There's No Rush to Determine the Fate of the College Football Season

Any decisions about moving the 2020 college football season should be a last resort, and we're not close to that point yet.
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If you want a vivid illustration of the Nobody Knows Anything world in which we all currently reside, just look at the vacillating outlook surrounding the 2020 college football season.

Last week there was a surge in opinions that an on-time, on-schedule season is virtually impossible and should be put off until 2021. But this week there was a surge of schools saying they are planning for on-campus classes in the fall semester—including more than a dozen FBS schools. That would seem to heighten the chances of football as semi-usual.

So this seems like a good time to look at the calendar.

Then look at it again.

Now take a deep breath and relax.

The calendar still says April, right? Not May, not June, not July. April is not the time to make decisions or declarations about moving the 2020 college football season to the 2021 side of the academic schedule.

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We may, eventually, get to that point. But it won’t be anytime soon, nor should it, despite some people trying to rush the sport in that direction. It’s basically a re-scheduling of last resort, so it should be made only when all other options are extinguished. Nothing is extinguished yet.

We are prisoners of the most uncertain moment in our lifetime—amid rapidly-changing circumstances, with rapidly-changing data—and that’s not the moment for long-range planning.

Inhabiting an athletic void heightens the inclination to speed ahead to when the next action will occur—or not occur—but that doesn’t make sense right now. Waiting for more information is not foot dragging or denial. It’s responsible. Even if that doesn’t make for dramatic column fodder.

“We will continue to depend on the health experts and their advice, but we are planning to play our fall sport seasons,” Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne tweeted last week. “It’s only April, and things have been changing week-by-week, so we still have time to better understand where we will be by September.”

Byrne has plenty of company in that line of thinking. A conference commissioner told me on April 22 that he believes the college football decision makers have “60 to 75 days” before making a declaration on a fall season.

That’s basically a July 1 deadline, and that would fall in line with two things:

  • A minimal training camp to prepare players for a season would be four weeks, which would mean having players on campus by Aug. 1. A go/no-go decision one month ahead of that date would seem realistic.
  • At least one power conference is being guided by feedback from a bioethicist who believes that any organization tasked with major coronavirus-related decisions shouldn’t be trying to plan more than four weeks out.

Contingency planning? Sure. Go for it. But good luck finding a contingency that works well, including a 2021 season. A quick look at the problems various season models are facing:

An on-time season that begins with a limited slate Aug. 29 and a full schedule Labor Day weekend would be one of the most joyous sports happenings imaginable. It’s also difficult to envision—especially if the season is going to include all the trappings of college football as normal.

In this area, one of the appeals of college sports is also one of its biggest drawbacks. The constituency is so vast and diverse that there isn’t much in the way of common experience or outlook. In the Northeast and on the West Coast, the idea of playing college football by September likely seems ridiculous to many people, from politicians to university presidents to common fans. In the South and elsewhere, the idea of not playing is appalling.

This is the sport’s fundamental weakness: not enough strong central leadership. It is run by an oligarchy of power conferences, which often have competing interests.

Where we stand with COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and serology will probably be the data that guides many universities in terms of re-opening campuses. America seemingly will need to make a lot of progress in those areas by July 1. While there is disagreement about whether sports teams should be able to gather and train on otherwise closed campuses, full-scale football practice would be one of the most problematic group activities to renew.

Schools will want full stadiums to maximize revenues, but full stadiums seem like the last thing public health experts will recommend. Fans themselves might be leery of a return to full-capacity seating, after months of social distancing and a fresh education on how transmissible this virus can be. Even if the stadiums are open come September, will they come?

And, of course, states that are forging ahead right now with reopening for business could destroy any hopes of an on-time season if the virus spikes again within their borders in the coming weeks. Add that developing situation to the equation.

So, what about starting on time in empty or partially full stadiums? The media-rights money would continue to flow, a must-have revenue stream for every athletic department, and ratings would be huge. But losses in ticket revenue are a real concern for athletic directors, many of whom need that on top of the big conference media-rights checks. And the games themselves would lose a lot of their visceral appeal without the sights and sounds of a frothing crowd.

Pushing the season back to mid-fall, maybe an October start? It could happen, but that would either lead to playing on-campus games into the dead of winter or a truncated season. A truncated season also cuts into home-game revenue and reduces the TV inventory. While it’s feasible to decide conference champions and playoff teams, doing so based on, say, a nine-game season only increases the chances of crowning the wrong teams. But that may just have to be an acceptable margin of error.

Then there is the potential for a predicted resurgence of the coronavirus next winter, coupled with the usual flu season. That combination could terminate a season that starts in October shortly after it gets going.

Which leads to a possible 2021 season. That’s not a great solution, either.

A mid-winter coronavirus resurgence tops the list of concerns with kicking off college football in January. Not far behind is the weather.

In much of the nation, playing games outdoors in the coldest months of the season is a tough sell to the athletes and fans alike. It wouldn’t be millionaire pros playing a playoff game or two. It would be college kids in Madison and Minneapolis and Ann Arbor and State College and Boston and Boise playing multiple regular-season games that could be brutally uncomfortable.

“We have to think of the sport as a whole,” said one industry leader who is based in a warm-weather state. “It’s not fair to the schools in cold-weather areas to ask them to play in January.”

We could try putting college football on a basic spring-sports calendar—games begin in late February and extend into a championship season in June. The complications there come in the form of the 2021 NFL draft, and whether prospects like Trevor Lawrence want to play a college football season at a time when they would be preparing to be drafted, then turn around and begin an NFL rookie season almost immediately. You want an invitation for top players to skip the season and prepare for their pro future? That would be it.

Then there is another element that would need to be addressed: college basketball. The previously mentioned conference commissioner I spoke with was concerned about trampling that sport—and its own billion-dollar payday—in the process of saving the football season.

The TV inventory glut created by simultaneous football and basketball seasons would be massive, leading to myriad scheduling issues for networks and conferences and individual schools. (One theory that has been floated: college basketball games Monday-Friday, college football games on Saturday and Sunday. It would be a tricky calculus.)

The last alternative is perhaps the most radical: a bifurcated season in which conferences and even individual schools go their own way. Some play in the fall, some play in the spring. Each season could play its own bowl games, have its own playoff or crown its own champion.

It could lead to the ultimate throwback resolution: a poll of voters weighing the results of the fall and spring seasons and deciding who is No. 1. It would be a very 1936 way of doing things.

But that idea, like all the others, is just something to consider right now. Nothing needs to be resolved, including any seismic decisions to call off the fall college football season.

It’s April. Relax.