On Saturday (7/25), Rutgers Sports Insider reported the RU football program halted all in-person team activities—and that the entire roster had entered quarantine—after six players tested positive for the coronavirus during the “latest weekly testing cycle.” Just a day earlier, Michigan State announced its football program would be entering a 14-day isolation period after a pair of coaches and a player tested positive for the virus. The two team-wide lockdowns have only increased speculation that the 2020 college football season will eventually be canceled. The athletic director at one Power Five school (AD1) told JohnWallStreet by Sportico that a lost season would be a fiscal catastrophe—one that would force a new round of conference realignment (in essence the last wave, at the start of the decade, essentially created the ‘Power Five’ as an entity, killed the Big East, and dramatically altered the economic future for the ones lucky to ride the wave – Rutgers – and the ones who missed the boat – Boise State, UConn). “If we don’t have football, or if [the season begins] and we have a major disruption that continues through basketball (meaning the football season could not be completed and schools were to incur further losses in hoops), it would be Armageddon,” he said. “There would have to be dramatic changes [to the current conference structure] because revenues would erode to a level that I’m not sure [some schools] could recover from.”
Our Take: While long-discussed (think: +/- 35 years), AD1 said cancellation of the 2020 football season would be the crisis that “ultimately drives the 40 or 45 schools who think they’re responsible for generating most of the revenue [in college sports], to rise to the top [and break away from the rest of the Power Five].” He believes the losses incurred—collectively estimated to be north of $1 billion—would leave the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, Big-12 and ACC no choice but to “reformat how [they] do business.” That change would include FBS conference realignment for the biggest/wealthiest programs and a chance for the less fortunate to make a move to “a world they can afford” (perhaps to a Group of Five conference or to the Championship subdivision).
Major conference realignment would allow college football’s power brokers (think: Michigan, Notre Dame, USC) to hit the reset button—at least on the revenue front. The 40 or 45 schools that want to continue playing at the highest level would be able to repackage their media rights and drive those dollars to an even higher level. Of course, they would also be able to retain a greater percentage of that revenue since they would be sharing it with fewer schools.
To be clear, AD1 is not suggesting those less fortunate school would be dropping football entirely. In fact, “part of this [restructuring] would be about finding the [other 20-25] programs a place to land.” In theory, the idea of making a move to a less capital intensive Group of Five or FCS conference would make sense for many of those schools—particularly if they see collegiate athletics as a form of enrollment management (see: non-scholarship programs). But while it may be the fiscally responsible decision, a second P5 athletic director (AD2) says that there are other factors likely to prevent major realignment. “Membership [within the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, ACC or Pac-12] is such a big part of the institutional identity for prominent alums and contributors. It’s a hard asset. No President or Board Chair is going to willingly surrender it—unless the conference dissolves like the SWC in the 1990s—because it would be [career] suicide.”
AD2 said that even if the 2020 season were lost, there’s no reason a P5 President should have to make that decision, as every school “absolutely” has the ability to weather the storm. For perspective, a lost college football season would cost his program $30 million. While certainly a significant amount of money, he said it’s not nearly enough for the school to consider forgoing its place within the sport’s hierarchy. “You borrow money [to cover the shortfall], credit against [the school’s endowment] or take a loss and cut people,” he said. “But you’re going to come back next year.”
AD2 may not foresee 40 or 45 teams pulling away from the rest of the P5, but he does believe the financial repercussions of a lost college football season are serious and could cause a “major disruption in [collegiate athletic] model; including serious pressure [from the schools] to reduce the minimum number of sports.” As it stands, there is a mandate to have 16 sports to compete at the FBS level.
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