Commentary: How a season affected by Covid-19 might shake out

Typically at this time of the year, you’d be reading a story either previewing or recapping Alabama’s A-Day game, and getting you ready for TideFans.com’s annual summer team previews prior to college football heading into fall camps.

Things are different in 2020, though. Much different. They are different in Tuscaloosa, in Auburn, in Fayetteville, in Lexington – and very different in places like New York City and Seattle.

While the United States gets ready to reopen sometime around May 1 – in many places, but not all – and while news broke late Thursday of a possible treatment for Covid-19 (Remdesivir, a developmental antiviral) that had showed wide success in a clinical trial, there has already been a profound altering of the schedule for college football in 2020.

To that end, I’m going to break from a usual third-person analysis and speak directly to you, our readers, on what I think is going to happen with the season. Like any futurecasting, this column may not age well two or three years from now, depending on what happens over the summer. I’m accustomed to analyzing football teams, not viruses, and viruses tend to be tight-lipped when you ask one for an interview.

The following is an assessment of where we are now, three possible scenarios for the season, and then what some of the long-term effects of each might be. I’m drawing on my personal experience in economic development, because this isn’t just about football anymore, and things like what fans want – for that matter, what Nick Saban wants – are immaterial. The virus will do what it does; we have to respond to it, not it to us.

Before we get into the rest of this, here’s the big number I want you all to keep in your head: Using just some napkin math regarding what I think is the average price of a seat at Bryant-Denny Stadium, figuring in Tide Pride, Alabama stands to take in – at least – $80 million in a typical season. That number could be as high as $130 million, or even higher, depending on what I don’t know about big-dollar donors.

For those of you who think you can have a season completely on television, with no fans, and it not have a killer effect on athletic department budgets, it’s time to rethink your position.

Where we are now

Spring football has been washed out. There has been discussion of a modified spring football camp season, perhaps operating at school facilities even while classes have been widely suspended. Or, at third-party sites if schools must remained locked down.

I don’t see that happening. For one thing, all states are not affected equally by Covid-19 and all are not responding to it in the same way. Florida, Georgia, Alabama and several other states have been sitting on “G,” waiting on “O” for weeks already. Others – Michigan, I’m looking at you – are being overly cautious, and that’s putting it kindly. Michigan’s governor, for instance, has stopped the sale of plant seeds for some reason, meaning residents who depend on gardens to supplement their food supply will have a guaranteed yield of zero for 2020 unless policy is changed. Please pardon me addressing that in a sports article, but I find that particular decision to be without any kind of scientific merit, and it frankly smacks of someone in power who just doesn’t “get it” particularly well.

Going back to football, even if Alabama were to have a full opening on May 1, other states won’t. And, the NCAA is going to have to decide how it wants to handle things from a regulatory position. There will be immense pressure on the NCAA, from member schools in states that are going to be shut down longer, to keep everyone idled until the last school in the last state gets the go-ahead. The NCAA must balance this against the reality that athletic departments are in dire financial straits and without the football cash cow, some departments have no hope of continuing operations.

Some contraction is probably a good thing – regular readers of this space will note that I think Division-IA (called FBS these days) needs only about 80 teams in it anyway. But that doesn’t mean the athletes playing at some of these schools – in all sports, football or not – deserve to lose their scholarship to a virus.

A start date needs to be set soon, then, with consensus and support even from teams that may not get to benefit. It may be an abbreviated summer practice session in June – but organized, run by coaches.

There’s a question, though, of how necessary spring practices are. Futurecasting this, I would predict sometime over the next 20 years, it will go away altogether unless schools can figure out how to monetize it. Player safety, in addition to how future labor laws will handle so-called “amateur athletes,” may lead to the elimination of spring football altogether, no matter what the effect is on the product in the fall. There will still be workouts and physical training, but not actual football.

And we might be about to get a test run of that future policy.

My prediction here? No spring or summer practices, as much because I don’t think the NCAA can get its act together quickly enough to come up with a solution that will make all schools happy.

Three scenarios for a 2020 season – Scenario #1: Keep the current schedule

Whether or not there is some kind of abbreviated, early summer practice session, there is one certainty about fall football: If you want to have it, you must have a fall camp beforehand.

Fall camps typically open up around the first of August. They last about a month and coaches frequently say they would like to see them expand to six to eight weeks or more, as a month isn’t enough – meaning, anything less than a month of camp leading up to Week 1 of the regular season is going to have a direct effect on the quality of the product, perhaps a substantial direct and negative effect.

So, if you’re going to open up Sept. 5, you’ve got to be on a practice field by Aug. 1 or thereabouts.

For Alabama, there’s a complicating factor: The Crimson Tide’s first scheduled opponent is Southern Cal, and California is one of a handful of states that seem to be against the idea of any fan-attended sporting events for the remainder of the 2020 calendar year. While Alabama’s game against Southern Cal is scheduled to be played in Texas, there is significant concern that California’s government will not allow any of its teams to play in games in which fans are present, citing player safety.

