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COVID-19 is still here. Is there any hope for fall sports?

Back in May, I looked at the possibilities and unfortunately, the possibilities are only just that.

Will we see fans in the stadiums? Will we see players in the stadiums? Who knows?
Kenneth Bailey

Normally, it would be the time of the year when I would be writing the previews for the upcoming fall season. Normally, I would be in the mood to write a preview for the upcoming season. This year is a little bit different and I don’t have any confidence that there will be a football season this year.

Back in May, I had some thoughts about how sports would be affected by COVID-19. However, I didn’t think that would matter because I thought that it would be behind us for the most part. With the disease flaring up in new parts of the country, once again football is not a certainty.

After killing it for a while, Michigan creeps back up.
Kenneth Bailey with data from the Michigan government website.

So where are we?

I’ll start with my home state of Michigan. After flattening the curve for a while, it seems like cases are coming back up. That may be just the nature of the beast as the state opens up. It doesn’t help when you see scenes of people not social distancing and people complaining about wearing a mask in public places. I’m of the opinion if those things can help us get a degree of normalcy, we should be doing them.

The Big Ten recently announced the cancelling the non-conference part of their schedule. This will have an impact on the Mid-American Conference as a few schools had games scheduled with the Big 10 and those games would typically be the pay day games. The Ivy League went one step further, cancelling or rescheduling all fall sports. (If you recall, it was the cancellation of the Ivy League Basketball Championship that caused the cascade that led to the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament.) That also led to the cancellation of the springs sports and put the the question of football in doubt.

Since then, many of the smaller conferences, especially in the FCS, have abandoned fall sports outright, resulting in many holes in the upcoming college football schedule. With the financial situation already in dire straits, these cancellations put a further bind on those schools that will lose that revenue.

As for the idea of a fall season, look to the proposed baseball season as a guide. Even though a few players have tested positive for the virus, baseball is on track to have an abbreviated season with “regional” play. If more players test positive, that might be in jeopardy. If baseball can’t be played, then I don’t see how football, with even more contact, can be played.

Social distancing in football may prove difficult.
Kenneth Bailey

The other factor is still whether or not there are classes on campus come fall.

Many universities have announced they will be holding classes on campus but like everything else, that could end up being in flux. If they don’t have classes on campus then I don’t see how they can justify playing football. If enough schools don’t have classes, I don’t see how a season could be salvaged by the schools that end up having classes on campus.

If there is a season, there’s a handful of scenarios which could happen.

I am guessing if the games do indeed return, that the games will not be played in front of fans (like baseball). This has already happened in a handful of states, including New Jersey and New York (which is important given Buffalo’s membership in the MAC.)

But given the massive loss of revenue that would mean for the respective universities, it’s more likely that massively reduced capacity will be allowed to encourage social distancing. For instance, Rynearson Stadium can hold 35,000 people (roughly), I expect that it would be limited to about 7,000 people with some sitting on the “home” side (with the press box) and some sitting on the “visitors” side. I would expect that everyone on the field would be tested regularly or if not tested they would be checked for symptoms. If symptoms are shown, they wouldn’t be able to play (or coach or whatever).

Unfortunately, that testing will add costs to already stretched budgets. Power Five schools are certainly able to afford it, and have freely released their results to the public. That’s been tougher for a lot of MAC schools to accomplish, and we’re honestly not sure what those numbers look like for most of them. If a certain percentage of players end up testing positive, I could see the season get cancelled due to an abundance of caution.

Even if there isn’t a season in the fall, it is being bantered about that it could be delayed to the spring, a choice which a few conferences, the SWAC included, have pioneered, but that would bring up a number of other questions related to eligibility and the professional draft which haven’t been answered (or even addressed) by the NCAA or the NFL.

While I feel that a great deal of progress has been made in the battle against COVID-19, there are still a number of questions that have to be answered. If one of those answers end up being the cancellation of the season will that lead to another question about having football itself, given the financial strain many MAC programs, but most notably Akron, have had just trying to maintain FBS eligibility even before “these uncertian times.”

I can see a number of schools asking themselves that right now.

Social distancing may prove easier at some stadiums.
Kenneth Bailey