By Gene Frenette/Florida Times-Union
JACKSONVILLE — We have already lost the NCAA basketball tournament, Wimbledon and possibly the British Open. It remains uncertain when the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball or golf’s other three majors will be played, if at all.
But the biggest fear for American sports fans is the unknown of how the coronavirus pandemic might impact our most popular game and biggest sports economic driver: football.
Imagining a season without it is inching closer to being the elephant in the room. Though football is still nearly five months away, the thought of not playing remains a topic that more people whose livelihood depends on the sport are having to address, think about or engage in guessing games.
All across the country, especially in the South, football coaches, athletic directors and players are starting to get a bit antsy because it’s been almost a month of not being business as usual.
“You’re geared toward competition and that day-to-day tension it creates,” said Florida AD Scott Stricklin. “Our coaches, players and fans thrive on it. That being out of everyone’s life, I miss that.”
Spring football at many colleges either never got off the ground or was significantly limited. All spring sports were canceled, prompting the NCAA to allow senior athletes in those sports to return next year with scholarships intact if they choose to use their one remaining year of eligibility.
The FHSAA has yet to cancel May spring practices for high schools, but it’s hard to envision it happening with COVID-19 expected to reach a peak in Florida in the coming weeks. The Jaguars and all NFL teams are likely looking at no OTAs, no assembled offseason conditioning program and can only hope the start of training camps in late July won’t be delayed.
“I am an optimist, especially when it comes down to football,” said Jaguars coach Doug Marrone. “The only thing I’m not an optimist about is probably my weight. But I would say, for the sport, I haven’t thought about it really long-term. I’m just trying to prepare myself for when they say, ‘Hey, let’s go,’ that we’re ready. That’s what I have to do for my part as a coach. I think the worst thing that could happen is they say, ‘Ready, let’s go,’ and you’re not prepared.
“So I’m really taking it day-by-day like everyone else, reminding myself how serious this [coronavirus] is, what we have going, knowing that takes priority over a season of sports or how much we must feel that there’s a missing piece to our country, which is sports.”
Painful waiting game
Stricklin admits he feels somewhat paralyzed. Instead of walking down the hall to talk to a coach or athletic staffer, he’s picking up the phone or videoconferencing.
It’s an uneasy feeling being thrown into a world where spring sports are canceled, football preseason is in limbo and self-isolation is the norm. Now Stricklin is waiting for medical experts to give the go-ahead to resume the only life he’s known for decades.
“There’s a level of discomfort. We’re all so calendar and timeline-driven,” Stricklin said. “We don’t know if we’re even going to have one. This is pretty bizarre. I try not to spend a lot of time on thought processes of speculation. If it’s a situation where we’re not playing [football], we’ll have plenty of time to figure out what we do next.
“I don’t like the word ‘concern.’ I’m curious. I’m curious when things are going to return to normal. You can read the most optimistic or pessimistic outlook. The truth is no one knows.”
Still, that hasn’t deterred some in the football world from offering conflicting opinions on when toe will meet leather in a real game. Just two days after NFL general counsel Jeff Pash said on a conference call that he expected the regular season to begin as scheduled, league medical officer Dr. Allen Sills tapped the brakes. Sills added a lot depends on the availability of coronavirus tests and the removal of social distancing to allow stadiums to be filled up again.
That’s another question on the minds of administrators at every level: Is it conceivable that football games, where home-field advantage is paramount, could actually be played with a minimal amount or no spectators in stadiums?
Remember, the NCAA was preparing to play its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in empty arenas before the decision was made to cancel March Madness. The same for the SEC hoops tournament, which got canceled an hour before Alabama and Tennessee were set to play in Nashville on March 12 with only essential staff members and media present.
It doesn’t seem possible that the most football-crazed conference in the country would consider that same option, but not everybody is ready to rule it out.
“Those are all things that will be on the table,” said Georgia AD Greg McGarity, now in his 10th year in that position after an 18-year stint in Florida’s athletic administration. “The SEC tournament was going to be played with a limited number of people in the arena. Could that model work in a college football environment? Perhaps. I think everything is on the table if we enter that space in the fall.”
Yikes, that’s a frightening thought. Then again, who foresaw these across-the-board postponements and all sports coming to a complete halt three weeks ago? Pandemic or not, Florida opening its season on Sept. 5 against Eastern Washington in an empty Ben Hill Griffin Stadium – never mind the Georgia-UF game at TIAA Bank Field on Oct. 31 – seems preposterous for now.
“I think that’s real unlikely,” Stricklin said about playing football without the usual environment of tailgating and large crowds. “My sense is social distancing measures are going to have to go back to normal before we play football.”
If that’s the case for the NFL, college and high schools, then what happens if August rolls around and COVID-19 hasn’t been properly controlled? Even if the number of recoveries outnumbers new cases, medical experts whose input is vital to removing social distancing measures might still err on the side of caution, prohibiting large crowd gatherings for two or three more months.
That possibility can no longer be classified as fearmongering. When experienced professionals regarding coronavirus can’t pinpoint a timeline for a return to normalcy, it’s fair to wonder if the one sport that’s been relatively unaffected so far will face similar consequences as the others.
