How the Outback Bowl is handling the coronavirus pandemic, college football uncertainty

Longtime president Jim McVay said the game will be flexible with its date (and everything else).
Outback Bowl president Jim McVay is navigating the uncertainty around college football and its bowl season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Outback Bowl president Jim McVay is navigating the uncertainty around college football and its bowl season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Published May 22, 2020

During a normal May, the Outback Bowl would be focused on sales. Longtime president Jim McVay would spend his days schmoozing with business leaders. He’d visit with representatives from the bowl’s 50-plus sponsors and try to court new ones. He’d pitch corporate tickets and suites to past and prospective buyers, trying to lock them in for the traditional Jan. 1 game at Raymond James Stadium.

Not now. Not as the COVID-19 pandemic has college football’s future on hold and companies dealing with the biggest economic crisis in decades.

“We have put that on the back burner…” McVay said. “I think there’s going to be a more appropriate time with that.”

That time, McVay said, will probably be in late June or early July — when college football’s decision makers are expected to announce their plans for the 2020 season. By then, scientists, doctors, economists, athletic administrators and corporate executives should know more about the novel coronavirus.

Related: A 2020 college football season is a step closer to reality after NCAA vote

And McVay should know more about the 35th anniversary of his game, starting with this: Will it happen?

“We absolutely expect we will be part of the college football season,” McVay said. “No one’s told us otherwise, certainly.”

But there are potential obstacles looming. The University of South Carolina recently changed its academic schedule to end on-campus classes at Thanksgiving in case there’s COVID-19 spike in early December. If that happens, would the Gamecocks or any other team want to travel to Tampa for an exhibition game?

South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp celebrates after the Jan. 1, 2018 Outback Bowl.
South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp celebrates after the Jan. 1, 2018 Outback Bowl.

Even if the bowl does take place — and McVay expects it to — when it kicks off is another question, especially if the season starts late or is delayed along the way because of outbreaks.

“If somebody comes to us (and says) we’re backing the bowl season up, we’ll say, ‘When do you want us to play?’” McVay said. “All they need to do is tell us when they want us to play, and I can assure you we will be flexible.”

McVay said his game has the financial flexibility to withstand whatever happens, which isn’t a guarantee in the industry. One bowl executive told The Athletic last month that only a few bowls could survive without a season.

The Outback Bowl has about $8.2 million in net assets, according to its 2018-19 tax returns.

Related: ‘Everything is still in place’ for FSU-West Virginia opener in Atlanta

“We can handle anything that happens this year…” McVay said. “We are not at risk.”

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But McVay said his bowl could still face some challenges, including how it will support the first part of its mission statement: “to create an economic impact in the Tampa Bay area.” Historically, that impact comes from out-of-town fans who visit for the game and enjoy the area’s other amenities while they’re here.

It’s too early to know whether fans would be allowed. And even if they can enter Raymond James Stadium, McVay isn’t sure how many will feel comfortable doing so. Will the pent-up demand for sports and travel outweigh people’s health concerns?

“Will there be some challenges in terms of fans coming to the market?” McVay said. “We just don’t know where everybody will be scientifically, emotionally.”

Or financially, which is why the bowl’s sales efforts are paused. For now, McVay and his staff are staying in touch with businesses and ticket buyers rather than sending out invoices.

McVay is hopeful those come eventually. But first, college football’s bigwigs have to sort through the season itself and where bowl games belong in the sport’s most unusual year since World War II.

“We’ll be ready to roll,” McVay said. “Just tell us when.”

Related: Six historical lessons college football can apply to the coronavirus pandemic

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