The National Junior College Athletic Association announced Monday that it will not conduct any “close-contact” sports — like football and basketball — in the fall semester. Instead, the NJCAA’s new plan is to start basketball season in January and football season in March. And though this isn’t necessarily a sign of what’s to come at the Division I level, it sure feels like it could be as COVID-19 cases continue to spike in a way that makes playing college sports in the United States any time soon difficult bordering on impossible.
In short, things are not going well.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 have already announced they will not play non-league football games this fall, and more power conferences are expected to eventually do the same (if they even play football at all in the fall, which is obviously in question). Meantime, few people outside of college basketball are really focused on college basketball right now because college football is scheduled to start sooner, it’s bigger, more profitable and thus the priority. But almost nobody I’ve spoken with connected to the sport in the past week believes college basketball will start on time. And the growing assumption among decision-makers is that second-semester, conference-only schedules are a real possibility.
It’s easy to understand why.
First and foremost, COVID-19 cases in many states are increasing in a way that they are either starting to stress hospitals or are on a trajectory to do so soon. And as SEC commissioner Greg Sankey more or less said on radio Monday, don’t expect to see college sports happening in the fall with an overwhelmed healthcare system. Beyond that, think about what comprises most power-conference programs’ non-league basketball schedules: buy games. And buy games — i.e., games created when schools pay other schools to come and play a single game — don’t look like they’re going to be worth playing in November and December because they’re likely to be money-losers that present unnecessary risks.
Let me walk you through it.
Under normal circumstances, a school like Louisville might pay a school like Youngstown State $85,000 to visit the Yum! Center for a game. Then that game is made part of a season-ticket package, fans are asked to pay just as much for that game as they would for a game against Duke or Virginia, and Louisville makes lots and lots of money. That’s why the Cardinals played seven buy games last season — because it’s a great way to spend $85,000 to make hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions of dollars, in return.
But not if you can’t sell tickets!
Understand, there is currently no reason to think arenas will be filled with fans in November and December. So these buy games are unlikely to be anything but money losers. And if they’re money losers, what’s the point in playing them — especially when power-conference schools will have no control over, or even any idea of, the COVID-19 testing protocols implemented by their opponents?
That’s the other part of this dilemma.
The advantage of building conference-only schedules that do not start until at least January is that they would give our country more time to get this virus under control and maybe, just maybe, discover a vaccine, and they would also allow a conference — whether it’s the Big Ten or Big 12 or any other league with tremendous resources — to create testing protocols that are consistently applied to all. In other words if you’re a Pac-12 school like UCLA, do you really want to spend the time and money it takes to regularly test and test and test only to then put your team on the court with a school from, say, the Summit League that probably isn’t testing as often because they simply do not have the same resources?
“Absolutely not,” a power-conference coach told me. “Why would we do that?”
So, no, the NJCAA’s decision to push the start of basketball to the spring semester will not lead all Division I conferences to immediately do the same, just like the Ivy League and Patriot League already announcing similar plans didn’t immediately become a trend that trickled up. But I can’t overstate how unlikely it is that the NCAA’s upcoming basketball season will start on time and feature full schedules across the board.
It’s just not going to happen.
And that’s why, at this point, the plan should no longer be rooted in unrealistic hopes that the virus will magically disappear in time for Kentucky to responsibly host Hartford inside a packed Rupp Arena in November. At this point, the goal should be to just have any season in some form that culminates with the 2021 NCAA Tournament. And, with each passing day, as COVID-19 cases continue to trend the wrong direction in too many states, what that’s looking more and more like is a season that starts later and features a fraction of the regular-season games currently scheduled to be played.