The Case for Spring Football
The harsh reality has started to set in: we’re in the worst case scenario.
Any hope we had of a picture-esque fall Saturday afternoon with almost 70,000 Hokies packing Lane is all but vanished. The September 12th matchup against the Nittany Lions, which many believed would be one of the biggest games in Lane Stadium history, will not happen.
College football fans are welcome to have their own opinion on the COVID-19 pandemic. A part of the fanbase will claim the whole issue is overblown, a media sensationalization that has gone way too far. They may be right. Another segment of the fanbase will say that the disease is too great a risk to society to expose individuals of any age and health condition to the virus, potentially accelerating its spread to at risk individuals. They, also, may be right. However, there’s something that all college football fans, players, coaches, and media must realize. Our personal opinions don't matter.
It’s harsh, but true. The decision on how to move forward with the 2020 college football season will be made by university presidents, athletic directors, and conference chairmen. The decision criteria is simple and has been communicated all summer. The powers at be will attempt to maximize the profits of the sport that are so desperately needed by universities and local economies, while keeping the risk of COVID-19 exposure to football personnel and spectators at a minimum, if not zero.
From a simple problem solving stance, I don’t see how you can incorporate these criteria in the fall of 2020. And there are a myriad of reasons, but I’ll just go over a few quickly:
For starters, college football is not the same without the fans packing stadiums. And any hope of a packed Lane Stadium left the chat weeks ago. I don’t think I need to go into a long diatribe about what the stadium atmosphere means to college football. A downstream effect of this is the negative impact to local businesses. Many locally owned businesses in small college towns just like Blacksburg can only exist because of the customer base that comes with a gameday. Simply playing the games is not what makes college football the cultural pillar that it is. It’s about going to Joe’s Diner before a noon game and heading to Hokie House or Sharkey’s (where good friends go) after the game that make those experiences on Saturdays so special. Without the influx of fans into college towns across the country, many of our beloved small businesses will be forced to close down.
I’ll continue on the topic of the financial losses that would come with a fall season, but just amp up the dollar amounts. With the Big10 deciding to go to conference only schedules, $22.2 million was taken away from non-conference opponents, many of them smaller athletic programs with tight budgets. A few examples:
Appalachian State +$1.25M @ Wisconsin
Bowling Green +$1.2M @ Ohio State and +$1.0M @ Illinois
Central Michigan +1.3M @ Nebraska and +$850K @ Northwestern
Arkansas State +$1.8M @ Michigan
Buffalo +$1.8M @ Ohio State
Kent State +$1.5M @ Penn State
San Jose State +$1.5M @ Penn State
Toledo +$1.0M @ Michigan State
Florida Atlantic +$1.0M @ Minnesota
There are more examples of this around the country, especially with the PAC12 moving to an only-conference schedule. But to understand the financial impact this has on non-power 5 teams, let's look at the case of Central Michigan. Keep in mind that Central Michigan had to cut two sports this spring for financial reasons and currently has a waiver from the NCAA to allow it to maintain Division 1 status due to having less than 15 athletic teams.
The average cost of a scholarship at Central Michigan is ~$27K per athlete. FBS programs have 85 scholarship players each year, which would mean that it costs ~$2.3M to provide scholarships to the Central Michigan football team each year. Central Michigan is losing $2.15M in revenue this season on negated game contracts alone. That’s an entire academic year of scholarships gone. Think about that.
For reference, if we take the scholarships dollars needed in a fiscal year at Virginia Tech (~$17M) and assign it on a per athlete basis (~525 athletes) that gets you to a bit over $32K per athlete each year, resulting in ~$2.72M in football scholarships per year.
Moving to the virus itself. I have a lot of worries about how the virus could impact a team’s roster. If football is played in the fall, then there will most certainly be cases within teams in which a player will have to sit out practices and games. In the big picture, this is not too big of a deal. Player’s deal with injuries and illnesses all the time, it’s part of the sport. But with COVID-19, the issue becomes how easily it will spread amongst a team, mostly the teammates in the same position group as the originally infected player. This is because these players are spending the most time together.
So, let’s say an offensive lineman gets it. The chances that multiple other linemen contracted the virus are pretty high. This will undoubtedly be different case to case, as many players most likely have the antibodies already built up by this time. But without an antibodies test, those players will most likely be forced to quarantine or be subjected to tests themselves. Now, instead of losing one lineman to an illness, you lose 4, 5, even 6 lineman. A team could then be forced to play a game with only their second string offensive line. This creates a competitive imbalance that will most certainly put an asterisk next to any winning team. We don’t want that.
It’s also a fallacy to assume that since the players are young, healthy adults that they will not contract any symptoms from the virus. Although this has seemed to be largely true, it is not a guarantee and many young peoples have gotten gravely ill from the virus, some cases even being fatal. It’s also important to understand that many coaches, trainers, and administrative staff are older men and women. These members of the programs, many of whom have families and elderly parents at home, are at greater risk for contracting symptoms to the virus.
The saving grace for college football could be the accelerated production of a vaccine, which seems like it may not be too far away. The Associated Press reported on July 14 that a vaccine had passed its initial human tests and was moving ahead to its final tests. The vaccine, however, may not be mass produced until late in the fall. And that’s at a warp-speed timeline never seen before in medical history.
The only way for college football to have a fully competitive season that maintains the competitive integrity of the game is to move the season to the spring semester. A season that kicks off in late February and ends towards the end of the spring semester in late May will not only allow for teams to play a full schedule, but will increase the likelihood of capacity stadiums, provide necessary income to local businesses, and satisfy game contracts. Teams will be allowed to use the fall similar to spring practices and there will be ample time between the end of the holiday season and kickoff for the normal 4 week pre-season camp.
The loudest argument to this is the NFL Draft, which for some inexplicable reason does not want to lose it’s late April spot on the calendar. I think this is a matter of the NFL not wanting to change its plans until the NCAA confirms what it’s doing with the college season. Once the NCAA announces a spring season, the NFL will most likely reevaluate the date of the draft.
This will help eliminate the fear that the sport’s star players will opt out of the season in order to prepare for the draft. If the draft is moved even a couple months back, then there’s ample time for players to train for the combine as well as interviews and visits to take place.
I understand that a spring season is sub-optimal. Many important aspects, including TV contracts and scholarship allotments, will have to be dealt with. However, giving the media outlets and universities time to address these issues is critical to the season’s success. Waiting it out until the last minute will only compound the struggles that will accompany the 2020-21 season.
Trust me, I’ll miss it. The look of the leaves turning as football’s being played, rivalry games on Thanksgiving weekend, it’s all so perfect and means so much to so many people around the country. So, if we really love this sport, the powers at be need to make the difficult decisions and work it out. It’ll be different, awkward, and challenging, but that’s life. And I think the right decision will be made. So, Sons and Daughters, the only question left is: what in the hell do I wear to a football game in Blacksburg in February…?
(title image via Virginia Tech Athletics)