There is still a tremendous amount of uncertainty regarding the near-term future of college sports, questions that must be answered about the coronavirus before events can be green-lighted. Not being an epidemiologist or an economist, there are many that I am not qualified to answer.
One pattern is clearly emerging, though, in study after study, in press briefings from mayors, governors and commissioners: whenever the reinstatement protocol begins, the last step will be the resumption of large-scale public gatherings in public places. In other words, it might be possible — maybe — to have football in isolation, well before there is an all-clear given for all the pomp, pageantry and concession-stand peanuts that go with it.
So one question, among many, is this: does college football without fans, other than those sitting at home and watching television, qualify as football?
The first group to make that call will be the broadcast rights holders for those events. If the Southeastern Conference, to use one example, starts playing on the first Saturday in October and delivers 13 weeks of content, plus a postseason, has it fulfilled its side of the bargain. Would that be enough to collect the television revenue that funds a large portion of all athletic activities at almost all Power Five colleges?
Lawyers will have to settle that, through some sort of negotiation. That could satisfy the terms of the various television agreements. That doesn’t mean it would make everything whole. If one uses what seems to a fairly conservative economic impact estimate, seven silent home games would probably mean a loss of around $140 million to $150 million a game, particularly to its restaurants, bars and hotels. That’s not counting the absence of atmosphere, not a monetary loss but, in some ways, a spiritual one. (How could there be tailgating on the Quad, for instance?)
There are a hundred other questions. Here is one: what if the governors of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia have one timetable for allowing large public gatherings to resume, but the governors in Kentucky or hard-hit Louisiana have another? What happens in the ACC if Florida says ‘play ball’ and New York says ‘wait a minute.’ What if all 14 SEC presidents cannot agree to have large gatherings on campus if students have not returned?
Again, I have no ready-made answers, just a gut feeling that caution is better than throwing caution to the wind. I have no idea if there might be a “limited-crowd” option on the table, where a game might have 20,000 in attendance rather than a jam-packed 90,000. First of all, I doubt that happens. Second, no matter what method one uses to distribute such tickets — an egalitarian lottery or raw highest-bidder capitalism — the best an athletic director can hope for is 20,000 happy fans and 70,000 angry ones.
Throwing these hypotheticals out there isn’t meant to be negative, just as proposing a lengthy postponement like Chris Fowler’s much-discussed “speculation” about playing football in spring of 2021 rather than the fall of 2020, isn’t a nefarious plot. Everyone that cares about football wants to play as soon as possible, if the right circumstances can be worked out. But no matter what, there will have to be a logical progression of steps, not an instant snap of the fingers that will bring “normal” back overnight.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt