There is a silver lining somewhere, and Paul Winters has found it.
The Wayne State football coach may have lost spring practice, but he has already tackled the work he usually reserves for June and July.
In some ways, he said, “I will be better prepared for a season than I ever have.”
That is if there is one.
As the novel coronavirus has rocked the country and shut down the sports world, there is growing anxiety within college athletics about the prospect of football not being played in 2020. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit sounded the alarm late last month during an appearance on the network’s radio outlet, saying he’d be “shocked” if there was a season.
Administrators around the country are bracing for empty stadiums and zero games, fretting about a substantial decline in revenue if this doomsday scenario materializes.
Here in Michigan, the uncertainty is palpable. The Free Press attempted to survey 21 colleges and universities that have NCAA football programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision, Division II or III — polling athletic directors, communications representatives and head coaches about whether they think a season will be played and whether it should go forward.
Only six of the 19 who responded believed the 2020 season would take place, with one of them adding there could be a delay. Just five asserted it should be held, with one noting that the decision should be made based on the nation’s disease status. The other institutions refused to speculate, declined to comment or couldn’t be reached.
Nobody surveyed expressed outright pessimism about a fall without football — perhaps because the mere thought of it is too distressing. Eastern Michigan athletic director Scott Wetherbee, who is hopeful the games will go on, hinted at that.
“Not playing football,” he said, “would be devastating. It’s a huge driver for us. This past year, outside of NCAA distributions, all of our revenue is hinged on football. We worked hard to get close to $7 million in ticket sales and game guarantees, sponsorship rights and MAC distribution payout. You don’t play those games, all of that goes away.”
According to a survey of more than 100 FBS athletic directors published Thursday by LEAD1 Association and Teamworks, 35% of the respondents are projecting at least a 30% drop in revenue in 2020-21 in a worst-case scenario — a gaping void in the calendar left by the absence of football.
It could be even more.
At Michigan, Jim Harbaugh’s program accounted for nearly 70% of the $175 million revenue the athletic department generated in 2018-2019, according to records obtained by the Free Press.
The thought of the school’s 107,000-seat stadium unoccupied throughout the fall is hard to fathom, and the financial implications tied to such a situation are serious.
Without a season, Michigan’s net loss for football alone could approach $100 million, according to a USA TODAY analysis, which did not account for any potential recovery of coaching salaries or scholarship relief if athletes aren’t on campus in the fall. For Michigan State, the estimated loss could reach $60 million.
But there are other considerations that must be addressed, according to head coach Leonard Haynes of Division II Northwood University.
“The lives of the student-athletes are more important than a game,” he said. “Of course, we want to play, but not at the expense of these players and coaches.”
The health risk is real and Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, is among those tasked with assessing it in the context of hosting public events at the college level.
As one of seven members on the NCAA COVID-19 advisory panel, Adalja expressed doubt about the possibility of playing football in 2020.
“It’s clearly with the major contact sports that we’re going to have to consider going forward of how those things can be played or if they can be played safely or can they be modified in a way that makes it less likely to add to the burden of infection,” he said. “I think that is going to be an important question that is going to need to be answered because this virus is still going to be around in the fall and we’re not going to have a vaccine in the fall. These are decisions that are going to become really real pretty soon.”
Adalja is certain that COVID-19 will have a resurgence during the heart of football season as temperatures start to dip and people are forced indoors.
The nature of the sport itself and the environment it creates also could promote the spread of the virus. He noted the lack of separation in the tight quarters of locker rooms, the skin-to-skin touching on the field, and the sharing of water bottles among teammates — all common realities that are also problematic.
“Are the games and the players going to be at risk for developing infection or transmitting infections?” Adalja said.
In a high-contact sport such as football, he said, the answer is yes.
It’s why the world of college athletics is on edge. Around the country, universities have been cautious — going as far as to cancel in-person classes for at least part of the summer session and transfer their curricula online. Michigan and Michigan State began making those moves in March.
Much in the same way classes have been pushed off campus, football soon could be forced off the field this fall.
It’s a concept as novel as this coronavirus. And it’s one the college athletics world is considering as it ponders contingencies such as a truncated season, or even one that starts next spring.
“I believe everyone who loves football would like to see a 2020 season,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said, “but not if it puts the health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and fans at risk. I’m a football coach, so I am going to leave the recommendations to the health professionals and continue to do what I can do to push Spartan football forward in the most impactful and safest way possible.”
Winters agrees, though he also believes the exercise of contemplating hypotheticals is futile. “I don’t know how much sense it makes to guess what is going to happen in five months,” he said.
But with each passing day, the troubling prospect of no football in the fall becomes ever more real.
“I would like for the world to go on,” Winters said. “I don’t think we’re going to stop living, you know. To ask if football should go on, if this were August and we are in the situation we’re in, I’d say no. But if in August everybody is back to work and the world has moved forward, yeah.”
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