MAC exploring fall football again, though finances, testing remain hurdles

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Is the MAC back? Not so fast. But the wheels are, at least, turning.

The Mid-American Conference is exploring reinstating its fall football season with an eight-game, conference-only schedule, with the athletic directors making the big push, a source with direct knowledge of the situation told The News on Thursday.

A proposal, including a schedule framework, is being developed to present to the conference's presidents, possibly by the end of the week. With major hurdles like finances and testing, no decision is imminent.

The MAC, which includes Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan, was the first FBS conference to postpone fall sports this year.

The MAC reaffirmed its decision to play in the spring in a statement issued Wednesday morning, immediately after the Big Ten announced it was reinstating fall football. But by Wednesday night, the tone was changing, according to the source.

The other two Football Bowl Subdivision conferences still shut down, the Pac-12 and the Mountain West, also are exploring reinstating fall football in the wake of the Big Ten's announcement.

On Aug. 8, the MAC became the first FBS conference to postpone fall sports, its presidents voting unanimously — even though several presidents actually had reservations then and now, according to the source. The Big Ten, on Aug. 11, became the first Power Five conference to do the same, but it changed course on Wednesday, citing advancements in COVID-19 testing.

Kent State head coach Sean Lewis took to Twitter on Thursday, saying, "Our players want to play."

"I am extremely proud of how our players, staff members and university have handled the many challenges presented since March," Lewis wrote. "As is often the case, some of life's greatest lessons come off the field and in the face of great adversity. We have all willingly sacrificed, adjusted our lifestyles, and exercised extreme self-discipline for a greater cause. Everyone at Kent State should be very proud.

"However, considering recent developments in sports and the medical community, we must revisit the decision to cancel the 2020 season."

Lewis also wrote that he hopes his conference officials reach out to the Big Ten presidents, athletic directors and medical personnel to come up with a plan that could work for the MAC.

Western Michigan defensive line coach Lou Esposito wrote on Twitter on Wednesday, after the Big Ten's announcement, "Bring Back the MAC !!! #WeWantToPlay." He had several more posts Thursday.

The MAC's decision on Aug. 8 was based, of course, on health and safety, but finances also were a factor — and the two issues often collided. For instance, when the NCAA mandated weekly COVID-19 tests for all athletes earlier this summer, that was a hindrance to several MAC schools, trying to budget for thousands of tests at between $75 and $100 apiece. The Big Ten, in its return to play, announced it will test players daily. The emergence of rapid testing is huge, as it's much cheaper; the MAC still would need to find a supplier.

Any MAC season, in the fall or spring, would be a major financial hit.

With the Power Five conferences going to reduced seasons or conference-only seasons, several MAC schools lost their "guarantee" games, which often are worth seven-figure paydays for already heavily university-subsidized programs (for instance: EMU lost Missouri for $1.1 million, CMU lost Nebraska and $1.3 million, and WMU lost Notre Dame and $1.175 million). Those buy games often account for much of a MAC football team's yearly revenues; at Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan and Western Michigan, those games often make up for than half of yearly revenues. Those buy games aren't returning in 2020.

Each of the state's MAC schools also make hundreds of thousands in ticket sales, and there would almost assuredly be no fans allowed for a fall season.

Still, MAC officials believe the financial blow now would be a small price to pay to help avoid major problems down the road, including, specifically, with recruiting, the source told The News. If the MAC were to be the only FBS program not to play this fall, the recruiting fallout could last years, if not decades.

If there is a positive to the MAC's current plan to play in the spring, it's its deal with ESPN — worth more than $600,000 annually to each member school — and a chance to have a more high profile on TV in early 2021.

On Wednesday, MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher released a statement immediately after the Big Ten's announcement, pouring cold water on any possible fall season.

"Currently there are no plans to play a fall season in any sport," Steinbrecher said. "We are focused on providing our fall student-athletes meaningful competitive experiences in the spring."

If the MAC were to play a fall schedule, it could still have its championship game at Ford Field in Detroit on Dec. 19. The Lions are on the road that weekend.

The Pac-12, which now remains the only Power Five conference without plans for a fall season, says it's looking into a fall return, as well, after the governors of California and Oregon got involved in the discussions with the league Wednesday. The Pac-12, though, has another hurdle to overcome before it plays — the raging wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984