Yesterday, B12 Commish and former CFP mouthpiece, Bob Bowlsby admitted that no possibility is off the table for the 2020 football season, including playing in empty stadiums.
Bowlsby told reporters Thursday that “it’s hard to forecast those things” when refusing to rule out games in empty stadiums.
For the conferences and their member schools, this is a no-brainer. You play the games in empty stadiums. For the SEC, who was operating under a wealthy-but-underpriced $55m/year deal with CBS, it’s a chance to show off a new shiny rights contract. Its new deal with the ABC/ESPN family of networks is believed to be close to six times that sum — $300 million a year, every year. Other conferences are in a similar boat, particularly the other behemoth: The Big 10 is in the final two seasons of a six-year deal worth $2.4 billion. The ACC, which runs on the occasional Notre Dame tilt, its one good football team a year, and a wealth of outstanding basketball, just signed at twenty-year deal with ABC/ESPN. Even the AAC, with a strong basketball roster and football teams that have become the darlings of the midmajors, has gotten in on the action, signing a 12-year, $1 billion deal with ESPN.
Since so very much of university revenue runs on the television rights, and some schools like Alabama and LSU rely on that money for its general funds, there is a direct pecuniary motivation to play the games. Alabama football recorded nearly $50m in profit last season, and had a budget surplus of almost $11m. So, yeah, the pressure will be there to play them — at Central High, if need be. And, that financial calculus is one that some commenters like Kirk Herbstreit grossly understate when they opine that it is not possible to play the 2020 season.
At the same time, while such a solution may provide some financial cover to schools, conferences, networks and advertisers, it is by no means the end of the story. Budgets are very much reliant on those home games. Nor, does that solution do anything at all to ameliorate the financial pain that host cities and their local economies will continue to experience — for Tuscaloosa, that is roughly $20 million a game, every game. Over Saban’s tenure, he will have had a financial impact on Tuscaloosa alone of nearly two billion dollars. Can the Tuscaloosa economy, which is built on the feel-good boom of upscale realty and hospitality survive that? Can the dozens of small businesses which rely on the season income make it through a football-less Fall? Having spoken with three business owners in town, with financials ranging from modest to grab-your-guillotine-wealthy, the answer was uniformly, unflinchingly no.
And will the demand still be there for a product that is bereft of its atmosphere? The NFL has some special venues, to be sure — Seattle, Buffalo, KC, Three Rivers come to mind. But the home field is almost negligible in the pros. In college, the home field not only exists, but does so for a reason. No dotting the I. No cheerleaders and throwing tortillas. No vulgar chants from the student section. No mascot fights or coordinated cheers. No players feeding off the home energy. No disruption in an opponent scheme’s No clamor from the stadiums. No roar from the crowd...just the visceral popping of pads, cries of pain, grunts of contact, screaming from the sideline coaches, and a surreality that makes the game almost an alien one.
Is this an experience advertisers want? Or, for that matter, is it one that the casual fan will tune in for? The hardcore fans will be there, but it is the casual fan that drives the ratings monster, like last season’s Alabama-LSU GOTC (Part 5) — the most watched college game in a decade.
On the other hand, maybe we’ll tune in for such a surreal event after all. I don’t think anyone anticipated just quite how much Americans would miss sports when deprived of all them at the same time. You have the country vicariously living through video game competitions, replays of decades-old professional wrestling, and fake twitter accounts playing baseball games that do not exist.
And, then again, maybe we’ll have all come to peace in a world without sports. We made it 8 months; we can make it 8 more.
So, while the conference commissioners may see this as an appetizing solution, it is not one that helps the schools do much more than survive. And, for many fans, it may not even be a product worth tuning in for. After all, there are only so many glorious fall afternoons you get in a lifetime.