• Villanova Sports Law Blog

Coronavirus v. College Football

By: Grant Farmer



Given the widely disseminated spread of the Coronavirus and the uncertainty of its containment, one may question whether the fall of 2020 will enjoy the return of the traditional college football season. To this end, Power Five conference commissioners and athletic directors have proposed a variety of alternatives to the college football schedule, ranging from an outright season cancellation, to an adjustment for a late start, or even preventing fan attendance. However, given the financial ramifications that a complete season cancellation would mean to the university systems, offering even an abbreviated college football season is preferable to a complete cancellation. Not only is college football typically self-sustaining, but often it is depended upon to support the entire composite of athletic programs.


The athletic directors at four of the most revenue-generating athletic departments, Clemson, LSU, Texas, and Texas A&M, have all expressed concerns about the economic impact that any alteration in the college football season would have to their athletic departments, universities, as well as their communities as a whole. [1] Specifically, the athletic directors of the schools that played in the most recent College Football Playoff National Championship, Dan Radakovich at Clemson and Steve Woodward at LSU, have expressed major concerns over what a cancelled or even an abbreviated college football schedule would do to their respective athletic departments. [2]


Radakovich underscores the importance of football as a critical aspect of college athletics, sharing that the “big revenue drivers – ticket sales, donations, conference distribution – those are all linked together, and the centerpiece is football.” [3] Woodward shared the defining statement that “football is 85% of the revenue.” Woodward’s statement underscores the multidimensionality of the issue. Despite LSU’s dependency upon college football for the financial stability of its entire athletic department, they are fortunate to enjoy a unique position, evidencing profitability in three sports. [4] However, while LSU’s men’s basketball and baseball teams did realize a net gain, their combined profit for the 2016-17 season was just barely over $2 million, paling in comparison to its football profit of $56 million that same year. [5]


While this sum may appear monumental, one has only to consider the financial impact college football realizes in Texas to appreciate the full picture. With the two highest revenue-generating schools in the country, Texas and Texas A&M reporting a combined revenue of over $440 million for the 2017-18 school year, clearly there is a great deal riding on the 2020 college football season for those schools’ financial outlooks. [6] To that end, Chris Del Conte, the athletic director at The University of Texas, expressed his concern about the likelihood of the college football season beginning on time this fall, stating that he’s nervous about running a business based on discretionary income during a pandemic. [7] Ross Bjork, Texas A&M’s athletic director, shared that the critical role of determining the start of the college football season would be a decision required to be made by the federal government. [8]


Given the variance of the proliferation and containment of the Coronavirus within different regions of the country, allowing individual states to dictate whether they are prepared to begin the season would, at a minimum, be problematic and at a maximum could potentially ignite another wave of pandemic impact. While all schools yearn for a return to the traditional season, allowing independent determinations, while temporarily fruitful for the schools, could do so at the expense of the entire nation’s health.


In imagining any form of return to play for the fall of 2020, the most realistic option appears be cancelling all non-conference games, which traditionally occur in the month of September. This would allow the on-going actions to contain the spread of the Coronavirus more time to enhance their effectiveness. Unfortunately for schools that are not within the Power Five Conference, a cancellation of all regular-season, non-conference games will likely have damaging and lasting effects upon their financial stability. The scheduling of non-conference football games against Power-Five Conference schools are necessary evils for smaller schools, since those games often come with guaranteed payments, allowing smaller schools to continue to operate. Specifically, “guarantee payments from larger schools can amount to as much as 15% of a smaller program’s budget.” [9] If non-conference games were to be cancelled, one Power Five athletic director predicted that “it would be crippling to the Group of Five programs and would destroy the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) ranks.” [10]


Given the multifaceted issue regarding the pandemic’s course and its effects upon the nation at large, it is impossible to predict whether any season of play will be allowed in college sports. However, even if the schools are able to benefit from any form of active football this season, there will still need to be a variety of contingency plans developed. Based on the unpredictable nature of this formerly unknown player, now active on the roster of every college football team in the nation, COVID-19 is clearly the one to watch.


References


[1] Ross Dellenger and Pat Forde, Coronavirus vs. College Football – A Season and An Institution on the Brink, Sports Illustrated, (April 8, 2020), https://www.si.com/college/2020/04/08/college-football-future-2020-ncaa-coronavirus

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Steve Berkowitz and John Kelly, 2017-18 NCAA Finances, USA Today Sports,

https://sports.usatoday.com/ncaa/finances/

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Emily Caron, College Football Payout Games Play Key Role in Shifting Revenue Landscape, Front Office Sports, (April 9, 2020)

https://frntofficesport.com/college-football-guarantee-games/

[10] Brett McMurphy, Spring Football? Nine-Game Season? ADs Ponder Contingency Plans, Watch Stadium, (April 2, 2020)

https://watchstadium.com/spring-football-eight-game-season-ads-ponder-contingency-plans-04-01-2020/