Big Ten football is back after conference presidents and chancellors voted unanimously to resume play the weekend of October 23.
That start date would allow the Big Ten to play an abbreviated regular season, hold a conference championship game, and still potentially participate in the College Football Playoff. Equally important, it would help the league recoup some of the hundreds of millions that it brings in annually on football.
The Big Tens said access to daily testing spurred it to make the decision. A ruling on other sports, including men’s and women’s basketball, is expected “shortly,” the conference said in a statement.
The decision comes just five weeks after the conference first announced its plans to postpone all fall sports, including football, until 2021 due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak and concerns over player health and safety. The Pac-12 voted to postpone fall play the same day, but the Big 12, SEC and ACC pressed on with plans for modified seasons. The ACC kicked off its conference play over the weekend, with football in the Big 12 and SEC slated to start at the end of September.
In making its initial decision, the Big Ten said its access to accurate rapid testing and contact-tracing resources were lacking. A week after the Aug. 11 vote to postpone, which was not unanimous, first-year Commissioner Kevin Warren wrote in a letter that the conference would not revisit the decision despite a swift and spirited backlash.
Coaches, parents and players—including eight from Nebraska who sued the conference—openly criticized and questioned the decision. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh protested the decision with his players; Penn State’s James Franklin was one of many to voice publicly his frustration over both the timing of and the process surrounding the postponement.
The decision put millions in revenue at risk as well. Big Ten teams sold $274 million of football tickets in 2018 and brought in more than $661 million in media rights, according to the most recently available financial data, for its broadcast partners (Fox Sports and ESPN/ABC) who made more than $214 million combined in advertising revenue off the conference last year.
In the weeks since, discord has steadily escalated, and President Donald Trump even spoke with Warren, encouraging the commissioner to “immediately start up Big Ten football.” Despite Warren’s public resistance to reconsideration, the Big Ten’s return-to-play committees continued to assess the option of a fall season, sources confirmed to Sportico, while also planning out winter and spring scenarios for the 14-school conference.
Big Ten presidents and chancellors met virtually on Sunday for a medical presentation regarding a possible fall season that focused on what has changed since the conference postponed in August. While the virus continues to spread throughout the Midwest, where many Big Ten schools are located, rapid daily antigen testing has become more readily available in the last month—marking a medical advancement that could address concerns some within the conference have about both testing and contact tracing.
Reports surfaced prior to the reversal that the Big Ten was exploring partnerships with providers of newer, faster (and relatively cheap) COVID-19 antigen tests. These rapid tests would significantly decrease the amount of necessary contact tracing, alleviating a second concern. The Pac-12 and Big 12 both recently secured access to rapid tests through partnerships with Quidel Corporation.
The Big 12 will utilize the tests on players, coaches and staff the day prior to competition, while the Pac-12’s partnership will provide its schools with the capacity to test daily. Both will get results in around 15 minutes.
The possibility of daily player and personnel testing within the Big Ten convinced some of the conference’s leaders who were more resistant to returning to play to reverse course.
The Pac-12’s partnership with Quidel for testing was not enough for the San Francisco-headquartered conference to completely reconsider its fall decision as with the Big Ten. The Pac-12 remains the only top-tier athletics conference abstaining from play at the moment. The conference did concede that the new testing access could speed up the return to competition.
– With assistance from Eben Novy-Williams