The Big Ten and ACC announced yesterday that they will only be playing conference college football games this season. We’ve known for months now that college football was going to look different this fall, but what’s coming into focus is that the price of playing football is going to be higher than ever in 2020.
The Big Ten and ACC want you to think that they are doing this to limit travel and avoid exposing athletes to different populations unnecessarily. That sounds nice on the surface, but the reality is a little bit more complex.
All schools that play football need the revenue it produces. Football is what allows other sports to happen, and at many schools it’s the only sport that makes any money at all. Don’t believe me? Look at how the dollars broke down for LSU during the 2016-2017 fiscal cycle.
When you hear things from ADs like "football allows us to have other sports," this is what they mean.— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) March 31, 2020
Take #LSU. Here are profit/loss numbers from each LSU sport in the 2016-17 cycle, from my time as a beat writer.
- Football: $56M in profit
- Other sports: ~$23M in losses pic.twitter.com/3Giw1YrdZF
This breakdown is similar to programs across all of major college sports. In 2019 the UGA football program made just shy of $74 million dollars. With an almost $3 million profit, men’s basketball was the only other sport on campus that turned a profit. Georgia is lucky. It runs one of the most profitable athletic departments in college sports.
At LSU, where state funding for the university has been slashed due to poor economic conditions in Louisiana, the football program helps fund some of the school’s basic operational budget. From 2012-2018 the athletic department pumped $100 million back into the university. Former LSU athletic director Joe Alleva made a deal that gave the university a baseline amount every year as well as a portion of any surplus dollars that the athletic department made over three million dollars.
This isn’t unique. Blue blood programs need big shiny academic buildings that the football program can be proud of.
So what does that have to do with cancelling out of conference games? A lot when you look a little bit deeper into the situation. Athletic departments are almost certainly going to lose the ability to sell football tickets this season. For Georgia that means saying goodbye to $34 million that ticket sales produced in 2019. Last year Georgia Football also received $44 million in contributions from donors. While we don’t know what donations will look like in 2020, it’s more than fair to say that their are probably less people with money to donate in the age of Covid-19.
Donations to the athletic department are a conduit for a lot of schools to put money back into academics. They fund majors, new learning centers and beautiful cafeterias. Some schools will build a beautiful new dorm to house their football players in with athletic donations, but what’s often overlooked is the fact that those dorms are open to other students.
With all of the ticket money gone and an almost certain decrease in athletic donations happening, schools have to do everything they can to replace the other big piece of the revenue pie- media rights. The SEC’s 3:30 slot on CBS, prime time night games on ESPN and even those high noon snoozers between Arkansas and Samford on the SEC Network’s alternate channel all cost the networks a pretty penny. That revenue is the last salvageable thing right now.
Covid-19 is taking away the ticket sales and donations, but if schools can still find a way to put on games for television networks to broadcast then there’s a greater chance of keeping things afloat. If you were an athletic director or commissioner at a Power 5 school you would do anything you can to protect those dollars. So how do you ensure that happens?
First off, you try to eliminate any risk of exposure to your players. Let’s be very clear that this isn’t about geography. This is all about how to ensure that your players are only stepping onto the field with players who don’t have the virus. A school like Georgia or Clemson can afford to test their athletes whenever they want to. East Tennessee State or Akron might only have the budget to test their athletes once a week.
In the five days between a negative test and a game happening a player could spend time with a friend and unknowingly catch a virus. That player could then give it to another who gives it to another and on and on. By the time kickoff happens between half of the team could be positive for the virus. Power 5 schools know that spending four quarters on the field playing a team full of players who are positive for Covid-19 could mean the end of their season.
If games don’t get played they don’t get broadcasted. If they don’t get broadcasted then schools don’t get paid the large sums contained within their conference’s television contracts.
There’s a bonus here for the Power 5 schools. You know those cupcake games that schools are usually all too happy to pay teams like Monmouth and Mercer to come and lose in order to help them get bowl eligible? They cost money. In a year where the only postseason games that are likely to happen will be ones that help determine champions, getting extra wins for bowl eligibility just went out the window.
