The sports world is slowly, and almost recklessly, trying to navigate returning to normal amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The virus has plagued the country and can be incredibly contagious, especially when a carrier (and sometimes an asymptotic carrier) is in close proximity to others. Assuming professional leagues pull off their plans to resume seasons or start shortened ones, college athletics will likely follow. Many steps need to be taken to ensure safety and asking student-athletes to return to campus to play comes with a number of risks we’ve seen unfold already.
The NCAA’s latest statement, released March 10, gave power to individual schools and programs regarding regular season and conference play. President Mark Emmert said, in part: “Neither the NCAA COVID-19 advisory panel, made up of leading public health and infectious disease experts in America, nor the CDC or local health officials have advised against holding sporting events.”
While cities continue to lessen stay-at-home restrictions, programs have reconvened for summer workouts. As of Thursday, at least five of the 50 Alabama players that participated in voluntary workouts tested positive for coronavirus, 247Sports reported. This news came after at least three Oklahoma State football players tested positive following a group workout and a positive test came out of Iowa State’s athletic department.
It’s unclear how these positive tests will impact these and other programs. Emmert said earlier this week a possibility still exists that some schools will not play a football season this fall, according to Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger. Athletic budgets are built off revenue from parking, concessions and ticket sales. ESPN reported an estimated $4 billion loss if the 2020 football season is canceled altogether.
If the football season resumes but schedules are altered and fans aren’t allowed in stadiums, it could drastically change the scope of college athletics. Here are three of teams that will be greatly impacted by fan-less home games:
If a top Power 5 team will bear a big brunt of playing in an empty stadium then it leaves little hope for anyone else. Ohio State has been playing at a consistent level for the past eight seasons, and while a little turbulent this season, Buckeyes fan attendance has remained steady; Ohio State was third in average attendance in 2019, bringing in 103,382 fans. According to a recent Forbes report, ticket sales bring in nearly $60 million for the campus.
Ohio Stadium can house 104,000 fans and for a program that drew close to that on average last season, losing crowd noise is as big of a disadvantage as lost revenue. Half the fun of attending games with a rich football history is the atmosphere. Imagine Penn State’s White Out without a whiteout. The same can be said for the Buckeyes, who have a laundry list of traditions. Ohio State’s athletic budget will obviously take a big hit, but the team’s performance on the field without the famous O-H-I-O chant fueling it could lead to an overall poor product.
Cincinnati has already had to cut one collegiate program: men’s soccer. The Bearcats aren’t as successful as their aforementioned state school but are still a prominent fixture in sports. Amid various pay cuts across the NCAA, Cincinnati made a drastic step in an effort to save some money. The school announced it would dismantle the soccer team in early April. The efforts, as Axios reported, will save the school around $725,000, which doesn’t cover the $875,000 Cincinnati spent on football’s support staff alone.
What does this mean for the football program itself? Schools will always prioritize their football program, and Cincinnati would lose a lot of the moment from its latest success. The Bearcats finished the 2019 season with an 11-3 record and lost their first-ever ACC championship appearance. The back-to-back 11-win seasons—the second time it’s happened in school history (2008-09)—were a reason to look to the 2020 season with hope with the growing fan support and emerging young talent.
It’s easy to point at extremely successful programs. Alabama, Texas, Georgia, Nebraska and Tennessee will all suffer without their fan bases, but program history and unwavering support are on their side—not to mention the national attention and television schedule that often works out in their favor. For other schools, particularly Pac-12 schools that struggle on the field, fan-less home games will diminish the program even more.
The University of Arizona has already frozen spending within the athletic department as it anticipates a $7.5 million revenue loss. After the freeze, president Robert Robbins told a local Tuscon radio station that he is “really concerned” about whether the Wildcats will be playing football in the fall. Arizona has since re-opened the state but coronavirus cases continue to rise, which leaves no room for error when prioritizing player, staff and fan safety.
The Wildcats, like many programs, have tried to further open their revenue window. They have already extended the season ticket renewal deadline but it will do little if fans weren’t already compelled to attend games. All Pac-12 teams have to combat late kickoff times; for a struggling program like Arizona, that paired with two consecutive losing seasons won’t draw a big crowd to begin with. Tucson.com reported Arizona’s game-day costs around $300,000 per contest. Last season marked the first time Arizona had consecutive crowds under 40,000 since 1997—Arizona Stadium seats 56,000.
If or when collegiate sports do return, and progress has not been made on rapid, available testing or a coronavirus vaccine, it’s realistic to assume games will be played in empty stadiums. The impact will be felt across the NCAA, and while these schools might be some of the first that comes to mind, no department can prepare for the loss of revenue after hemorrhaging money for state-of-the-art facilities and big football budgets.
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