Mandarin High football coach Bobby Ramsay, who led the Mustangs to the Class 8A state title in 2018, doesn’t want to be an alarmist. But he knows math and the current state of the coronavirus have him a bit on edge.
“Our locker rooms are already jammed up, just the numbers we carry and the proximity to each other,” said Ramsay. “We have over 100 guys in the fieldhouse. You’re always concerned with staff infections, and this [coronavirus] is much worse. We’ll see what happens.”
COVID-19 money impact
The U.S. numbers are sobering, and it goes beyond becoming the world leader in coronavirus cases (300,000-plus), with over 8,000 deaths and 10 million Americans filing for unemployment in the last two weeks of March.
But when you consider how much football also drives the economic engine at all levels, the thought of losing part or all of one season would have devastating consequences. The impact varies from the NFL, to colleges, to high schools, but the dependency on ticket sales, sponsorships and lucrative television contracts is vital to survival.
“Football is obviously the financial driver of what we do,” Stricklin said. “It basically pays for the whole operation. It’s probably 80 percent of our [$140 million] budget.”
Season-ticket sales and the accompanying donations for UF fans to secure those seats runs $60 million alone. The cancellation of just one home game would mean about $10 million in lost revenue, so you can understand why most Power 5 ADs cringe at the thought of the coronavirus impacting any part of the schedule.
The consensus is Group of Five schools like UCF and South Florida will be harder hit financially without football, given that larger numbers of athletic donors at Power 5 universities might be able to soften the blow.
At Georgia, for instance, McGarity has the comfort of having little debt service on facility construction because the Magill Society has generated $145 million over five years to pay for an indoor athletic facility and west end-zone expansion of Sanford Stadium. It also has most of the money pledged for the Butts-Mehre building, an $80 million project.
If there’s any kind of football shortfall, Georgia also has $66.3 million in reserve funds that it can tap into if necessary. Few schools have that kind of backup insurance in the event of a shortened or canceled football season.
“We’ve been criticized for not spending our reserve as much as some people would like,” said McGarity. “For years, athletics at Georgia has practiced financial stability. We’re in a position where we can absorb things other schools might not be able to.”
Power 5 schools have already taken about a $2 million hit from a drastic reduction in revenue from the loss of March Madness, though the NCAA is funneling those schools about one-third of the normal cut.
But losing football – either having a shortened season or no games at all – would be an unmitigated disaster across the college landscape. Without ticket revenue and TV money coming in, many schools might be forced to shut down other sports. The ripple effects would be cataclysmic.
Here’s how Iowa State AD Jamie Pollard described that potential scenario to The Athletic: “If we can’t play football this fall, I mean it’s Ice Age time. Because there is nobody in our industry right now that could reasonably forecast a contingency plan for how they would get through not playing any football games.”
Unlike the NFL, which generates $5 billion annually in TV revenue and has a commissioner (Roger Goodell) who works for all 32 owners, it’s more complicated to get college football on the same page. In the event the COVID-19 pandemic is still unsettled as the season approaches, it must get five major conferences with different commissioners to agree on how it would handle a major schedule interruption.
“The NFL and college football have to be consistent,” McGarity said. “It’d be awkward to have one do one thing [when they play games] and the other something else.”
As for high schools in Florida, there’s no telling how far the FHSAA – whose budget is almost totally dependent on money from playoff football – would be willing to delay its season to ensure not losing any of that revenue.
Getting back to normal
When asked to pick the latest date he thought college football could start preparing to get the 2020 season started on time, McGarity picked July 1. Stricklin added: “Maybe July 15, you might be able to make it work.”
No doubt, if the coronavirus cases keep ascending as the calendar pushes closer to summer, the anxiety about playing a full football season will grow. Already, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit has said he would be “shocked” if the NFL or colleges played football, citing being 12 to 18 months away from a COVID-19 vaccine as his reasoning.
At the opposite spectrum, you have Clemson coach Dabo Swinney telling cbssports.com that he has “zero doubt” the season will start on time. Herbstreit was far more pessimistic.
“I don’t know how you let these guys go into locker rooms and let stadiums be filled up and how you can play ball,” Herbstreit said on ESPN radio. “I just don’t know how you can do it with the optics of it.”
That doom-and-gloom forecast isn’t close to reality yet, but in these crazy times, it can no longer be dismissed as a far-fetched prediction either.
“I’m a positive person, and we’ve got many weeks until we have to make that decision [on an interrupted football season],” said McGarity. “We don’t make the timeline, the virus does.”
Life without football has never happened since the NFL came into existence in 1920. The last time it occurred at Florida was during World War II when the Gators didn’t field a team in 1943. Georgia hasn’t gone without football since 1917-18, the last two years of World War I.
“Football is pretty important to the culture in this part of the country,” said Stricklin. “It’s kind of a glue in American culture, whether you’re talking about NFL, college or high schools.
“I hope we have a day this fall where we can all get together and there’s no social distancing. When we do play football again, it’s just going to be utterly glorious.”
Let’s hope that happens. Right now, it’s alarming enough just thinking about no football even being a possibility.
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