The NCAA is teetering in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, the NCAA’s stance was to leave the decision on whether to play up to the conferences. It ceded its leadership position to them and the result has been predictable.
On its surface, the NCCA’s decision makes sense since the conferences may be in a more strategic position to make decisions. Conferences tend to be more regionalized and have more homogeneity than the ranks than the broader NCAA. Even amongst the Power 5 conferences, conference decision-making can provide more consistency amongst its members and make broader policy decisions based on the common interests of its members. They are also bound by lucrative multimedia deals which provide different incentives than others. With the wide breadth of the NCAA membership in each division, it is extremely difficult for the NCAA to make decisions and implement a uniform policy with Division I schools ranging in size from as small as 2,000 students to those over 50,000.
The conferences, on the other hand, can require all their members to provide the same level of precautions and care. Schools would have uniform COVID-19 testing protocols, enforce social distancing guidelines, and help mitigate financial concerns. But even conferences have painted with a broad brush in implementing “all or nothing” approaches to dealing with the pandemic. Much of the decision centers on whether a conference will be able to implement their flagship programs such as football or basketball, where the bulk of the traditional revenues come from. Several schools have used this opportunity to implement program cuts that would be less plausible under ordinary circumstances. Stanford, a perennial contender for the Learfield Cup, sent shockwaves through the college sports world when it decided to cut 11 sports citing budget deficits. Sports such as tennis, cross country, swimming, and wrestling have been hard hit around the country as they all have seen programs cut nationally as schools grapple with budget issues.
Unlike professional leagues which have the benefit of collective bargaining to align the interests of teams and players, college athletics do not have that fallback position and instead must take a more paternal position in safeguarding their student athletes. While the NBA and MLS have been able to successfully implement “bubble” strategies where players and staff could be isolated from the outside world, this strategy is almost impossible to implement across an entire college athletic program. Other strategies such as the one implemented by Major League Baseball that relies largely on testing has proven to be more problematic. MLB’s teams in Miami, Philadelphia and St. Louis were all held out of competition because of positive infections. All leagues have forgone spectators and their revenues for now, although the NFL is expecting to allow limited numbers of spectators, albeit a fraction of stadiums’ normal capacities. However, the professional leagues can largely rely on shared television revenue to soften the financial hit.
College athletics has unique challenges that makes risk mitigation so much more complicated. First, schools try to treat student-athletes similarly to regular students. When many schools around the country have resorted to online classes, it makes it difficult to justify bringing student-athletes to campus for competition when the broader university is engaging in studies remotely. Title IX places a gender equity lens on restart plans as well as schools look to balance out Title IX compliance with feasibility issues. Travel presents a unique challenge, particularly where commercial air travel is necessary. To allow football to play, the colleges need to make accommodations for women’s sports to continue as well. Major sports such as football and basketball have major overhead implications to not playing, including debt service and coaches’ salaries. For many “Group of 5” or Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) schools, their football coaches’ salaries alone can account for over 15% of their overall athletic department budgets. The multi-year employment contracts also create a huge exit penalty if a school seeks to terminate employment. The specter of no football fans in attendance can also place a revenue strain on schools that rely on those revenues to mitigate or offset expenses. For the Power 5 conferences, the lack of content for their multimedia partners can also result in penalties or reduced non-stadium revenues. Athletics is also a driver for financial contributions which help fuel scholarships and other benefits which have also struggled to stay on pace with high unemployment rates and other economic impacts.
So, the pressure on school athletic departments to play is significant, particularly football. For smaller schools, the decision has already been made. Over 40 of the 44 NCAA Division III conferences have already cancelled fall sports including football, soccer, cross-country and others. FCS has cancelled its national playoffs and majority of the conferences have already cancelled with more likely. The Mid-American Athletic Conference (MAC) was also the first FBS conference to make the difficult decision to defer fall sports, including football, hoping that they will be possible in the spring semester.
For those that choose to forge forward, the challenge is daunting. While testing is helpful, it is also expensive. The molecular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is considered the most accurate, but it is expensive and can take several days to obtain a result. PCR tests can run between $150-300 per test, so a twice a week testing regimen for student-athletes and staff is a significant cost when you can consider that the average Football Bowl Subdivision team is carrying over 100 football players on a team and upwards of 20 coaches and staff members. Extrapolate that out to large athletic population and the cost increases to the hundreds of thousands per month. However, even with strict testing, it is not foolproof to ensuring safe competition. Rutgers University saw less that ten student-athletes test positive when they returned to campus in June. However, several of the young adults who were on the quiet summer campus could not resist doing what college students like to do – they went to a local house party. This resulted in over 30 players and staff becoming infected and triggering the cancellation of practices for up to 14 days – less than a month before the expected start of the season. For schools where students are returning to campus, the intermingling of students only increases the risks as social distancing protocols run contrary to campus norms. Quarantining is also difficult based on campus logistics and the human nature of the student population which often views COVID-19 as an “older persons” concern. The cost of care for infections can also be unpredictably severe on already depleted budgets.
Conversely, schools have an opportunity to get more creative. A risk-based approach might allow schools to move forward with less risky sports that can been more easily administered. This helps schools to promote the school brand and interaction with alumni in new ways without exacerbating risks. Sports with smaller rosters, such as basketball, have a much better chance to proceed safely. Naturally socially-distant sports such as golf, swimming and tennis also provide significant opportunities for competition with very controllable environments. While not necessarily optimal, they at least allow schools to stay relevant in athletics and produce live programming content for media partners instead of a complete void.
The picture looks bleak for college sports this fall. It is likely that more conferences will decide the risks and/or resource drain are too severe to play this fall. If one of the Power 5 conference decides to shut down, it will likely trigger a domino effect. Football, because of the sheer size of the impacted population, presents a unique risk. Yet, it is seen as the lifeblood to college athletic revenues so the financial pressure is there to try to make it work. Short of shutting college sports down entirely, athletic departments need to think out of the box to stay relevant while also protecting their student-athletes and staff.
Andrew Bondarowicz, Esq. is an adjunct faculty member teaching Sports Law at Rutgers Law School and the Rutgers Global Sports Business program. He has been actively engaged and advising various clients on planning measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.