WE’RE BY nature an optimistic people, and we’re all looking forward to the day when our lives return to some sort of normalcy (although we may vehemently disagree on the timetable). For most of us—Dr. Anthony Fauci included—that includes sports.
And most of our favorite pastimes will return, even if it’s not as soon as we’d hope.
Let’s be clear: Sports are a minor concern when compared with human life and death. Giving up games cold turkey for a few months is an inconvenience for most of us. Professional leagues (and their athletes) and colleges are taking a sizable financial hit, but one they can survive better than the parking attendants and concessionaires whose livelihoods depend on the games.
And barring a second wave of the coronavirus, there will be baseball played somewhere before Halloween. The NBA and NHL will resume their interrupted seasons, probably going directly to playoff games with no spectators in attendance and weekly testing of quarantined players. Golf, tennis, NASCAR, the Tour de France—all will find ways to resume and salvage some much-needed TV revenue from a nation that needs a sports fix.
Football, as we’ve discussed before, is the tricky one.
The NFL and college presidents have more time to plan for a 2020 season that may be abbreviated or, in the prediction of some, may not even start until next spring. Those games will resume. But like the public at large, not every sport will survive the coronavirus intact.
Last month, Old Dominion University announced it will discontinue its perennially successful wrestling program. Cincinnati recently discontinued its men’s soccer team.
More cuts will come. Most, but not all, will be to men’s programs, owing to NCAA Title IX requirements mandating equal opportunities for men’s and women’s sports.
The main culprit? The reality of lost revenue from college football, which at most schools helps pay for almost every other program that they offer.
A recent USA Today report predicted a combined $4 billion revenue shortfall if college football can’t conduct a 2020 season. That’s an average of $78 million per school. And while much of that money goes to skyrocketing salaries for football coaches and stadium and facilities upgrades, a larger chunk helps fund cross country, volleyball and lacrosse programs, among others.
Those are the most vulnerable athletic subjects of the pandemic, sports that generate very little revenue on their own and may be the first to go when athletic directors have to make tough decisions.
To their credit, some schools are trying to avoid making cuts—or are at least kicking the can down the road.
Coaches and administrators at schools like Louisville, Oregon State, Washington State, Missouri, Iowa State and Wake Forest recently announced voluntary temporary pay cuts. It’s an admirable start. Virginia basketball coach Tony Bennett looks even more magnanimous now than he did last fall, when he declined a pay raise and asked that the money go to the Cavaliers’ overall athletic program.
But these reductions won’t solve the problem if the pandemic means no college sports until 2021. That very real possibility could mean dramatic changes. The so-called “Olympic”—formerly labeled “non-revenue”—could suffer a big hit.
One college commissioner I spoke to recently even predicted that the fallout could spur the “Power Five” conferences (the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-12) to break off from the NCAA and form their own consortium, hogging even more of the TV money and leaving other schools to pick up the scraps. That could be even more dire for programs that don’t get much TV exposure.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. There’s a lot to criticize about the NCAA, but college sports are better when UMBC upsets Virginia in the NCAA basketball tournament or Appalachian State stuns Michigan in football. It also needs gymnasts and swimmers and softball players.
Most of all, it needs a future. And like everything else at the moment, it’s uncertain.