It's No Secret: Colleges Need the Money Football Provides

Jake Curtis

The Power 5 football conferences are acting like a Midwestern farmer who fails to seek shelter when he learns of on oncoming tornado, and instead runs directly into the path of the whirl of destruction.

There seems to be no logical reason for college football officials to forge ahead with plans for a fall college football season as the COVID-19 pandemic rages, with cases rising rather than diminishing.

As noted in a Sports Illustrated story by Pat Forde, the major conferences are pushing ahead:

So we press on. The Atlantic Coast Conference intends to start preseason camp next week and begin games the second week of September. The Southeastern Conference intends to start camp next week and begin games Sept. 26th. The Pacific-12 announced Friday that it intends to start camp Aug. 17 and begin games Sept. 26, and even released a full schedule of opponents and dates. Some Big 12 teams started camp Friday and intend to begin games Aug. 29th. The only Power-5 conference that has not yet started the countdown to launch is the Big Ten, which sent a memo to league schools Thursday saying that it hopes to make a call on whether to start preseason camp within the next five days.

The reason for the push to play is simple, as noted in the SI story:

So here’s the thing: if the commitment to play is there, the oligarchs of college football need to articulate the motive. And one of the prime motives is this: they really need the money.

Every announcement about a conference’s plans to play football games in the fall includes the caveat that the players’ and coaches’ health is the primary concern, and appropriate modifications will be made to the schedules when needed.

But they still set up a plan, a way to be prepared if there is a chance – any chance at all – to play some football games in the fall.

Forde makes the argument that officials should make it clear to the public that money is the reason they are planning a fall football schedule.

I think it already has been made clear.

Stanford, which is perceived to have an endless supply of money, announced in early July that it will cut 11 sports.

And it is difficult to see how Cal will be able to maintain all 30 of its sports without the financial support provided by football. Cal athletic director Jim Knowlton said last month that cutting sports would be “a last resort,” but that is always what officials say.

No college athletic director wants to be at the helm when sports are eliminated, especially if several are terminated. That becomes that AD’s identity – “He was the AD who eliminated soccer” or volleyball or golf or whatever. He would much rather be known as the “AD who saved a football season” or the “AD who refused to eliminate sports.”

It will be more difficult at Cal because it has so many sports. Washington State, for example, has just 16 varsity sports, including only six men’s sports. Oregon, which has become a national power in the three main sports – football and men’s and women’s basketball – carries just 18 sports, 12 fewer than Cal.

Cal would like to be all things to all people, a noble endeavor.

Knowlton said Cal balanced its athletic budget for last year. But can it do that without football?

With the restrictive measures taken by the City of Berkeley, Alameda County and the state of California, it seems unlikely fans will be allowed at Cal home football games even if the contests are played.

But playing the games and getting the television revenue and other financial benefits of college football are too precious to discard without making every conceivable effort to play the games. So conferences plan for that fleeting possibility.

Conference and college officials realize they can't afford to do anything that will lead to a health crisis, but they are holding out hope in the face of pessimistic news that the pandemic clouds will suddenly part.

Getting back to our Midwestern farmer, he may be running headlong into the path of a tornado to try to save his crops, the only thing standing between him and financial ruin.

Cover photo of Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott by Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports

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