The fall of 2020 is in jeopardy of having no college football. It feels almost like a doomsday statement and scenario, but it’s true.
It’s impossible to accurately predict four months from now, but the prospect is on the table. The state of Oregon is advising against large gatherings until at least October, and University of Kentucky epidemiologist Kathleen Winter told The Courier Journal last month that, while fall sports with fans is not impossible, it probably would not be likely due to the coronavirus.
And if it’s unsafe for crowds of fans to sit near each other, will the NCAA allow and encourage unpaid student-athletes to touch and tackle each other? Like so much else, we don’t know.
No college football could cause significant financial turmoil for large college athletic departments, which rely extensively on football revenue to fund other programs. But for non-Power 5, Division I schools, no football is not a doomsday financial scenario at all. In fact, those schools would likely be just fine — financially — without fall athletics.
“For us, not playing is somewhat, by the forecast that we’ve projected, a break-even proposition,” said Eastern Kentucky University athletic director Matt Roan.
It’s even less drastic for Morehead State. Like EKU, Morehead is a Football Championship Subdivision school, but while EKU football spends $1.9 million on athletic scholarships, Morehead plays in the only Division I conference that does not offer football scholarships (the nationwide Pioneer Football League).
“It would be modest,” MSU athletic director Jaime Gordon said of the financial impact of no fall sports.
Among FCS football programs, 98% lose money each year. In fact, those that lose money — all but three teams — have a median deficit of $2.4 million. Their benefits from football instead are more intangible: exposure and school pride. Those programs would miss out on those aspects, and there would be lost revenue without a season, but that financial loss could be made up in saved expenditures like travel and operation costs across all fall sports.
Financial impacts to non-Power 5 schools will not rival that at schools like Kentucky and Louisville.
“I think we would be impacted,” Gordon said of a lack of fall sports, “but definitely not to the scale as the University of Kentucky that relies on a large percentage of their budget based on the football season and that revenue.”
For these schools, it’s other factors that would cause issue. If students aren’t on campus, Gordon said, Morehead as an institution would struggle financially, which would harm athletic budgets.
Then there are guarantee games: non-conference games in which superior programs pay other schools to travel to them. If the coronavirus pushes the start of football back, there could be a scenario in which teams solely play a conference schedule, eliminating those early-season guarantee games.
For the little guy, that would be troublesome, at best.
“Without probably speculating too much, it just would not be good,” EKU’s Roan said. “Those guarantees, at our level, go to support not just the football program, but really our entire athletics enterprise.”
Murray State’s home football tickets were only budgeted to bring in $102,000 in 2019. In comparison, guarantee games were set to bring in that figure nearly tenfold in 2020: the Racers have contracts to earn $325,000 from a game at Georgia State and $600,000 from Louisville, for a total of $925,000.
Murray athletic director Kevin Saal declined a request to be interviewed, but offered this statement: “We are working toward a traditional fall semester while making necessary adjustments for a new normal.”
Guarantee games are the bread-and-butter of other FCS budgets, too. EKU relies upon 2020 guarantee games at West Virginia and Youngstown State, and, Morehead — which budged to bring in $27,000 in football gate receipts in 2019 — will make $250,000 for a trip to FCS foe Montana this September.
Even at Western Kentucky University, an FBS school, guarantees are essential. The school is set to make $1.15 million from guaranteed games at Louisville and Indiana in 2020, just a bit under the $1.35 million they budgeted to earn from ticket sales in 2019.
Should those guarantee games be canceled due to the coronavirus, the revenue would never change hands due to Force Majeure clauses in each contract, which frees both parties from obligation in the event of cancellation due to extraordinary circumstances. Louisville’s contracts with schools even include “epidemics” in its list of culprits that could lead to the game’s cancellation.
From a financial standpoint, not playing those games could be the worst-case scenario for the smaller programs — probably worse even than fall sports being canceled entirely. Still, Ohio Valley Conference commissioner Beth DeBauche said this scenario wouldn’t be catastrophic.
“The guarantee games absolutely do play an important role, financially, but also just for the spirit of the program,” she said. “If we can’t play those games, we certainly would be impacted by that, but we could figure out a way to survive that.”
Universities are already planning to pinch pennies this fall. That will mean delaying new uniforms another year, taking buses instead of flights, traveling on the day of games, and limiting the number of people who travel with each team. At the conference level, there might be cuts to administrator travel, shortened schedules, or decreases to the number of teams participating in championships.
DeBauche said the OVC, whose members include EKU and Murray State, is planning for every scenario in football: playing without fans, delaying the start, playing with some schools and not others, no fall season at all, even taking a break from action in the middle of the season. Nothing is off the table.
“It’s not too early to plan to plan,” she said.
Schools have not indicated that cutting sports has been discussed. To maintain status as a Division I program, schools need to retain at least 14 varsity sports; each Division I school in the commonwealth, except for Murray State, has more than 14 sports.
Cutting varsity scholarships has not been a consideration either, although not giving out 100% of allocated scholarships could be an option.
At the heart of every decision, DeBauche said, is the fact that the coronavirus is a temporary issue. She and her member institutions would like to avoid long-term ramifications.
“We have tried really hard to be mindful that this is going to be a tough number of months, for so many reasons beyond just intercollegiate athletics, but to try and remember that our solution should be short-term in nature if at all possible,” she said.
Of course, no one — not coaches, not administrators, not even epidemiologists — knows if and when college football will begin this fall, at any level.
“I really don’t know. I hate to speculate,” DeBauche said.