Sports leagues are busy brainstorming plans for competition to resume once stay-at-home directives are loosened. Games in empty venues without fans might represent the first step for some.
But that model doesn’t work for college football.
It won’t come close to solving the financial crisis in college sports.
One idea that has gained steam in national media reports calls for football season to be delayed until January or February. This pandemic has proved that our idea of normal is gone, so the sports world will need to be creative to get back on its feet and moving again. For college football, spring ball is better than no ball. But that hypothetical raises many questions.
Case in point: How would the Gophers play home games in January and February? Bring extra hand warmers and your shovel to help clear out from the blizzard in minus-10 degrees windchill.
If this plan materializes, perhaps one possibility would be to move Gophers games to U.S. Bank Stadium — a reverse of the 2010 season in which the Vikings had to borrow the Gophers home stadium in a pinch. Those who risked frostbite attending the Vikings playoff game against Seattle played in below-zero temperature at TCF Bank Stadium in January 2016 likely would vote for other alternatives than dead-of-winter outdoor football. Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren could use his Vikings ties to facilitate an agreement.
Other schools in northern climates would face similar logistical hurdles during the harshest months. There are other concerns. A spring season would severely shorten recovery time for players before the 2021 season, assuming a normal start time in the fall. Player safety would be compromised, even if the season is shortened to, say, eight to 10 games.
Further, when would the NFL hold its draft, and would players considered to be early-round picks skip a spring season because of the risks? And would football season coincide with college basketball and March Madness?
“It’s just hard to tell what it’s going to look like,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “There’s a lot of things to talk about.”
Consensus will be difficult to achieve. There are 130 FBS schools spread out geographically in 10 conferences (plus independents) operating under varying budget constraints and potentially different orders from elected officials on when it is safe to return.
Last week, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz cast doubt on the State Fair, saying, “I think it will be difficult to see a State Fair operating.”
The Gophers are scheduled to open their season in that same window. Will they and other teams be in position to host games in packed stadiums by then?
What remains unanimous is the fiscal importance of football on college sports. Athletic departments have already begun eliminating sports in response to lost revenue caused by the pandemic. Without football, athletic departments would face draconian measures. The University of Minnesota Board of Regents estimates a $30 million revenue loss if sports return in the fall without fans in attendance.
That scenario — sports without fans — doesn’t sound like a practical option for college sports. Professional sports, yes, possibly, but not college sports, which clings to its amateurism ideals.
If universities determine that it is unsafe for fans to attend games, how could they justify putting student-athletes at risk by allowing them to carry on business as usual in terms of blocking, tackling and sharing a locker room?
And what happens if certain schools choose to extend distance learning into fall semester while others bring students back?
Or if certain states remain under stay-at-home guidelines? No university would ask football players to return to campus just to play football.
Everything remains hypothetical amid all the uncertainty. Football season is still several months away, but schools eventually will reach a deadline to make a decision because players and teams need time to prepare for the season.
Finding a plan that fits into one box for all 130 schools will be a real challenge. But college leaders will try just about anything to avoid losing an entire football season and the revenue that comes with it.