2 yards apart: Is winter football feasible?

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As stay-at-home orders start to lift across the country, athletes and athletic departments alike are scrambling to salvage their fall football seasons. Pac-12 football players have gone months without their usual offseason training schedules, resorting to Zoom for guided workouts, all while administrators face a budget crisis. This climate will present unique challenges for teams looking to hit the ground running in the fall, should the pandemic even allow it.

The starting date of the preseason is a matter of much debate. It has direct impacts on the fitness and preparedness with which these teams go into the season. Estimates show that players need to be back on campus training by about mid-July in order to have the normal conditioning and preparation time before the season starts, shortening the deadline for commissioners to make these decisions to the middle of June, only weeks away.

All the planning taking place in college football offices right now is contingent on the reopening of campuses and athletic departments. For players to have so few answers so close to the usual start of preseason practices is unprecedented. Yet, the crisis presents novel challenges for everyone, not just the players. Athletic administrators are faced with the formidable challenge of prioritizing the physical health of their players and personnel while keeping the economic force that is college athletics afloat.

Campus administrators are striving for a unilateral approach as they choose how to respond — the commissioners of the Power Five conferences have been in meetings the past few weeks to devise a plan of action. Because many colleges within these conferences are under different gubernatorial jurisdictions, however, stay-at-home orders could be lifted in some places and not others. An unsynchronized reopening could spell disaster for the season if one or two teams are unable to participate.

If some campuses open earlier than others, it would invite criticisms of putting sport over safety. In the event that some states remain impacted by the coronavirus and others find themselves relatively unaffected, some programs might be barred from playing, skewing this season’s result and impacting those to come. This imbalance could manifest in different ways, from having divisions play internally to having teams play some squads more than once in a season, both unheard of in the history of college football.

The governing body of the NCAA is combating its fair share of financial troubles. The cancellation of the Division I men’s basketball tournament, the organization’s main source of operating revenue, has put a massive strain on its budget. This year, Division I programs are expected to receive financial distributions that total $225 million, only 37.5% of the expected $600 million that they usually earn. Although the NCAA will have to make significant sacrifices, the brunt of this loss will be felt by the athletic departments, the coaches and the student-athletes.

Even as the NCAA struggles to balance its own budget, universities are questioning the feasibility of a season without fans. If the NCAA decides to have a fall season, there remains the genuine probability that social distancing measures will still be in place. Even in the absence of formal limits on fan attendance, normal ticket holders may be hesitant of large crowds and public spaces.

Athletic departments across the nation base their operating budgets, at least in part, on the revenue they accrue through ticket sales, concessions and even parking. Forgoing that revenue will be crippling for these departments. According to the Cal athletic department’s 2019 Statement of Revenues and Expenses, out of the 27 programs on campus, men’s football is among the seven that pay for themselves. The loss of revenue from a canceled or truncated season could be destructive for other, less lucrative programs that depend on the overall sports budget and gamegoers to operate.

As with all decisions dependent on campus reopening, fans and administrators will know more soon. Arrangements from UC Berkeley about classes in the fall, as well as from state and city officials, should bring clarity about the season in mid-June. It’s a precarious time for athletic departments looking to put the interest of their student-athletes first, yet coaches and fans alike remain every bit as hopeful that we’ll see our Bears take the field in the fall.

Luke Stiles writes for Bear Bytes. Contact him at [email protected].