up, you’re just letting us how much you enjoy this content.
A recent Sports Illustrated exclusive from Ross Dellinger and Pat Forde noted the Power Five might already be taking the necessary steps to prepare for such a reality, given the discrepancies in who is and is not hosting fall sports outside of football. Should the group opt to do so, it could lead to a complete overhauling of the collegiate athletics power structure:
In recent days, Power 5 conference officials began seeking feedback from their members about the feasibility of staging their own championships during the fall, sources told SI. When asked if such a move away from the NCAA championship structure could be seen as a precedent-setting rift between the national governing body of college sports and the Power 5, one athletic director said, “If I were (NCAA president Mark) Emmert, I’d be really worried about it. He’s got to keep the Power 5 together.”
Consider Johnson a skeptic on the Power Five moving too far ahead.
“There’s way too much revenue with the basketball tournament,” Johnson said. “The NCAA basketball tournament, starting in 2024, will make one billion — with a ‘B’ — dollars per year. Nobody is giving up that revenue.
“Now, if they find an approach where it’s possible to keep NCAA Tournament revenues and go out on their own in just football, then I could see it happening. I don’t think it’s as far out of the equation, frankly, but you’re gonna have to deal with a lot of states that don’t want to do that.”
Johnson pointed to South Carolina where the state legislature mandates that Clemson and South Carolina regularly play other in-state schools like South Carolina State and The Citadel. Likewise, Ohio State enjoys ongoing traditional contests against a collection of MAC teams.
“There are going to be a lot of coaches who aren’t OK with that because of what it will do to the FCS programs and some small Group of Five programs,” he said. “So I’m not quite sure it’s going to be that much of a sea change in the actual structure of college athletics.”
Shifting to Spring
Spring football already is a reality for a handful of programs.
The SWAC, for instance, intends to host a spring season for its football programs, in addition to its other fall sports, and the MAC announced on Aug. 8 that it would explore playing in the spring. While other conferences, such as the Patriot League and Ivy League, have cancelled all fall sports, they have not yet made any decision on shifting them to the spring.
A few weeks ago, the Big 12 announced it would be pursuing a 10-game schedule featuring nine conference games and one non-conference opponent, and that it intends to play this fall. That said, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby left the door open for a spring season in a recent interview with ESPN.
“I’ve always considered it a viable option, but it’s certainly not (the) first choice and probably not (the) second choice, either,” Bowlsby told the network. “I think it would be a really big leap to say, ‘OK, we’re going to shut it down in the fall, and move it all to the spring,’ because there isn’t a whole lot of certainty in the spring, either. Having said that, I don’t consider it an infeasible option. I just wouldn’t call it (the) first choice.”
The logistical challenges, of course, are legion.
That burden extends to almost every other area of the athletic department. If every other local school ran all of their athletic programs around the same, would the school be able to secure enough buses for transportation? Would they have enough event staff to run multiple events on the same day? Do they even have enough people to operate scoreboards?
Despite the challenges, spring football has been a thing. It’s just that it happened more than 100 years ago.
The first Auburn-Georgia game occurred on a late February afternoon in 1892 at Piedmont Park in Atlanta. The two schools held the contest, won 10-0 by the Tigers, in conjunction with a celebration of George Washington’s birthday
Yet, despite the historical basis, it’s still a long-shot. There’s the quick turnaround for starters, with a spring season likely ending in April or March and fall football slated to begin just a few months later. This increases the risk of injury.
“What you have to weigh in a spring season is the toll you are now asking football players to take over a full calendar year,” Butt said. “Instead one spring game of live hitting, you’re now asking players to undergo an eight-to-10-game season against quality competition and then follow it up with only a few months of rest to start back in the fall.”
A spring season would throw the NFL Draft, as well as its assessment period, into limbo as well. There already are players who have chosen to opt out of their senior seasons before a down has been played so they can focus on preparing for the draft. While the primary rationale is their health and safety in the middle of the pandemic, there’s also the realization that postponements, delays and the possibilities of play being halted mid-season could impact their readiness and draft status.
While a fall season could offer enough time to rest after the rigors of a season, as well as provide a period of time for recovery from any potential injury, a spring season brings that margin for error down to zero. As such, it’s not hard to imagine premier players like Ohio State’s Justin Fields or Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence opting out should college football transition to the second half of the school year.
What happens with the bowl system?
And what would a spring season mean for the bowl system and existing playoff format? Would a condensed season hosted from February through April lead to an expanded playoff? Would it ultimately decimate the bowl season?
While the advent of the playoffs has put pressure on the viability of the bowl system, the sprawling college football postseason continues to remain immensely popular. Last year’s batch of games saw increased viewership, according to a report from the National Football Foundation, and total bowl game attendance has grown by nearly 35,000 fans in the past two years.
“You’d think these bowls struggle based on how empty the stadiums look, but every year it seems another game gets added to the lineup,” Butt said. “The traditional bowls — Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, etc. — still operate under nonprofit status and generate insane revenue. Those games are not hurting financially. Even the Las Vegas Bowl somehow had $5.8 million to pay out to Washington and Boise State in 2019.”
Bowl revenue is largely driven by naming rights and sponsor engagement, and those numbers can be staggering. It’s $20 million to sponsor one of the six major bowl games that are part of the College Football Playoff, and supplemental sponsorships drive revenue even higher due to high rates of return.
Elk Grove Village, a suburb of Chicago, spent $300,000 to be a sponsor with the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl in 2018 and, in return, earned more than $12 million in marketing value. With the potential for this type of payoff, it’s no wonder that the sponsorship market has not slowed and why more and more bowls get added to the postseason schedule.
“As much as fans have said they don’t want more bowl games, I don’t see that number decreasing anytime soon, even with COVID-19,” said Eric Jackson, the sports business reporter with the Atlanta Business Chronicle. “This year is obviously different, but I think as long as companies are willing to pay big bucks to highlight their brand and become title sponsors, I don’t see anybody turning that down.”