Baseball was back on television this weekend and there were “fans” of a sort — virtual fans, in some cases, or cardboard cutout fans, with some piped-in noise.
Not one of them bought a ticket.
That’s one of the major issues facing college football teams, including Alabama, as the final sands in the hourglass before a 2020 season decision slips away.
The decision is complicated but for many teams, including those in the SEC, the breakdown is this. On one side, what are institutions, and their football teams, required by their mission to do in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic? On the other, what can they afford to do and still see the survival of their football programs and, by extension, intercollegiate athletics?
The economic consequences are huge. That’s why, so far, the Big Ten and the Pac-12 have reduced their schedules but not eliminated them.
Ticket revenues aren’t the only source of income. If there are televised games, there will be television money. This isn’t quite 1918, when the admission dollars collected in a cigar box at the ticket window was the entire cabbage patch. But it is also why Alabama (along the rest of the SEC) has made no official announcement about fans, no fans, or some fans.
There are various ways of calculating numbers, but one estimate this week was that playing at 50 percent capacity — that’s bringing about 45,000 people to Tuscaloosa on Saturdays, give or take — would still show a revenue shortfall for Alabama athletics of somewhere between $30 million and $40 million, or around 20 percent of last year’s operating budget. Drop that number to zero fans, and you get a financial bloodbath both for UA and the surrounding Tuscaloosa community. That doesn’t mean the sacrifice won’t have to be made for the public’s health, but we are talking about a slice-to-the-bone sacrifice.
Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne, who is acutely aware of those issues and the growing time urgency for ticket policy information for UA fans, responded to The Tuscaloosa News’ questions on a timeline on Saturday.
“Nothing is finalized on capacity,” Byrne said in a text message. “(We are) hoping to announce that in a week or two. We have multiple ticket plans put together depending on capacity.”
Things will probably move quickly as soon as the Southeastern Conference announces its plan for the season, possibly in the coming week, possibly the week after. There may still be a no-football option although it is hard to imagine the SEC presidents being even more cautious than their peers in the Big Ten and Pac-12, unless the coronavirus numbers are simply overwhelming. Maybe they are, but at a basic level, people can be confused by sitting at home watching the Braves and Mets on television and then being told that other sports can’t at least play without fans, even college sports.
Most important of all is that preventive measures remain of a paramount importance.
If there are games, then an attendance policy will have to be implemented. Whether the SEC will mandate a single percentage that applies to all schools is uncertain, but chances are that will be decided at the institutional level. For competitive reasons, the SEC might try to set a maximum so that one school playing a rival at home doesn’t throw caution to the wind and pack the place.
Of more immediate importance, how many games will there be? If Alabama goes to a league schedule with only five home games, those tickets will not be cheap. They probably won’t even be moderate. The math might be different if somehow the league’s current 12-game schedule holds and Alabama finds itself unexpectedly with eight games in Tuscaloosa.
Nothing is certain yet. That includes any season at all. Whether there is a safe level of attendance that can staunch the financial bleeding will be answered quickly, if there is one.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt