5 Ways the Pandemic Will Drastically Change College Sports

Athletic departments around the country are bracing for revenue losses and other challenges that will likely impact college sports for many years to come

Penn State University’s Beaver Stadium; Photo by Andrew Gearhart on Unsplash

I hate to say it but the COVID-19 pandemic will have a sweeping and lasting impact on athletic departments nationwide. That’s not hyperbole. In fact, the jolt is already being felt due to the uncertainties surrounding upcoming fall sports seasons, which could lead to revenue losses on campuses nationwide. The “Power 5” leagues — with hallmark programs like USC, Texas, Ohio State, Alabama and Clemson — annually combine to clear billions of dollars in athletic revenues, with a majority coming from college football. In the absence of a football season (or even if the season is significantly altered with fewer games and/or less fans allowed in stadiums), the ramifications are significant.

How significant? Let’s count the ways that the pandemic will change college sports:

1.) The Elimination of Non-Revenue Sports

In addition to the unknowns surrounding the upcoming college football season, athletic departments recently had to stomach the cancellation of March Madness, one of the biggest annual sporting event on American television, pumping nearly $1-billion in revenue into the coffers of the NCAA’s member institutions. As a result of this lost revenue, dozens of non-revenue sports at Universities across the country have already been eliminated including the baseball program at Boise State and the men’s soccer program at the University of Cincinnati. More cuts are inevitable as schools large and small are tasked with finding ways to balance budgets.

Photo by Alex Ip on Unsplash

2.) Conference Realignment

In the pre-COVID era, Power conferences looked far and wide over the last decade to increase their footprint and create additional revenue for member institutions. The Big Ten now stretches from New Jersey to Nebraska. For whatever reason (money), West Virginia is now a member of the Big 12 — with its nearest conference opponent nearly 900 miles away in Ames, Iowa. The Southeastern Conference now features Texas A&M. You get the point.

In the post-COVID era, conferences may be forced to align geographically, cutting down on unnecessary cross-country travel to save money as well as protect the health and well-being of student-athletes. At the smaller-conference level, some of this realignment is already taking place. We await to see when the dominoes begin to fall at the Power 5 level but changes appear inevitable.

3.) An expanded College Football Playoff

The College Football Playoff debuted in 2014 and has resulted in a cash windfall of over $500-million annually to the 130 FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) football members. The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel recently reported that consensus is growing to double the size of the playoff field from four to eight teams when the current TV contract expires in 2026. More teams means more games which means more revenue for the NCAA and its FBS members.

4.) Shrinking stadiums

Even before the pandemic, attendance was shrinking across Division I college football to the tune of a 7.6% decline from 2014–2018 and last year’s average attendance of 41,856 fans was the lowest in the sport since 1996. These trends are expected to continue due not just to the pandemic but also rising ticket prices and the impact of technology (think 70-inch HD televisions for example) on watching a game from the comforts of your home. Penn State’s Beaver Stadium is one of the largest stadiums in the world with a seating capacity of 107,000 fans but a potential renovation could drop capacity below the 100,000 mark. Some of the nation’s newest college football stadiums, like Baylor’s McLane Stadium are being built to accommodate crowds in the 45,000-range. San Diego State’s new Aztec Stadium is scheduled for completion in 2022 with a capacity of only 35,000 but with wider concourses, more green spaces and better sightlines to better meet the needs of their fan base.San Diego is Getting a New Football Stadium for the First Time in ForeverThe new venue will play home to San Diego State football, international soccer, concerts, and tons of other events.medium.com

5.) A College Football Governing Body

Believe it not, there is no governing body that oversees FBS football which means important decisions on protocols, scheduling (some conferences play eight conference games while others play nine) and safety are left to each individual league. In the age of COVID-19, this could lead to inconsistent testing for the virus as well as other inconsistencies on health-and-safety and travel. Back in 2016, Alabama head coach Nick Saban said, “It’s not what’s best for the SEC or the Big Ten or the Pac-12, but what’s best for the game. That way, there’s no self-interest.”

The time for a Commissioner’s Office in College Football is past due.

The only constant right now in college athletics is change. And while we don’t yet know the full impact of the pandemic, we do know that it’s likely to result in a seismic shift across college athletics for many years to come. Hold on tight. ■

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