Paul Zeise: College athletics’ biggest fear is losing football revenue in the fall

Tribune Content Agency

Any questions you had about how important football is to funding college athletics were answered this week by a number of athletic directors.

It came in different ways, but athletic directors across the country sent a loud and clear message this week — “We need football and stadiums full of fans, or we will have big problems financially.” They didn’t say it in that many words, but it’s very easy to understand what’s going on.

“I’m very optimistic that (doctors and researchers) are working around the clock to come up with something that, if you do get the virus, that it can be cured,” West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons said earlier this week. “I’m very optimistic we will be playing football in September. Preseason will start on time in August.”

This topic has come up because ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said last week that it’s a very real possibility there may be no football in the fall. He said the COVID-19 pandemic might make it too dangerous to assemble that many players in a group and crowds that large.

“From what I understand, people that I listen to, you’re 12 to 18 months from a (coronavirus) vaccine. I don’t know how you let these guys go into locker rooms and let stadiums be filled up and how you can play ball. I just don’t know how you can do it with the optics of it,” Herbstreit said on ESPN radio. “Next thing you know you got a locker room full of guys that are sick. And that’s on your watch? I wouldn’t want to have that. As much as I hate to say it, I think we’re scratching the surface of where this thing’s going to go.”

This obviously caused some panic and even a backlash from some coaches, even though Herbstreit was simply stating his opinion. And unfortunately, his opinion doesn’t seem to be viewed as outlandish to a number of experts who think it may be difficult to get back to stadiums and arenas full of tens of thousands of people anytime soon.

I believe we still have about two months before we’ll really have any idea what the fall might look like. A lot of different things that can happen between now and then.

We’re all in a holding pattern, but that hasn’t stopped the athletic directors and coaches from making it clear how they feel. The prospects of playing football without fans doesn’t seem like an option at all, and there is a very good reason for that. With no fans, there are no ticket sales, no beer sales, no food sales and even merchandise sales would suffer.

“If we’re playing the game, I think we’ll be playing it in front of fans,” Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke said Thursday. “If there’s a concern about human contact, we wouldn’t be playing the game.. … When you think about coaches and student-athletes playing a game with no one there, there’s something definitely missing.”

Penn State’s Sandy Barbour, who also met with a group of reporters via Zoom, said: “I believe it’s in everyone’s best interest that when it’s safe and right to do so, that we play a football season. We’ve already talked about the emotional and the morale piece for communities across this country, and then certainly obviously there’s a there’s revenue and a financial piece to it.”

It’s true that it would have to be safe for players and coaches to play, and therefore it could be safe enough for fans. But that isn’t necessarily true. Maybe we will get to a point where testing is advanced enough to be able to test smaller groups quickly. Perhaps they could test and monitor players and coaches but not thousands and thousands of fans.

It isn’t ideal, but it could be the only way — or perhaps extremely limited crowds — to have football. That obviously wouldn’t be ideal, but at least schools and conferences could still make money off the television commercials and sponsors.

A number of alternate ideas are being thrown around that don’t involve playing without fans. That includes moving the season back, shortening the season and even playing in the spring. Could you imagine the College Football Playoff title game being played in April?

It’s a different world for all of us, and many things have changed. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is that football is king, and in college athletics, football pays the bills. Because colleges and conferences have already lost one of their biggest revenue sources this year — the NCAA basketball tournaments — they are going to do everything in their power to make sure football is played as close to normal as possible.


©2020 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Visit the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.