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COVID-19 Already Impacted the College Football Season

The question is how more severe the impact will get.

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COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 28 Syracuse at Clemson Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We have no way of knowing if college football will be played this fall. Not you, not me, not Dabo Swinney. We can admit our coach did not exactly cover himself in glory this week. However they sanitized the plane, it looks bad to take a vacation while most of the country is ordered to stay at home or downright suffering one way or another. A lot of the people mad at Dabo carry grudges for reasons totally unrelated to this week; most of the mob may be rival fans eager to take any swipe at him, but plenty others have reasons more related to his past foot in mouth comments than sporting allegiance. Both can be true at once, let’s move on or at least keep the fighting to twitter.

Talking about whether or not the season gets cancelled entirely also misses an important point. The fact of the matter is the COVID-19 outbreak and recession will impact higher education and that in turn will impact college athletics. This recent email university president Jim Clements sent the alumni association emphasizes:

“Throughout my 30 years in higher education, I’ve never seen anything close to the disruption this pandemic has caused. And, to be honest, we’re likely to be feeling the effects for a while.”

Moody’s sees bad times ahead for higher education, and has downgraded its outlook from stable to negative. They predict colleges will face “unprecedented enrollment difficulties” during the next few years, as well as immediate (and potential future) losses in revenue sources such as room and board.

Clemson has already refunded students fifteen million dollars. In addition, it appears likely that fundraising for the university, as well as the athletic department, will be more difficult during the economic downturn.

Although Clemson is well equipped to weather missing an NCAA tournament check, smaller schools may face major difficulties. Division One Old Dominion (one of the better funded in Conference-USA) is already cutting olympic sports. Athletic directors and coaches at multiple schools, some of them power five, have announced voluntary pay cuts. Conferences are going to have to find ways to save money.

Even if everything is relatively back to normal by football season, the new normal is everyone will have less to spend. Some administrators are currently looking for the NCAA to reduce its requirement that schools sponsor sixteen sponsorship teams to play FBS football. College football, already facing attendance issues, isn’t going to have an easier time selling tickets unless the unemployment numbers improve rapidly.

Athletes at all levels are scrambling to keep up with new strength and conditioning programs, and will need time to get back to their best physical condition. Schools didn’t have the same amount of spring practices, something any coach shorted would be furious about if not fixed. (Yes, we’re talking practice, not a game, practice).

Despite Dabo’s optimism, there’s a different picture painted around the county. Athletic departments have worried COVID-19 could wind up impacting the 2020 football season for weeks.

Will Muschamp is of the opinion it would take about at least two months to get his team ready to play. If the more optimistic projections play out and the curve is flattened by June it might be entirely doable to play every game. We have to hope that’s what happens. There are a lot of incentives for everyone involved to figure out a solution.

Let’s say that the curve is flattened closer to August, and the majority of the non conference schedule is cancelled. There would be massive impacts on lower level FBS and FCS programs that rely upon those paychecks, but Clemson would probably be fine in the grand scheme.

I think that there’s a significant chance any games that happen are played before empty crowds, if they happen at all. The NBA appears to be pessimistic they will be able to resume their 2019-2020 season. The Chinese government shut down their professional basketball league over concerns about asymptomatic carriers. Those are basketball games, usually with less than 20,000 fans in the stands and 15 players max per roster.

MLB is developing a plan to let them operate during the pandemic. It is reported to involve every team playing in Arizona before an empty stadium, players sequestered in hotels without their families indefinitely, and minor leaguers ready to be called up if/when MLB players get sick. You can see a hundred ways this plan breaks down if you try to apply to college football. You can also see how seriously other leagues are taking this.

Football games are magnitudes larger than a basketball or baseball game. To be frank the research around this Champions League game (involving only 40,000 fans) scares the hell out of me. We all want football back and things to go back to normal, but this is deathly serious.

On an episode of Zach Lowe’s podcast he and Bill Simmons, about as mainstream as NBA discourse can get, were entirely in agreement the NBA wasn’t going to be able to resume business as usual until a vaccine is developed. This quote from NFL chief medical officer Dr. Andrew Sills doesn’t seem like cause for optimism either.

There are brilliant people around the globe working on developing a vaccine. There are no drugs proven to be remotely effective, and it could take months if not years to distribute an eventual vaccine or drug.

We are forced by circumstance to consider the unthinkable. If the pessimists are right all hell breaks loose; college football keeps the lights on for other sports, if not entire athletic departments.

It’s impossible to predict how devastating a lost season’s gate revenues would be, much less a lost season of TV money. Even World War II did not end college football; this might all be figured out by September. We have to hope that’s what happens, not just for college athletics but for the hundreds of businesses in college towns that rely on those games to stay open. Wash your hands and keep your hopes up, but be aware if this breaks badly we may not recognize college sports once it’s over.

Stay the hell at home.

Opinions in this article belong to dbbm and may not reflect the entire STS staff.