You might be asking yourself, “But weren’t those contracts signed years ago for guaranteed money?” The answer is yes, but the definition of “guaranteed” depends on how the contract was written. Contracts often contain a force majeure clause. That’s lawyer speak for a clause that is included in the language of a contract to remove liability for natural and unavoidable catastrophes that interrupt the expected course of events and prevent participants from fulfilling obligations. A good example would be a worldwide pandemic.
In some cases, Power 5 schools will pay out up to a few million dollars a year for these guaranteed wins. Due to all of the other dollars that won’t be made this fall, those millions have become much tougher for schools to part with over the last few months.
Keeping a little extra cash in house is as much a reason for the cancellation of conference games as any sort of magical geographic equation.
Michigan isn’t any more concerned about traveling to Seattle to play Washington this season than they are traveling 600 miles to New Jersey to face conference foe Rutgers. What they are concerned about during a time when funds are so tight that Jim Harbaugh and head basketball coach Juwan Howard are taking pay cuts is potentially saving the $1.8 million that Arkansas State was going to get for coming to Ann Arbor.
At some schools, one game a year against a Power 5 opponent is enough to fund their entire program. The fact that the big boys are willing to bring in schools from within their regions for an annual whooping an a nice check to keep the program running has been an oddly charming dynamic in years past. Now that times are hard, the big boys are telling everyone else that their problems are their own.
Schools are already cutting sports in order to keep budgets in the black, but if there’s not a college football season you can count on schools cutting majors and other programs from their curriculums.
It has been said that a school’s football program is the “front porch” of the university. The sentiment behind that is that people all over the country can be introduced to an institution by seeing its logo and colors on a Saturday afternoon game on ABC. In those three-and-a-half hours a teenager might become aware of the future alma mater for the first time. There’s real truth to that, and it would be a lie to pretend that football didn’t have a large part in my decision making when it came time to look at colleges.
My only problem with calling football the front porch is that a house isn’t held up by a porch. It might be more appropriate to say that football is part of the foundation at a lot of schools. We have mismanaged our institutions and now they are reliant upon football to survive. For that reason alone we will see football this season. It might look like nothing we’ve seen before, but we will play it because we simply must have it in order to keep the spinning plates from crashing to the ground.
As I’ve thought of the conundrum that the business of academia finds itself in, I have thought a lot about the players. We often talk about the economies that surround college football in terms of money spent at bars, restaurants and hotels. It’s not small amounts of money, and Forbes estimates that home games during football season are worth $250 million a year to the surrounding area at programs like Alabama and Georgia. That’s a lot of money, but it doesn’t even begin to account for how much football is worth when you take the scenario a bit further down the wormhole.
If the players don’t take the field this year then many schools will find themselves dropping more than just sports programs. Colleges within universities will be shuttered. Majors will be cut. They might reopen in a year or two if things get back to normal, but they might not. It’s very hard to get an academic program up and running. Without certain programs, you could soon have regions that don’t have enough engineers, programmers or who knows what other profession to satisfy the needs of the local work force.
If companies can’t fill their needs they will move elsewhere, taking boatloads of tax revenue and leaving a lot of people jobless in their wake. There will be less tax money to pump back into the universities, and therefore more programs will be cut. The web of problems grows, and a cycle of economic downturn could hit a region.
This is a worst-case scenario, and there will always be certain universities that are rich with funding. Nonetheless, it puts into focus just how much we’re relying on 18-22 year-old football players to help provide some of the inertia that keeps society churning forward.
They’re going to play this season, and they’re going to do it in the middle of a pandemic. They’re going to do it because the schools whose logos and colors they wear are at least partially dependent on them playing in order to survive.
All of them will have to live according to strict social distancing standards, and it is likely that they won’t see their families or friends for months. Their job will be to do anything and everything they must to get us through some semblance of a football season. That mission will permeate every facet of their lives.
It’s a big job for a bunch of college kids, I use the word job because it is one-hundred percent a job. The business of college is depending on them.
Pay them their damn money.