Wojo: In pandemic world, college football is the sport in real danger

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
View Comments

Detroit — Every day there’s a new idea, a far-fetched plan, an adjusted timetable. Every day there’s hope, followed by a sobering pause, followed by another plan.

The path back during the pandemic is complicated for any business, and always subject to the shifting whims of the coronavirus. But from a pure coast-to-coast, cost-to-cost standpoint, the sports world is the puzzle that will be most difficult to solve. Some will discount the relative frivolousness of the games, but you can’t discount the importance to the economy, and that’s where it gets really complicated.

University of Michigan fans at a 2018 game at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.

Let’s squash one fanciful notion right here. The games won’t return just to provide an emotional boost for a shaken nation, although that will be welcomed. They’ll return because of money and because the benefits outweigh the costs, and absolutely nobody knows when that will be.

Fans likely won’t be part of the rebirth, not at first, not like normal. And because of that, the major sport in the most danger is college football, which relies heavily on ticket revenue to help fund all college sports. There’s no way stadiums can open unless campuses are open, just from a liability standpoint, with amateur athletes as opposed to union-protected pros. How many school presidents would dare push that issue in the name of football? Even allowing smaller crowds — say, 30,000 in 110,000-seat Michigan Stadium — as a safety concession would be hard to justify while players try to perform as normal on the field.

Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel recently echoed the prevailing opinion.

More:Play ball: Korean baseball league begins in empty stadiums

“It’s very difficult, if not impossible, for me to ask our student athletes to return to campus to play a game if other students aren’t going to be returning,” Manuel said. “That is just unfathomable to me.”

Agreed. Equally unfathomable is the notion of a lost season, or a season moved to the spring, or a season with perhaps two-thirds of the schedule played. Even if students are back on campus, games held in empty stadiums would be incongruous — it’s safe enough to play but not safe enough to watch?

Conference commissioners are suggesting — warning? — that schools in less-afflicted areas might have to push forward without others, fracturing a divided sport even more. Concerns about shrinking attendance have simmered for a while, in all sports, and diminishing or eliminating the fan experience could have long-term consequences. Already, there is trepidation. A Seton Hall survey found 72 percent of Americans wouldn’t feel safe going to games without a vaccine.

The other major sports are less cumbersome, led by one commissioner who could more readily institute a policy. The pros also have dual motivations to play — leagues want revenue, players want salaries. The NBA and NHL could stage their playoffs in empty arenas, which would be bizarre at first, but the high-stakes competition eventually would captivate. Both leagues are cautiously mulling plans to restart this summer, while understanding cancellation is a possibility. It might even be the right thing to do, although no one wants to say it prematurely.

Major league baseball also is exploring options, from split quarantine setups in Florida and Arizona, to a three-division alignment with teams playing in their home stadiums, possibly as early as July 2, with a truncated schedule of about 100 games. Again, that seems overly optimistic, but it doesn’t need fans in the stands to make it work.

It certainly appears the NFL will play, some way, somehow. Respectfully, the lumbering beast slows for nothing. The league pressed on with free-agency, then the draft, and Thursday night will hold a ballyhooed unveiling of the schedule. There will be contingencies in case the season can’t start in September but they expect to play, and empty stadiums will not be a deterrent. Insufficient testing or another wave of coronavirus, however, could throw a wrench into things.

More:Bayview Mackinac race still on but adapting to virus concerns

This is the withering power of the NFL. The league is such an important economic and cultural commodity — TV dollars, gambling, fantasy leagues, etc. — and such an expensive outing for fans, the transition to fan-less games fortunately (or unfortunately) might not be so problematic. Of the NFL’s estimated $16 billion in revenue last season, more than half came from its TV contracts, with ticket sales and concessions accounting for much less.

The professional leagues would face all the challenges of a normal business, from retraining employees to easing safety concerns. But college sports have been under pressure from other fronts, legally and ethically. The NCAA has been ordered to find a way to compensate athletes for use of their names, images and likenesses (NIL). It’s the right thing to do, but could spawn complications in recruiting and rules enforcement.

College basketball is going through staggering upheaval, which will escalate if the one-time, no-restriction transfer policy is implemented. The NCAA already lost about $800 million with the cancellation of March Madness.

And now college football is legitimately threatened, and issues were hovering long before the virus showed up. The competitive imbalance, with four or five teams dominating, is troubling. The playoff has devalued the bowl games, which naturally has led to discussions about expanding the playoff.

The result is, the gaps are widening, and the weak might be left behind. It was always a challenge to squeeze 130 schools with wildly disparate goals and means into the same competitive realm — the Power Five conferences, the group of Five, and Notre Dame. Those 10 conference commissioners have more power than the NCAA, but they’re inclined to do what’s best for their programs, not what’s best for the game.

Last week, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey laid it out bluntly. As areas of the country open up, some conferences might be ready to lace ‘em up before others.

“There is room for different conferences to make different decisions,” Sankey told a Jacksonville radio station. “If there’s a couple of programs that aren’t able, does that stop everyone? I’m not sure it does.”

In the absence of one leader — such as commissioners Roger Goodell, Adam Silver, Rob Manfred and Gary Bettman — college football is ruled by self-interest. Even within the SEC, with 14 teams in 11 states, there could be incompatible timelines. Of course, a complete season with full participation is everyone’s goal, and all these ideas mean nothing until the virus reveals its full course, or science defeats it.

 Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren is taking a deliberate approach, as he should, while acknowledging the league also could act independently. He said this week he’d know more in 6-8 weeks and doesn’t want to speculate, but everything would be tied to safety.

Jack Swarbrick

The safest idea would be the sterility of empty stadiums, but again, that presents mixed messages.

“I don’t know how we reopen our campuses, put students back in dorms and dining halls, and then say we can’t be in a football stadium together,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said last month. “Beyond the fact that college football needs marching bands and cheerleaders and fans, everything essential to the experience, this is more about, we have to be consistent in our approach. … I can’t see playing in empty stadiums.”

For college football, it’s an unwieldy situation with unseemly options. Maybe teams just play within their leagues, and those juicy non-conference matchups such as Michigan’s Sept. 5 trip to Washington, or Michigan State’s hosting of Miami Sept. 26 are dropped. What about operating stadiums at 25-percent capacity with strict social-distancing? Or should it be 100 percent or nothing?

The NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL have daunting decisions ahead, but at least there’s little ambiguity. They want to play and be paid, and in the short term, fans are less vital.

For college football, it’s more complicated and far-reaching. Beyond any other sport, it relies on pageantry and passion and the old-fashioned paying customer. In these perilous times, there are more important issues, obviously. But college football is a cherished grass-roots American staple, and the sad emerging reality is, it’ll take enormous effort and a lot of luck to preserve it as we know it.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

View Comments