You know my saying: The business of sports always wins. This week, however, my adage was proven wrong, as the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences pulled the plug on fall college football, setting fire to a collective billions of dollars worth of sorely needed revenue. For these two power players in the business of college football, health and safety, surprisingly, won out over the business of sports.
For now, the other Power 5 conferences—SEC, ACC and Big 12—are forging ahead with football. Perhaps their conference leaders received different medical and scientific opinions; perhaps they received different legal opinions (there are always lawyers). Either way, those conference leaders, for now, are more comfortable and confident managing the medical and legal risk of playing through a pandemic. And while reports indicated Big Ten presidents were clearly affected by evidence of myocarditis in athletes, those concerns and risks have not impacted the other conferences in the same way. For now. As evidenced by recent announcements of conference-only schedules by the Big Ten and Pac-12, everything is fluid.
Vast Economic Impact
The economic impact of those decisions is sobering, and Big Ten coaches were not shy about hammering home that point. Scott Frost of Nebraska (who played for us in Green Bay) and James Franklin at Penn State (who coached for us in Green Bay) spoke of losses in the neighborhood of $100 million. And those numbers are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the economic havoc wreaked by the absence of college football.
I lived in Green Bay, Wisc. for a decade, a city and region much more like one supporting a major college football team than a professional team. Indeed, in my recruiting of free agents, some of whom were reluctant to come, I played on the atmosphere of a college football town, with the community wrapping itself around the program.
It is hard to measure the economic impact a fall without football in Green Bay, not to mention the negative psychological impact it would bring. When I was there, we calculated over $10 million per game weekend, with that number said to be roughly $14 million now. And in researching similar regions in Big10 venues, the economic impact is strikingly similar:
Penn State (State College): $130 million per season
Michigan (Ann Arbor): $122 million per season
Wisconsin (Madison): $16 million per home game
Iowa (Iowa City): $14.5 million per home game
Nebraska (Lincoln): $12 million per home game
I vividly remember talking to an NCAA executive when they levied the penalties on Penn State football following the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal. While many were suggesting—and the NCAA was considering—a one-year “death penalty” for the program, the executive admitted to me that the “death penalty” was never a realistic option. We can’t do that, it will destroy that economy, he said, aware of the economic and psychological impact on the appropriately named Happy Valley.
College football is often the poster for the university at large; success on the field translates to success in development and admissions. I have seen it while working at Villanova: Our NCAA basketball championships in 2016 and ’18 led to upward trajectories in the number and quality of applicants as well as more donations and development activity. Now other conferences (we think) will fill our Saturday afternoon screens while Big Ten and Pac-12 brands will be “out of sight, out of mind” for the fall.
Players and parents are creating petitions to have the Big Ten reverse their decision, but that is a long shot. Big Ten coaches are promoting playing in the spring to keep some normalcy and prevent player defections. To that I say (1) hope is not a plan, and (2) good luck with that. All of us, myself included, remarked in March/April/May that we’d have surely have COVID contained by the fall when football returned. Well, it’s not contained; it’s worse, much worse. To suggest it will be contained in the spring is a hope, not a plan.
Beyond the physical toll of playing in the spring and then playing again in the fall, it is unrealistic to believe top players will stick around. Just as some top prospects have done at other schools prior to these decisions, some will get a head start preparing for the NFL combine and draft. They will head to training facilities such as IMG of Athlete’s Performance to be housed, fed and trained (and probably “bubbled”), all at an agent’s expense (agents usually fund training from January through June for the tune of roughly $25,000; now they will fund training for twice as long at twice the cost). In relative terms, we are not talking about many players, but we are talking about the best ones. There may well be college football for these conferences in the spring; it just won’t have top talent as part of it.
With those top prospects, unlike with the surprising conference decisions, the business of sports will win.
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Four Thoughts on NFL News of the Week
1. Although George Kittle and Travis Kelce earned contract extensions at the top of the tight end marketplace, the 49ers and Chiefs were able to maintain traditional team-friendly contract structures and avoid guarantees (except injury guarantees) past the early, low-risk years of the deals. Thus, here are the deals: Kittle: two years, $30 million and “we’ll see.” Kelce: three years, $30 million and “we’ll see.”
2. The Super Bowl champions were able to lock up Patrick Mahomes, Chris Jones and Kelce on team-friendly deals with players forfeiting early monies to be part of the program. Usually it is the Super Bowl winning players leveraging the team; here it was different. The Chiefs also exposed the Cap Myth as a team with little to no cap room signing its players while teams with large amounts of Cap room let them go. We don’t have the Cap room is the NFL team’s equivalent of She’s just not that into you.
3. The NFL’s cherished competitive balance will be severely tested this year as players of all skill levels will potentially miss games while on the “COVID list” and there will be different decisions on fans at stadiums. Several stadiums will have no fans, eliminating any home field advantages, while some teams will have fans, giving them some competitive edge. Competitive balance will be on hold in 2020.
4. The story of the Seahawks releasing a player after a woman tried to sneak in to see him is cute (for everyone but him), but know this: If that woman was going to see Russell Wilson or Bobby Wagner, there would be a different ending to the story. Lesser talent equals lesser tolerance.
And Finally, a Personal Reflection
Tomorrow I will drop my youngest son off at college—makes me sad to write this—to begin in-person instruction among thousands of students, some of whom will not take adequate precautions about spreading the virus. And next week I will begin in-person instruction to 50 students in my sports law class at Villanova Law School, along with regular in-person meetings with my Fellows, advisees, etc.
None of this behavior sounds like the person who has—in this space and other forums—questioned playing football, a sport that requires the opposite of social distancing, in this time of virulent COVID transmission. I get it, I am not consistent here, expressing caution for athletes to which I have no personal or professional attachment, yet letting my sons, the most important people in my world, head out into an uncertain world where the virus has recently surged (my older son just moved L.A.), while I opt for in-person teaching to boot.
On the professional side, my primary point has been that we need to be honest that health and safety is not the top priority many claim it to be; if it were we would not have (non-bubbled) contact sports in 2020. Rather, the top priority is economics and I, as much as anyone, get that. And I guess that brings me back to the personal side. Health and safety are paramount, but there are other concerns.
I want my younger son to experience life on campus as a college freshman, I want my older son to pursue his musical talents in the place most conducive to doing so, I want to provide my students the optimal educational experience, all despite the risks.
Am I conflicted? Certainly. Apprehensive? Absolutely. But I feel, rightly or wrongly, the personal risk to my sons and myself can be managed. And that is the same decision the NFL has made for its players and staff. As with all things, we will see.