If Southern Cal pushes for that – especially if other schools have made the decision to play in front of crowds, and especially if organizers of the AdvoCare Classic demand the clearance to sell tickets to what amounts to a preseason bowl game – Alabama will have a decision to make. Or, the NCAA has a decision to make, more accurately: Force Southern Cal to play the game as scheduled, or forfeit; or play the game in an empty stadium. If it’s the latter, someone will have to reimburse organizers for the loss of ticket revenue, which would probably be in about the $7 million to $10 million range. Would the NCAA eat that cost, or would Southern Cal have to pony up by itself? Those are the kinds of arguments and discussions that are happening on conference calls even as I write this.

That’s scenario No. 1. It would require a full opening of the country by Aug. 1, or at the very least, a waiver given to those schools by both their respective state governments and the NCAA, so that practices and games may be held.

Scenario #2: Delay the season until mid-fall

This one seems to be gathering steam from what I can tell. It would involve starting the season on or about Oct. 17, with practices starting a month before. Whether that means games leading up to Oct. 17 would be wiped out, or whether it would push the season over Christmas and into the winter, I can’t say, because I haven’t heard yet.

I find this to be sort of a limp-wristed solution because it doesn’t really solve anything. Government officials in California, North Carolina, New York and other places are talking about a hard close until Jan. 1, 2021. Whether the season starts Sept. 5 or Oct. 17 doesn’t make much of a difference to them.

There are other issues to deal with, mostly concerned with scheduling and weather. There will be games snowed out, for instance, if airports close. The entire bowl season then gets wiped out or rescheduled into spring. There are issues to deal with regarding the NCAA’s other cash sport, basketball, and then there are the small things, like how strength and conditioning staffs at smaller schools handle having both their money sports running at the same time. For an Alabama, which essentially has a different staff for each sport, no big deal. For a Towson State, it could be a different story. Remember that FCS and Divisions II and III are affected by this virus just as much as FBS is.

For this scenario to take place, schools would have to be open and fall camp running by Sept. 15. To me, it seems like a lot of schedule-juggling and other logistical challenges in exchange for a relatively minor payoff of six additional weeks of social distancing.

This might come down to whether schools are allowed to have fans in the stands during this time. If they’re not, why even try this?

Scenario #3: A 2020 season occurring in 2021

This is the panic-button scenario, as it involves opening the season in January sometime and running concurrently with the heart of basketball season, crowning a champion sometime in April or May – thus wiping out spring football for 2021, delaying the 2021 NFL Draft, and then heading right back into preparation for the 2021 schedule. “March Madness” indeed.

The only upside to this, and I mean the only upside to this, is that it gives the hardest-hit states time to recover and get comfy with the idea of having paying fans in the stands again.

Challenges run rampant: Many early-season games will be in danger of snowing out in the Great Plains, Great Northwest and Northeast regions. Bowl games get pushed right into the middle of family vacation season. The vaccine that some governors seem hung up on getting before letting anyone do anything fun – it probably won’t be here until February at the earliest. What if there’s a recurrence of the virus?

The biggest question is whether lockdown states (and the NCAA) decide to let teams back onto campus Dec. 1, 2020, to begin what would then be winter camp. The season can’t just crank up on Jan. 1 with teams that haven’t practiced for 12 months.

The inevitable question becomes what to do if hardline lockdown states remain hardline lockdown states. That would force an opening of operations on Jan. 1 with a season kickoff date in early February, which would then push the season through the spring semester and into May or even June – with kids being asked to report back to campus in August for the next season. If that’s what has to happen, it leads me to the following…

The Doomsday Scenario: Goodbye, 2020 season

Anything short of a winter camp in December 2020 and a hard open of operations in January means the season is lost. That would trigger its own set of problems, not the least of which are eligibility concerns, scholarship limitations, and what to do with athletes who wanted to enter the NFL Draft despite playing fewer than three years on the field.

Remember, there are two reasons to push the season into 2020 – player safety in regards to the Covid-19 virus, and the ability to get butts in the seats. College football may make a ton of money from TV contracts but ticket sales are still of paramount concern.

If the 2020 season is canceled, the NCAA will have a field day trying to figure out what to do with the 2020 class: If they are allowed a blanket extra year of eligibility, it won’t stop the flow of true freshmen coming in, so will teams be allowed to carry 100-110 players on scholarship for 2021? And if the NCAA balks at that suggestion, will this finally be the time the largest schools tell the NCAA to shove it, and go form their own, more economically-friendly sanctioning body?

The effect of any of these scenarios on Alabama’s on-field product

To make this easy, let’s say everything starts on time in the fall, whether fans are in the stands or not, but that there was no spring practice or emergency summer practice of any kind.

