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Mac Engel: Will there be college football amid COVID? Former Power 5 AD paints bleak picture

UPDATED: Wed., July 29, 2020

Fans fill Ohio Stadium as Ohio State takes on Akron in the second half of a 2011 NCAA college football game in Columbus, Ohio.   (Amy Sancetta)
Fans fill Ohio Stadium as Ohio State takes on Akron in the second half of a 2011 NCAA college football game in Columbus, Ohio.  (Amy Sancetta)
By Mac Engel Tribune News Service

The former athletic director of three Power 5 conference schools said football provides at least 71% of an athletic department’s annual budget.

“You get about 18% from men’s basketball,” said Eric Hyman, who is now retired but in his career served as the AD at Miami of Ohio, TCU, South Carolina and, most recently, Texas A&M from 2012-16.

And there is your reason why the SEC, Big 12 and other conferences will wait until the last possible fraction of a second to cancel or delay the 2020 college football season.

“There is vulnerability both ways on this. It’s why everyone is going to do everything they can to make it work,” Hyman said. “Will this come to fruition and they will have a season? I do think there is a greater chance you won’t have a football season than you do. That doesn’t mean you won’t.

“I ask a lot of people, ‘Do you want your son to play college football?’ No one says yes. I ask, ‘Would you go to the game?’ Right now, there is a lot of reservation. That’s just me talking to people. The ADs want to play, and I do not blame them. You are talking about a lot of money.”

We have arrived at the point on the calendar when conference commissioners, athletic directors and university presidents must decide if they want to press on through the coronavirus concerns in an effort to have a full college football season.

Fall practices typically start about now.

This decision will ultimately be decided not by athletic directors or men such as Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby. This will come from the university presidents.

There are only bad answers. There are not even “best bad” solutions.

The Ivy League and SWAC have canceled their fall seasons, and the Pac-12 and Big Ten have adopted conference-only formats. The ACC announced Wednesday that teams can play one in-state nonconference game, while the SEC and Big 12 still plan to play a full slate of games, while acknowledging the need for flexibility.

On Tuesday, Ohio State announced its stadium will be at 20% of capacity if games are played. The seating capacity at Ohio Stadium is 104,944.

All of the schools and their athletic departments have spent hundreds of hours drawing up contingency plans, and now the time is here to follow one, while knowing it could be junked immediately.

“What is the safety and welfare of your athletes? If they come up with a vaccine in two weeks, it’s a different conversation,” Hyman said. “But that’s not going to happen.”

The picture Hyman drew for his former colleagues is dire with the nonrevenue sports likely taking the majority of the cuts when the money stops.

“Everybody has X dollars to work with. When those dollars are gone, what are you going to do? When you are talking about 71% of your budget, that is worst-case scenario,” Hyman said. “The real impact here is going to be on higher education. The state school’s coffers are down. Look at the University of Texas and how many they are down.”

The University of Texas system projects to lose as much as $400 million as result of the alterations forced by COVID-19.

It is also expecting a revenue hit from its oil rights, potentially as much as $500 million.

In situations when the athletic department faces a budget shortfall, it normally receives a loan from the university to cover costs. A season without a dime of football revenue would not be covered by a normal loan.

Then there are the FCS schools, which need the six- or seven-figure paydays from “guarantee” games against FBS schools to cover an array of costs.

“They don’t require as much money to run their budgets, but I am sure a lot of that is subsidized by student fees,” Hyman said. “They don’t bring in a lot of revenue, but now that revenue is going to be depleted. Where is that money going to come from?”

Hyman provided the answer to his own question.

“You attack personnel,” he said. “You see these coaches taking furloughs, but it’s more like deferments. Stanford is a precursor of what’s to come.”

In early July, Stanford announced that 11 nonrevenue sports would be dropped, including men’s volleyball.

Few athletic departments in major college athletics are as liberal as Stanford. Everyone gets a team. Stanford was the first major department to announce major cuts to its sports.

Akron dropped men’s cross country, women’s tennis and golf; UConn announced plans to drop men’s cross country, women’s rowing, men’s swimming and diving, and men’s tennis; Boise State will drop baseball, and swimming and diving.

The list of schools dropping sports is extensive, and the fear is that it will only grow unless, somehow, football can be played.

There are no good answers.

There are not even “best bad” solutions.

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