The Big Ten and Pac-12 decided to cancel all fall sports after a presentation on the risks to student athletes. The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman has the story on the medical information they received that made it hard to ignore the effects. Famously, Scott Frost and Nebraska are looking for ways to play outside of the Big Ten ‘tent’, and are exploring temporarily leaving the league to do so.
That such an exit would be unprecedented, and difficult to square with a possible spring season, is just one of the issues surrounding that thought. Every league is facing some version of the same choice: how do we mitigate the risk of COVID-19, while maximizing available revenue? The reliance on funding from television contracts, guarantee games (in the case of CUSA teams), and concession-buying fans is clear.
Many people “need” college football to be played so they can pay some bills. Talk of “healing the nation” and “restoring some normalcy” are secondary. It is about the money. That isn’t a knock on greedy administrators in a lot of cases. The Power Five schools have lots of money and are even talking of getting lines of credit to hold them over. The real concern is at the smaller programs where the choice is Have a Job or Get Laid Off.
Money is the main difference between a big program and a small one. A given CUSA program does not have the same kind of financial reserve that a Big XII one does (let alone an ACC, or SEC program). That may explain the decisions being made at CUSA schools. Right now Charlotte plans to play. UTEP will open at Texas.
The league, for its part, is thinking. Again, given the economic situation of the league’s members, CUSA is not going to lead on this issue. The league cancelled the basketball tournament after others did so. The league will wait until there is no possibility to get some guarantee money — for UTEP, Charlotte, Tech et. al.
Everyone wants football but there might not be an easy, affordable path to get there. The pandemic has exacerbated inequalities and operational flaws in nearly all walks of life. CUSA was always precariously put together and those weaknesses are being put to a stress test. Teams are far enough away to require a plane ride across state lines, where COVID policies are different, infection rates are different.
Towns across the nation need the game-day revenue to continue, and even if games are contested, it is unclear how many fans will be allowed into the stadia, and if that number can sustain the surrounding businesses.
The main takeaway is this: CUSA is not in a great position to dictate terms to anyone and is highly reliant on the Big Five Money Conferences for major sources of revenue. The gameday revenue for having league games is better than having none at all, but the cost to student-athlete lives and long-term health is unknown at this point.
The press-release indicated that the league is discussing all of this. If EKGs are required for athlete participation, that will increase the cost of playing. It may be that cost is too high. It was for the Big Ten and the Pac-12, and those leagues have much higher revenues than this one.