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‘A cultural loss’: Big Ten makes it official, postpones football season

It will be quiet on campuses this fall.

There will be no Saturday tailgates with tens of thousands of fans packing Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor and Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

The same can be said for playing fields throughout the Big Ten and the Pac-12 as the two Power Five conferences announced on Tuesday they would not play sports in the fall due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic but will explore options for the spring.

The Michigan football team practiced on its outdoor field on Tuesday, the same day the Big Ten nixed the fall sports season.

“We just believe collectively there's too much uncertainty at this point in time in our country to really encourage our student-athletes to participate in fall sports,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said on the Big Ten Network.

“I take this responsibility seriously, and I will continually do everything in my power to make sure that we put our student-athletes in a position to be empowered and to be elevated, but as people first and as students and understand they're also not professionals. These are amateur athletes, and they deserve an opportunity to be able to participate in a healthy and safe manner.”

The decision is going to impact sports but also reverberate through the finances and culture of the university towns and states in which they are located, experts say.

“It’s a cultural loss for colleges and college towns,” said Robert Kelchen, an associate professor and chair of Seton Hall University Department of Education Leadership, Management and Policy. “It’s a little bit less because there weren’t going to be fans in the stands anyway. But so much of not only the college town’s identity but the state’s identity is tied up in big-time college football.”

The Big Ten made its announcement early Tuesday afternoon, becoming the first Power Five conference to opt-out of playing in the fall after smaller conferences, including the Mid-American Conference — home to Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan and Western Michigan — and the Mountain West already had made similar moves.

By late Tuesday afternoon, the Pac-12 joined the Big Ten, shifting the spotlight to the other members of the Power Five — the SEC, ACC and Big 12. Reports have been surfacing the Big 12 members are divided on their next move while those in the SEC and ACC are still, at this point, moving forward with plans to play in the fall.

Those decisions, however, already have been made in the Big Ten with the announcement coming just six days after the conference released its revised football schedule that included 10 games against only Big Ten teams.

“I know how disappointed the whole Spartan community is over the cancellation of fall sports,” Michigan State president Samuel Stanley said in a statement. “We have amazing student-athletes and fans at Michigan State University, and this news is hard for many people. But safety remains our top priority, and we are still focused on creating a safe environment in which our university’s mission can continue. We are committed to ensuring our students have a successful academic year.

“We will continue to work with the Big Ten Conference as we look for opportunities for athletics to resume in the future. Collectively, we need to take the necessary precautions to protect ourselves and others and follow the guidance of our health and medical experts to protect the mental and physical health of our student-athletes.”

Michigan State already had been dealing with the difficulties of COVID-19. The football program kicked off preseason camp on Friday, but that came just two days after the end of a 14-day quarantine after two staffers had tested positive.

“From the beginning of this public health crisis, there have been many unknowns for college football, thus it was important for me to listen and follow our medical staff and medical experts’ protocols for our workouts, practices and playing,” Michigan State head football coach Mel Tucker said in a statement.

“The uncertainties caused by COVID-19 have created enormous stress for our players and their families, and I am proud of their resilience. Our coaches and staff will continue to support their drive, dreams and decisions.

“While the conclusion to postpone the season is not easy for anyone, based on the medical recommendations, I respect the decision of the Big Ten Conference. When the medical experts tell us that we can get back to business, we’ll be ready.”

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren

UM President Mark Schlissel said he supported the Big Ten decision because of "too many poorly understood health and safety concerns unique to intercollegiate athletics to move forward with practices and competition at present — and the impact of extreme physical exertion on the health risk of COVID-19 has not been well-assessed."

"I join Athletic Director Warde Manuel and everyone at Michigan Athletics in expressing my empathy to all who were looking forward to competing, coaching, supporting and cheering us on as members of the Wolverine family," Schlissel said in a statement.

"I particularly feel badly for our student-athletes who gain so much from participation in their sports and are such outstanding representatives of our university. We will work hard to return them safely to competition."

Schlissel also offered thanks to student-athletes, coaches, trainers and medical staff who have prepared for the season.

"To our millions of fans worldwide, I thank you for your understanding and your patience," Schlissel said. "This decision is the right thing to do at this point in the pandemic. Your support of our teams and our student-athletes is inspiring, and Michigan will be back and ready to welcome you when it is safe to do so."

Saving the season

Reports over the weekend had been indicating the Big Ten's decision was imminent and sources told The Detroit News that the Big Ten would, indeed, shut down for all fall sports, football included.

On Monday, however, it seemed there was a slight chance there some in the conference reconsidering. Coaches and players from around the Big Ten took to social media to urge administrators to do everything they could to save the season. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh penned an open letter laying out how the Wolverines have kept their players safe while Ohio State’s Ryan Day and Penn State’s James Franklin also posted their desire to play.

After Tuesday's announcement, Harbaugh continued to laud his program's efforts to play this fall.

