The Big Ten and Pac-12 became the first Power Five leagues to shift to an all-conference fall schedule as college sports faces a dramatically different landscape due to the coronavirus pandemic. In football alone, 73 games were scrapped in two days, from marquee matchups like Oregon-Ohio State to storied rivalries like USC-Notre Dame.
All eyes are now on the Atlantic Coast, Southeastern and Big 12 conferences to see if more games will be shelved in what is already shaping up as a college football season like no other. Hundreds of games have already been canceled, suspended or pushed to the spring semester at the lowest tiers of college football.
Most of the canceled football games in the Pac-12 and Big Ten are less glamorous matchups against small schools counting on big payouts to keep their athletic budgets afloat when they are already facing ugly bottom lines. Saving that money is crucial for the power conference schools -- and a tremendous blow to their opponents.
“It’s significant, to say the least,” Northern Arizona athletic director Mike Marlow said Friday after the Pac-12 announcement. “We’re fortunate in the state of Arizona to have both (Arizona State) and (Arizona) here and we have one or the other scheduled through 2029. That’s a significant part of our budget.”
The Big Ten announced Thursday it will eliminate all nonconference games in football and several other sports amid rising COVID-19 concerns. The Pac-12 followed suit a day later, announcing it was eliminating all nonconference games from its fall schedules for football, men’s and women’s soccer and women’s volleyball. The Ivy League has called off all fall sports.
A conference-only schedule also allows schools to cut down on travel and other expenses at a time when athletic departments are facing massive budget constraints.
The cancellation of the NCAA Tournament left the NCAA $375 million short in revenue scheduled to be paid to its member schools and the pandemic has continued to exacerbate financial shortcomings with many schools facing a drop in tuition revenue and lower attendance. Stanford has already announced plans to eliminate 11 of its 36 varsity sports next year to help shore up some of a projected $25 million budget shortfall and at least 171 sports programs at four-year schools have been cut during the pandemic.
The Big Ten's decision wipes out 33 nonconference football games against non-Power Five programs — nine more against Power Five opponents, including two against Pac-12 foes — with payouts ranging in the six figures to more than $1 million to smaller schools. The Pac-12's move erases 33 nonconference games in all, including five against Power Five opponents.
Non-Power Five schools will collectively lose at least $110 million — possibly up to $150 million — in revenue from guaranteed payments by Power Five schools in a conference-only model, according to Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis.
“I expect every conference will at least move towards fewer games. ... and likely a conference-only model,” Rishe said. “If you reduce beyond that, what’s the point of conducting the sport in the fall? You’d be better off giving the spring a try and craft a conference-only spring schedule which can be contested in less time, less travel, etc.”
Northern Arizona has a scheduled payout of $518,000 for its Sept. 3 game at Arizona State, money that slated to be used for the football team's 2020 travel expenses. Northern Arizona's overall athletic budget is $21 million and already went through one round of budget reductions to prevent cutting sports.
Fresno State is due to make a combined $1.9 million for buy games against Colorado and Texas A&M this season. New Mexico is due $1.9 million in payouts for road games against Mississippi State and Southern California.
Montana State has a $675,000 payout for a Sept. 12 game at Utah. Hawaii had most of its nonconference schedule wiped out, losing road games against Pac-12 schools Arizona, UCLA and Oregon after Fordham earlier canceled its Sept. 12 game at Aloha Stadium. The Rainbow Warriors only have a game against New Mexico State on Oct. 12 left on their nonconference schedule.
Like Hawaii, BYU now isn't scheduled to play its first game until October because its first four games, two against Big Ten teams and two more against Pac-12 teams, are now gone.
Some schools could lose more than 5% of their entire athletic budgets if guarantee games are wiped off their schedules.
“Every department has its own philosophy, but I don’t recall in my six years where a MAC team did not play at least a game where they’re bringing home a pretty good check," Eastern Michigan coach Chris Creighton said. "And that check supports much more than just football.”
Most guarantee game contracts have so-called act of God clauses, providing some compensation when an uncontrollable event causes a cancellation. The clauses vary by each contract and schools are already sorting through those in case guarantee games — or the entire season — are wiped out.
“I don’t think we know what the financial impact is,” MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher acknowledged in a telephone interview Thursday. “Those schools will have to work through how you disassemble that contract and put it back together. We’ll all act accordingly and we’ll see over the next two to three weeks what the season looks like if we’re able to have a season at all.”
AP Sports Writers John Zenor in Montgomery, Alabama; Cliff Brunt in Oklahoma City; and Larry Lage in Detroit contributed to this report.
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