As college decision-makers attempt to brace for a jumbled future, coronavirus-related sports news seems to break daily.
Already, we’ve seen schools eliminate fall semesters, while others pray it doesn’t come to that. We’ve seen sports cut, and others attempting to put off that option until their hands are tied. We’ve seen institutions — like the Big Sky Conference — break off from the norm, and most others trying to concoct some sort of contingency plans.
All in all, we’ve not had much clarity lately, but a lot of questioning, and protests of stay-at-home orders — and others protesting those protesters’ protests.
I don’t envy decision-makers, or any administrators in college athletics. They’re people too — about as mixed up and cooped up as the rest of us. They’re not clairvoyants who have all the answers in deterring financial harm caused by the spread of a disease that’s maddening and unanticipated, and that none of us can effectively predict.
So, let’s talk through some of the latest events, and what’ll be on those policymakers’ plates in the coming months.
The most recent in this long string of unclear developments is last week’s announcement that the California State public university system has done away with in-person classes for the fall semester, at all 23 of its campuses. Then on Wednesday, a University of California schools spokesperson told Fox, “It’s likely none of our campuses will fully reopen in the fall,” either.
It begs the question: How do athletics begin when students cannot be present? Perhaps the NCAA could cave, and compensate them, but let’s not get too far-fetched here.
At the least, it creates a quandary for Big Sky and Pac-12 competitors, like our local Washington State and the University of Idaho.
Cal State-Sacramento, California-Davis and Cal Polytechnic State compete in the Big Sky, the latter two for football only; California-Berkeley and California-Los Angeles, of course, are league foes of the Cougars’.
Are schools to just cut opponents out of schedules if campuses have closed? Do you play fewer games, scramble to schedule new ones, or play certain adversaries twice? That last bit has been floating around among prognosticators, who, like most of us, basically are changing their thinking with each passing week.
The Big Sky announced a set of adjustments last week. The most important of the league’s decisions was that schools would have institutional freedom on when practices and competitions would return — per NCAA and state guidelines. That leaves the door open for altered fall sports seasons.
But there’s much skepticism, rightfully so, around that premise. Could Big Sky seasons commence if only half of the conference’s teams elect to go ahead with their seasons? What would that mean for the attendees? Could the Big Sky get away with being the last frontier for Division I athletics on the West Coast, or would it be forced to follow along if the dominoes at higher levels began to fall?
California, procedurally, is a different world, so it’s unlikely rural schools with scattered populations like UI or Wazzu would follow suit so early. As a matter of fact, WSU administrators are planning on opening campus in the fall, per KHQ. Athletic director Pat Chun has told the Spokesman-Review he doesn’t want to consider how financially damaging the loss of a football season would be for the Cougars.
Before COVID-19 — and the sizable cutting of distributed revenue from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — the school already was expecting an overall deficit of $103 million by 2022. Football has brought in around $40 million per season in recent years, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Wazzu employees — including Chun, men’s basketball coach Kyle Smith, football coach Nick Rolovich and president Kirk Schulz — have taken voluntary 5 percent pay cuts to try and mitigate the damage. And of note: Boise State has furloughed some coaches and athletic staffers. Per Idaho EdNews, UI is considering doing something similar, furloughing employees to cut about $3.3 million in spending.
Schools like Idaho, which recently has reached an athletics deficit of a bit more than $1.5 million, need football seasons, and that’s no overstatement. Ticket sales and “body bag” games alone account for $1 million-plus. Since Idaho moved back to the Football Championship Subdivsion in 2018, however, revenues have dropped considerably.
Not trying to be the bearer of bad news, but remember when the Vandals almost cut sports — women’s soccer, men’s golf, and women’s swim and dive — in 2018? Well, at that time, the department deficit sat at just less than $1 million. UI was given three years by the State Board of Education to sort it out.
Akron already has slashed three sports; Cincinnati has dropped its men’s soccer program; Old Dominion has cut wrestling and on Friday, Bowling Green disposed of baseball, despite its athletic director, Bob Moosbrugger, being a former player and member of the Division I baseball committee. Several others are trimming their budgets by millions.
To be a little more optimistic: Although it’s been hard on spring athletes to have their seasons discontinued, that’s saved athletic departments a nifty sum. Spring travel fees are no more, and recruiting expenses have been snipped.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for Idaho AD Terry Gawlik — among administrators around the nation — who entered last year, only to be tested with the most confounding and complex issue collegiate athletics have ever encountered.
As of now, the questions outnumber answers at an alarming rate, and decision-makers are in the same boat. Perhaps the only thing to do is wait for the dominoes to fall the other way.
In March, cancellations in sports began trickling down, from high-tier establishments to lower-level leagues and institutions — maybe they’ll start up in the same manner, only inverted. Maybe the next sports seasons won’t have fans present, like Saturday’s German soccer match between Dortmund and Schalke, at an eerie, empty venue which generally seats 81,000. Maybe events only permit a certain number of spectators, like in Taiwan’s professional baseball league.
Maybe administrators will define fortuitous ways to mitigate financial harm. Maybe the coronavirus finally poofs away, like magic. Maybe there are late starts, or shortened seasons. Maybe there aren’t sports at all.
Right now, all that can be done is wait for clarification on our what-ifs. The news will continue to break.
Clark may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 627-3209.