"Our student-athletes and coaches want to compete," Harbaugh said in a statement. "They have committed, trained and prepared their entire lives for this opportunity, and I know how much they’re disappointed at this time. I share in their disappointment today. We have shown over the weeks since returning to campus that we could meet the challenge and provide our student-athletes the opportunity of a fall football season.

"Our football team, our coaching staff, our support staff in Schembechler Hall have all stepped up, followed every rule, and done everything in their power magnificently to give all the opportunity to compete. I am extremely proud, thankful and appreciative of our team and how they have conducted and represented our program and university."

The Big Ten did its best to present a unified front on Tuesday as Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said on the Big Ten Network that the Buckeyes would have preferred delaying the decision until September but understood and supported the ultimate choice.

“We would have preferred to play,” Smith said. “It happened a little earlier than we would have liked, but the medical experts, who provided great advice, helped us understand that we needed to do what we did today.”

Similar responses came from around the Big Ten, except at Nebraska. A statement from head coach Scott Frost, chancellor Ronnie Green, president Ted Carter and athletic director Bill Moos criticized the conference’s decision.

“We are very disappointed in the decision by the Big Ten Conference to postpone the fall football season, as we have been and continue to be ready to play,” the statement read. “Safety comes first. Based on the conversations with our medical experts, we continue to strongly believe the absolute safest place for our student-athletes is within the rigorous safety protocols, testing procedures, and the structure and support provided by Husker Athletics.

“We will continue to consult with medical experts and evaluate the situation as it emerges. We hope it may be possible for our student-athletes to have the opportunity to compete.”

Overall, Michigan has reported three times as many COVID-19 cases as Nebraska has and 17 times as many deaths linked to the virus. While Nebraska has tracked more confirmed cases per 100,000 residents than Michigan has, Michigan is in the top 10 states nationally for deaths while Nebraska ranks 40th, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Mark Rosentraub, a UM professor of sport management and director of the Center for Sport and Policy at the School of Kinesiology, said hosting the football season in the spring will be better if there is a vaccine.

“Why create an environment where we are endangering a student,” Rosentraub said. “If you talk to all the medical experts that we have at Michigan, it’s reasonable to expect that we’d able to vaccinate people towards the first of the year. Let’s work toward that goal.

"Let’s improve our contact tracing. Let’s improve our testing. If we did all those things and we wore masks, it will work out.”

Financial toll

The stakes in the decision are financially steep, Kelchen said, since Big Ten schools could lose $100 million if they don’t fulfill their television contracts.

“If they can’t play a full season in the spring, with fans it will be a massive financial loss for colleges because they won’t get to have fans in the stands and they won’t get to fulfill their TV contracts,” said Kelchen, who studies higher-education finance.

Though there are large reserves in athletics budgets of Big Ten schools, the financial impact still will be significant.

Warde Manuel

Michigan football generated $122.3 million of its athletic department’s $148.6 million revenue last year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics Data Analysis. Michigan State football generated $75.5 million of the department’s revenue of $104.1 million.

Speaking with the Lansing Economic Club on Monday, Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman said revenue loss will be steep for the Spartans.

“When we think about the pandemic and what might happen,” Beekman said, “if there is no football, there is a loss of $80 to $85 million in direct revenue.”

UM's Manuel, in a letter to football season ticket-holders last week, said the athletic department had budgeted $61 million less in revenues this year and said it could be in triple digits if a decision is made not to play sports this year.

“It will just take a big hit out of their budget," Kelchen said. "They may still lay off or furlough employees if they aren’t going to have athletics for the fall."

Business leaders also projected a massive impact on the hospitality sector, along with the nonprofit communities, that support spectators attending Saturday college game days.

"The decision is in the best interests of the athletes, which is a great thing," said Diane Keller, president and CEO of the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber. "However, there is a severe economic impact that will happen to the Washtenaw County region."

On game day, fans and families generate revenue by coming in from out of town and lodging in local businesses, Keller said. Fans hire caterers to prepare foods for tailgate parties and patronize sports bars. People also park in parking lots at Pioneer High School, churches and other lots run by nonprofits. 

"They are all going to see a huge loss," Keller said. 

What comes next for the student-athletes in the meantime is unclear, as well as what happens with sports that begin later in the fall and overlap two semesters, such as men's and women's basketball and ice hockey.

Michigan announced on Tuesday it was suspending all organized team activities for student-athletes, allowing them to continue voluntary workouts until more clarity is offered on the upcoming winter and spring seasons.

“For the second time in five months, the Big Ten Conference made the unfortunate but necessary decision to postpone an athletic season in order to protect the health and well-being of our student-athletes, staff and community members,” Manuel said in a statement.

“...I am deeply saddened for our student-athletes and remain committed to our ongoing promise to provide them with a world-class education. We remain grateful to our global Michigan family for their unwavering support."

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau