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College Football No Longer "Doubtful;" Too Much at $take

Three weeks ago in this space we wrote that the 2020 college football season was “doubtful.”

Way back then, state governors, college presidents and athletic directors all were extremely pessimistic about the chances of playing football in the fall.

Well, things have changed dramatically.

The same folks who just a few weeks ago were telling Vice President Mike Pence that college sports were “education-based” and that there could be no college football unless students were back on campus, are now saying that games will be played even if no students are on campus and “classes are limited to on-line instruction only.”

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who flatly rejected the idea in the Pence meeting, now says “Going to class in an online sense is satisfactory. There’s room for that to happen.”

Likewise, the same folks who said there would be no season unless every conference member participated, every conference started at the same time, and every conference played the same number of games, are now apparently open to starting the season without every school participating and with differing season lengths.

Five commissioners, including three from Power Five conferences, are now on record saying their respective leagues are likely to play even if all member schools can’t participate. So you might have a season with 11 of 14 SEC schools playing, or with a Pac-9 instead of a Pac-12.

Lots of options are on the table. But as Oregon State Athletic Director Scott Barnes says, “The one scenario we’re not working on is not playing football.”

One might ask, what’s the reason for this 180 degree shift?

It’s very simple: money.

The draconian economic consequences of cancelling the 2020 football season has made every conference commissioner and athletic director’s blood turn cold. There is simply too much money at stake for there to be no college football this fall.

Football is the lifeblood of virtually every athletic department in the country. It brings in the bulk of the revenues, and it supports the other sports in the program.

As West Virginia President Gordon Gee says, “If you don’t have a football season, you probably don’t have an athletic department.”

Arizona Athletic Director Dave Heeke says no football in the Pac-12 would “financially decimate the conference…if this goes on for an extended period, the overall structure of college athletics is at risk.”

Consider a few of the numbers: Under its new contract, the SEC will be paid $350 million per year by ESPN just for the rights to its football “game of the week.” That’s $350M for 14 telecasts. The Big Ten gets $500 million annually for its TV rights and also rakes in huge subscriber fees from its own network. Even with no fans in the stands, the huge TV dollars would still flow.

All that money is distributed to conference schools. And without it, many schools would not only have to cut staff, and travel and recruiting expenses, but also the number of sports they sponsor.

So it appears the games will go on. But not without risk.

What of the dreaded “start and stop” scenario, whereby a team or a number of teams have an outbreak of the coronavirus? Do the players go home? Is the season then cancelled? Could schedules be re-crafted in mid-season? What would happen to the post-season?

There are no easy answers, but there is no reason to believe 100 schools could play a season of football without players testing positive.

Certainly, the optics of “student-athletes” returning to an empty campus to practice and play football games, while body bags continue to pile up around the country, will be very bad.

But they will lay bare the reality of what college football has become.

There is no longer any pretense of an "academic mission" or football being “part of the educational experience.” While a consideration, the “safety of the student-athletes” is not paramount.

No, everything is secondary to the pursuit of the almighty dollar.

The Alternative: There is another way. Maybe we could use this crisis to reset college football and basketball.

Cut expenses. Restore some sanity. Stop the salary escalation.

Lots of coaches and ADs are taking 10-20% pay cuts during the pandemic. Why not make those cuts permanent? Is it that big of a deal for David Shaw to make $4 million rather than $5? For Coach K and Dabo Swinney to make $7M rather than $9?

Could you return to simpler time when games were contests, not TV inventory? When tickets didn’t cost an arm and a leg? When parking was free? When there were fewer TV time outs?

When student athletes went to class and didn’t transfer if they lost their starting job? When fans knew what time the games would start? When coaches made less than the school president?

Could you put the genie back in the bottle? Could you tear up TV agreements and take down sponsorship signage? Cut recruiting budgets? Stop the facilities arms race? Could you?

Sweet dreams.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

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