College Football’s Biggest Threat

Photo courtesy of the Associated Press (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Photo courtesy of the Associated Press (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The biggest threat to college football is itself.  Meaning, those who manage the game (the NCAA, the conferences (Power Five), the universities), and the college athletes.  The NCAA and the Power Five (SEC, PAC-12, Big 10, Big 12, and ACC) have in one way or another cancelled their seasons or delayed announcements of the same, while many college athletes have united in calling for un-cancellation of the season and possibly forming a players union to express their interests and rights. 

The above scenario is nothing new and has happened in nearly every negotiation throughout human history.  One side wants something and makes a demand, which usually entails sitting out or holding back something the other side wants.  The parties eventually come together to make a deal, go to an arbitrator or mediator to assist in making a deal, or go to court to have a judge tell them how to made a deal through some order on an area of law affecting the parties ability to dealmake.    

The PAC-12 and Big 10 have already decided to cancel their 2020 college football seasons citing the coronavirus and safety concerns.  That is not surprising because those two conferences are very aligned administratively and schedule-wise.   This includes in-season games between university sports teams inside the two conferences and of course, the top-seeded teams of each conference in “The Granddaddy of Them All” (thank you to the late-Keith Jackson for that beautiful saying), the Rose Bowl Game in Pasadena, California, every year, except when hosting the National Championship Game or a semifinal game for the College Football Playoff.  

The ACC, Big 12, and SEC are still discussing, with some university presidents and coaches calling for a college football season to be played.  An announcement is expected shortly.  Some Ivy League and other NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision universities have cancelled their seasons.  The above creates and invites some very interesting scenarios and questions.

1. The ACC, Big 12, and SEC play a season of college football, but the PAC-12 and Big 10 do not.

The above scenario could be disastrous for the latter if the season is a success in both dollars, reputation, and engagement for the former.  On the other hand, if the season contains delays and safety issues, it could be a disaster for the former and the latter will look really smart.  As a model, the NHL, NBA, and MLS have demonstrated great success in hosting a bubble season.  The MLB has taken the geographical zoning approach with more recent success with better COVID-19 testing, but games have been cancelled, while the Pittsburgh Pirates have played seven (7) games where the Los Angeles Dodgers have played twenty-two (22).  The question and difference for the NCAA and universities is whether college athletes can play in a bubble where everything is virtual anyway (or will students be on campus) and the geographical approach is used (conference-only). 

2. Some event happens to reinstate the college football season for all.

Some event like a vaccine or university leadership pushing to play.  With streaming at an all-time high, a lost season will seem like an eternity.  Streaming is so popular right now that some municipalities want to charge streamers like Netflix for consumers using utilities.  However, without fans, all sports entities stand to lose up 40% of revenue.  Some states may be in a better place from a management and containment standpoint for sports success. 

3. The players continue to realize how much influence they have.

The college athletes are the real wildcards here.  They truly hold all of the cards.  If they refused to play next season, for example, in response to cancelling this season, that would carry a lot of weight and water.  The college athletes and universities in the ACC, Big 12, and SEC both being on board with playing in 2020 will also help move that needle towards playing.  Arguably, the PAC-12 players who refused to play in 2020 without having a seat at the table was at least a factor in cancelling the 2020 season.  The players asking for a union could also be more likely a play, to play.  Pardon the pun, but in negotiations, sometimes the larger ask is a move to get something you really want.  In this scenario, the players union demand may be the tactic to play a college football season in 2020.  Regardless, if college football is not on television in the Fall of 2020, expect to see the NFL to fill that space on Saturdays with advertisers to follow.  

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