On Thursday, the Pac-12 announced plans to play a shortened fall football season starting on Nov. 7, sources confirmed to Sportico. The six-week season will include a cross-divisional game for all teams and conclude with a conference championship weekend in time to join the other Power 5 conferences in postseason play.
Teams not competing for the championship on Dec. 18 will play one additional game that weekend. No fans will be allowed at any Pac-12 athletics events until at least Jan. 2021.
The decision ends the Pac-12’s fall sports pause two months earlier than initially planned. When the conference announced that it would postpone the fall season on August 11, resumption in 2021 was the target.
The decision comes eight days after the Big Ten did its own fall football turnaround, unanimously approving an abbreviated season to start Oct. 24. The Big 12 and ACC have already resumed play, while the SEC’s conference-only season starts at the end of September.
The Pac-12 released a statement confirming the start of football and that basketball would be underway as normal. “Men’s and women’s basketball will begin on November 25,” the conference said, consistent with the NCAA’s official basketball start date. “Other winter sports will also resume on their NCAA-sanctioned dates, but no details regarding the status of fall sports outside of football were provided.”
Similar to the Big Ten, sources confirmed that new access to rapid-result antigen testing played a role in the Pac-12’s decision to restart play. On Sept. 3, the conference announced a partnership with diagnostic healthcare manufacturer Quidel to make daily testing with rapid results a reality for its institutions. As part of the arrangement, each Pac-12 athletic department will receive its own testing machine by the end of the month.
At the time of the deal, the first struck by a college conference, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said that it could speed up the return of competitions; inadequate testing capabilities had been a key concern originally. Pac-12 medical advisors said schools would need to commit to daily testing “at a minimum” to play this fall, which was not feasible in August given limited availability, turnaround time and cost.
As the Big Ten also explained, greater testing will significantly reduce the contract-tracing burden on conferences and local health authorities—which the Pac-12 did not initially feel equipped to meet—by giving schools the tools to better limit the spread of the virus within their own programs.
The testing advancement ticked off an important box on the conference’s return-to-play checklist, but the Pac-12’s particular membership also includes schools in cities with highly restrictive state or local policies that prevented a number of its member institutions from returning to play. While states like Utah and Arizona were open to returning at the time of the Quidel announcement, others—like Oregon and California—were still locked down in a way that didn’t allow for large athletics practices.
After the Big Ten decision, reports surfaced that both UCLA and USC’s athletic directors were working with Los Angeles County (which leads the state in COVID-19 cases and deaths) officials. They sought exemptions for their football teams from the local gathering limitation rules in place, similar to those that Oregon and Oregon State received from their state’s Health Authority. The last holdup appeared to be the schools located in the Bay Area, with both Stanford and Cal facing strong resistance from local leadership than the rest.
With proper county approval in place, six weeks of practice and training camp will now start for the conference. The earlier-than-anticipated restart will help the conference recoup some revenue—though millions will still be lost without fan attendance.
The conference’s 10 public schools (USC and Stanford are private) made more than $318 million in media rights revenue and $197 million from donations from all sports, much of which came from football. The conference had arranged an almost $1 billion central loan program to provide each member school with up to $83 million payable over 10 years. With a shortened season somewhat mitigating those expected losses, there may now be less of a need for the extra cash, but the conference has not provided an update on the status of the program.
Even with all Power 5 conferences back on a fall football schedule, dozens of other Division I conferences are still holding off on fall sports until spring. Play remains on pause in the Mid-American Conference and the Mountain West Conference (although rumors are starting that a reversal could happen there as well), home to 23 FBS teams combined. Old Dominion, a member of Conference USA, and two independents—UConn and New Mexico State—decided to postpone as well. Eight FCS conferences have also canceled or postponed fall play to spring, including the Ivy League, Patriot League and Big Sky.