Vice President Mike Pence, in a phone call with college athletic leaders on Wednesday, expressed optimism for a college football season this fall, thanked them for swift action in adhering to federal virus-preventing guidelines and arranged for future such communications, those with knowledge of the call told Sports Illustrated.
Though nothing substantive emerged, the fact the Trump administration held such a call with college-level decision-makers—and is scheduled to hold more—is news enough. President Donald Trump earlier this month spoke with commissioners of the major professional sports organizations, with no leaders from the NCAA or college world involved. Pence’s call Wednesday morning was with the College Football Playoff Management Committee, encompassed of the 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick. “It was the opening of communication between college football and the White House,” says one administrator briefed on the call.
The call was complementary and positive in nature, but held no real specifics on football’s future. It was billed by one source as a “good, productive introductory call.” More such conversations with college leaders are expected in the future, maybe the most significant news from the proceedings. A second call is scheduled within the next 30 days. “It was nothing earth shattering, but I’d call it an excellent call,” said AAC commissioner Mike Aresco. “He reached out and we appreciate that. He respects the value of college sports. He was very solicitous of our opinions.”
Pence expressed to commissioners the federal government’s optimism in wide-spread testing quantities that are imperative to reopening the states and having students return to campus—a key in football’s startup. At least one commissioner on the call, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, told CBS Sports on Wednesday that there will be no athletic contests without campuses open for classes. However, students being on campus isn’t necessary a prerequisite for on-campus athletic activities—like, say, football practice. Aresco said the consensus that he has picked up from coaches and athletic directors in his league, and in discussion with leaders of other leagues, is that “teams need six weeks, maybe eight” of workouts to be ready for a football season. “Nobody thinks four is enough.”
Pence told college leaders that the Trump administration is expected to roll out a plan Thursday for each individual state to reopen. “There was talk about the importance of campuses being open for athletic events to continue,” one official briefed on the call told SI. Easier said than done. Each state is on its own independent timeline in fighting the coronavirus outbreak, one of the complexities in restarting college athletic events and something noted by several administrators in a wide-ranging story published last week at SI.com. “There are some encouraging signs, with a number of states where the outbreak is not as severe,” said Aresco. We will rely on the experts, of course. But we will need to have some guidance, some coordination between the federal government, the state governments and the NCAA to get everyone on the same page.” Some of the call was educational in nature as conference commissioners explained to Pence the intricacies of an athletic industry tied to education.
College leaders speaking to SI on Wednesday expressed optimism that a season will be played, but that delaying the start—possibly until October—is an option gaining steam. Playing the season in the spring, with a February start, has been bantered about as well, or even shortening a season that begins in October to include only conference games. The latter could pose a problem for Group of Five athletic departments that depend on million-dollar payouts for non-conference games against Power 5 league members. These models are a long way from being official. “Honestly,” said one P5 athletic director Wednesday, “we’re all just throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks.”
There is no denying, however, the financial impact of football on many athletic departments. The sport is responsible for producing as much as 85% of a Power 5 conference school’s annual revenue, including ticket sales, donations and TV money. Last year, more than half of the 65 Power 5 schools turned a profit of at least $20 million on football, cash that often times subsidizes other sports. Already since the shutdown, two programs have closed have shuttered sports—men’s soccer at Cincinnati and wrestling at Old Dominion—and most ADs expect that trend to continue as administrators grapple with revenue loss. One Pac- 12 athletic director believes that even with football games in the fall his department will lose 20% of revenue.
On Tuesday, Yahoo! Sports reported that Group of Five commissioners sent to the NCAA a request for temporary relief from regulatory requirements, including the number of sports schools must sponsor to be an NCAA member (16). Power 5 schools may make their own requests soon. One SEC athletic director told SI that he believes the NCAA should lift summer restrictions on hours players can workout with staff members in order to expedite the preseason process.
Meanwhile, Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested in interviews this week that pro sports could return this summer in empty stadiums and with players quarantined in hotels. That view is not expressed by others, including sitting governors. California Gov. Gavin Newson, for instance, said Tuesday that mass gatherings such as sporting events are “negligible at best until we get to herd immunity and get to a vaccine.” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, asked about Ohio State football playing in front of 100,000 people, fans said that “large gatherings of people are going to be the last thing we check off the box.”