Alabama, like every other team, has holes to fill heading into 2020. Of those, the most high-profile is of course the quarterback position, vacated when Tua Tagovailoa chose to enter the 2020 NFL Draft early.

The most frequent question I get in regards to this team is how long it’s going to take for Bryce Young to be named the starter. That’s a loaded question to begin with, as it assumes Mac Jones and Lia Tagovailoa aren’t in the picture, and they very much are. One of Young’s biggest advantages to taking the spot as a true freshman was that he was going to be available for spring practice work – and now, no one is available for spring practice work.

To be blunt, the longer it takes Young to get into a structured practice environment, the harder it’s going to be to pass Jones and Tagovailoa by. For that matter, the season starting on-time is probably the worst-case scenario for Young, because he’ll have 2-3 weeks, tops, to show he’s better than Jones before gameplan installation would have to commence. If the season was delayed into October, or into 2021, Young would probably get a chance to practice with his teammates even if it had to be done “off the books.” Because whether the season starts on time or not, barring a second wave of Covid-19, I fully expect all students and faculty to be back on all Alabama university campuses no later than the start of fall classes, if not the second summer term.

As such, if I had to handicap the Alabama quarterback battle right now for the opener, I would have Mac Jones starting it, with the only hitch being that he showed up in August basically forgetting how to play the position. His Auburn performance will be forever remembered for the two interceptions, unfairly so. Even if you want to ascribe more weight to that performance than it deserves, his performance against Michigan was nearly flawless. If he continued to make as much progress from the Michigan game to the USC game as he did over the course of 2019’s final month, there wouldn’t be much debate about it at all, except from people determined to see Young’s hype firsthand.

In regards to the 2020 season, whenever it happens – if it happens – the learning curve is going to be steeper, and the areas in which Alabama is inexperienced (quarterback, secondary) are going to have more “oops” moments than we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. Given a full season starting in September with only four weeks of practice beforehand, expect to see a lot of bad football early and a lot of upsets.

In regards to what would happen if the 2020 season is canceled outright, I need to know what the NCAA is thinking first in regards to relaxed scholarship limitations. Imagine Najee Harris delaying entry into the draft a second time, heading up a 2021 running back group full of both 2020 and 2021 signees. Ooof.

Prediction time: Where are we headed with all of this?

I feel fairly certain the NCAA is going to seek consensus from all its schools, especially the larger ones in the “Power 5” conferences, before making a policy decision that affects the 2020 season and, by extension, the 2021 season as well.

What I’m going to be interested to see is whether the California governors (and possibly the New York, Michigan, North Carolina and New Jersey governors, among others) are capable of holding the season hostage. Unfortunately, this is one of those times we can’t separate sports from politics. Having this happen in an election year is the worst possible scenario, especially with a president as polarizing as Donald Trump has been – and understand, “polarizing” has no bearing on an evaluation of good or bad.

The NCAA is caught in its own conflict; most schools are run by leaders who are decidedly risk-off. However, even the most risk-averse college president has a budget to make. The problem comes when the politics of those presidents, or the governors of some states, become at-odds with the politics of the current administration. The national mainstream news media has already divided and taken sides, some to the extent that their perceived mission of influencing voters has superseded their actual stated mission of delivering raw facts. Truth and the scientific process have been shuttled to the back of the bus while leaders fight among themselves over who is going to come out looking better.

We have about two months to make this decision. In that span of time, the NCAA will have to decide when it would like to start the season. If it’s Sept. 5, the next step is figuring out what to do when a handful of schools (or states) tell the NCAA no. Will there be forfeits? Will those forfeits be held against teams at playoff time? Will coaches employed at forfeiting schools have a case against schools or the NCAA for financial loss if their contracts are tied to certain postseason benchmarks that they are estopped from achieving?

Will governors and presidents who hate the president on a personal level allow those prejudices to affect their decisions? Would Trump try to force compliance in some fashion? Will this devolve into a discussion of whether one side can let another side “win?” What constitutes a “win” anyway in a time like this?

If I had to handicap it all at this moment, I would say it’s a dead-even race between starting on time or delaying all the way into January. The “October Solution” being floated now assumes that some governors backtrack on plans to keep fans away from games. You can analyze this situation from multiple angles, but don’t forget the bogey everyone is shooting at: revenue. This decision on when to start and how is all about how to save the millions (if not billions, with a “B”) of dollars that are going to be lost if games take place in empty stadiums, or fail to take place at all. Starting in October doesn’t solve that any better than starting in September would, and if the bowl season is endangered, here come the lawyers.

I believe we’ll have a full season. I just don’t know exactly when we’ll have it. I believe zero-hour for this decision to be made, though, is no later than June 1. And if some states begin to reopen – and have success keeping Covid-19 tamped down, and/or if a treatment or cure is found by that time – the pressure from the business community (and consumers alike) will begin to be too much on some governors to withstand. Therefore, I choose to take the optimist’s viewpoint: I believe football is coming back on time.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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