Weeks of cautious optimism evaporated over 72 hours this week as college sports suffered its worst stretch since mid-March.
Back then, when the coronavirus pandemic was merely an emerging outbreak, the cascading cancellations began with Ivy League basketball and ended with three months’ worth of wiped-out championships.
This week’s sobering three-day flashback didn’t reach tsunami status. Instead, it has been a relentless rush of smaller waves that shows how little things have changed in four months.
On Wednesday, the Ivy League canceled all fall sports, Ohio State and North Carolina paused voluntary workouts because of outbreaks, and one of the country’s top athletic departments, Stanford, cut 11 sports that combined for 20 national championships and 27 Olympic medals.
Thursday was no better. The ACC postponed the start of its fall season to at least Sept. 1 (then a day later said a decision on all fall sports will come in late July), the Big Ten canceled all non-conference games and the National Junior College Athletic Association moved to push most of its events to the spring.
And on Friday, the Pac-12 axed its non-conference schedule while Florida State announced major financial cuts, including a 20 percent hit to the operating budget, 25 eliminated positions, pay cuts for everyone making at least $43,000 and furloughs probably coming, too.
So where does all of that leave us, eight weeks before the first major college football Saturday is scheduled to kick off?
We’ve known for months that the sport’s beloved pageantry would look different, but there was lingering hope that the schedule itself could still look normal. Not anymore. The Big Ten destroyed that possibility.
The new best-case scenario is that the SEC, ACC, AAC and focus on league-only schedules, too, while finding a way to preserve a few key cross-conference rivalries (like Florida-Florida State). Collectively, they shorten the season, add flexibility for the near-certain cancellations and push back the start date by a few weeks.
The last part is crucial. If the season is going to happen this fall, the coronavirus curve has to flatten so decision-makers feel comfortable fielding a team and players feel comfortable lining up. Delaying kickoffs gives us more time to reverse the recent spikes and for scientists to improve testing and treatments.
The cuts at Stanford and FSU are an unfortunate reminder that there are enormous costs to not playing, too. In the spring, Minnesota estimated it would lose $30 million in athletics with a shortened season. If the Gophers can’t play until 2021? The potential loss is closer to $75 million.
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“While we have been able to withstand most of the economic impact from the lost revenue this spring,” Seminoles athletic director David Coburn wrote to employees, “the anticipated drop in revenue this fall will be damaging.”
If you want to keep squinting for optimism about Florida-Georgia, FSU-Miami and USF-UCF, you have to stare into the doomsday scenarios. A year without football would be devastating for athletic departments. That means schools will do whatever it takes to play whenever they can, as long as they think it can be done with an acceptable amount of risk.
And here’s where that leaves us, four months after college sports shut down and two months away from their scheduled but unlikely return:
The possibility of a normal-looking season is gone. The most probable scenario is that teams trim their schedules to reduce risk and increase the odds of playing the games that matter most. Openers are delayed from Labor Day Weekend to late September/early October to buy as much time as possible for the coronavirus cases to slow. If things aren’t better then, the season is pushed to the spring, despite the new problems that presents.
Which puts us back where we were last March, with no good answers to multi-billion-dollar questions and the fate of college sports hanging in the balance.