MISSOULA — There are a handful of options for what the Big Sky Conference presidents could decide to do with football this school year.
They could say the fall season will be played as it is despite the coronavirus pandemic. They could decide it’ll be played with an altered fall schedule, possibly featuring just conference games. They could move football to the spring. They could outright cancel football this school year. Or they could again punt a decision down the road, as they did Thursday.
The league presidents will reconvene after the NCAA Board of Governors meeting Tuesday, which could provide more insight to help the presidents in their decision making. The main topic of discussion at the Board meeting will be the status of the NCAA-sponsored fall championships, including the FCS playoffs, with the potential outcomes being to host them in the fall, move them to the spring or cancel them altogether.
“Depending on what they do, it sends us in different directions,” Montana athletic director Kent Haslam said. “The goal right now is I want to have an experience for all of our student-athletes that is safe and meaningful. Meaningful could mean competing for a championship or competing for a national championship or playing in front of crowds. All those types of experiences.
“Right now, I just don’t know what direction all those things are going to take. But I do think the Board of Governors meeting on Aug. 4 is a big day.”
The Board is a 25-member group that includes the NCAA President, 19 representatives from all three NCAA divisions and five people outside of college athletics. Only three FCS reps are on the Board: one each from the NEC, Ivy League and MEAC, all of which have postponed fall sports. The Ivy League and MEAC don’t send their champions to the FCS playoffs.
The Board already punted on a decision during its July 24 meeting. If it makes a similar decision Tuesday, it could cause a challenge for the seven remaining FCS conferences that haven’t decided about football this fall. Most of those teams are scheduled to open fall camp Aug. 7, three days after that meeting — some teams, like FCS Southern Illinois, began July 31 — and other teams would have to decide whether to start up without knowing if they’ll have a shot to play for a national title.
While the NCAA sponsors the FCS playoffs, holding regular-season competition is still up to the conferences. This past spring, the NCAA decided to cancel spring championships, and the Big Sky followed a week later by canceling the remainder of its games for spring sports.
So far, six of the 13 FCS conferences have decided not to play football in the fall. One of those leagues, the Colonial Athletic Association, has two members, James Madison and Elon, looking to play an independent fall schedule if there’s a shot at an NCAA championship.
Whether there's an opportunity to play for a title could make an impact in the Big Sky’s decision about fall sports. It’s the Big Sky university presidents who’ll decide about their league playing, but athletic directors provide their input to their presidents.
“Being tied to those national championships are important, so understanding what they’re going to do with the fall gives us a better ground to make a good decision,” Haslam said. “Competing in NCAA championships is something that our student-athletes enjoy and want to do, so it’s staying tied to those. It also gives us some good direction for what the rest of our colleagues will do in college athletics.”
Aside from championships, financial conversations must take place when considering whether to play in the fall. That’s especially true for Montana, which is routinely near the top of the FCS in attendance and leads the Big Sky in annual football ticket revenue, netting about $4.5 million to $5 million, or about 20% of its $23 million in revenue during the 2019 fiscal year.
The Griz are already down one home game with the opener against Central Washington canceled. They still need Morehead State to get a waiver from the Pioneer Football League to play a non-conference game after the PFL decided to go with a conference-only schedule.
If UM loses both those games, it could be out $1 million to $1.2 million in ticket revenue in a normal year. But it’s likely stadiums won't be full for any game at any level this fall, which could potentially be more feasible during the spring but is far from guaranteed.
“You don’t want to make decisions just strictly from a financial standpoint, but they have to be part of the discussion,” Haslam said. “For me, it goes back to that experience for the student-athlete. I think that could be measured through playing for championships and then also playing in front of people and letting them have that experience as well.
“We know we’re going to have much stricter crowds in the fall, we’re going to have difficulty traveling, difficulty testing, getting test results. It seems to me that a meaningful experience might be best carried out in the spring. You could potentially have much advances medically on how to fight the virus so we can have much larger crowds, tailgating, travel much easier, selling more tickets, those types of things. That to me seems like the more reasonable approach from a financial standpoint sitting here now at the end of July.”
In terms of safety, even if the NCAA allows for championships this fall and the Big Sky goes forward with a season, the ability to play might come down to approval from local health departments. The 13 Big Sky teams being spread out across eight states could make that more challenging than smaller, more condensed conferences. And even if the season starts, it could be stalled because of a spike in coronavirus cases and possibly resume later.
Pro sports have experienced some challenges since kicking off — Major League Baseball on July 23 and the NBA on Thursday — both without fans in attendance and the NBA in a "bubble." Eighteen Miami Marlins have tested positive for COVID-19, and there have been 15 MLB games postponed in the first nine days because of coronavirus cases, including three Friday.
“Where we sit right now today, it’s a heavy lift to try to play in the fall," Haslam said. "It can be done, there’s no doubt it can be done. We need to get students back on campus and see how that goes, we need to get them back in the classrooms and doing their everyday things with being a student.
“You can look at them from watching what Major League Baseball is doing to be able to play their games, watching what the NBA is doing, moving everybody to Orlando and living in a bubble. Those things just aren’t realistic for college athletics. We can’t just grab all of our student-athletes and follow the MLB model or follow the PGA model or follow the NFL model or follow the NBA model. We just can’t do that because they’re college kids.”
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at email@example.com.
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