Report: Major public colleges could lose more than $4 billion if college football season canceled

The coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the 2020 football season is looming over the world of college athletics.

The loss of winter championships, namely the NCAA tournament, and cancellation of spring seasons is already being felt financially across the country. The NCAA distributed $375 million less to its members than it initially planned. Administrators and coaches across the country are taking pay cuts. And in what feels like a sign of things to come, Cincinnati cut its men’s soccer program Tuesday in a cost-cutting measure.

Things will get far more drastic if there is no football.

USA Today, based on an analysis of university financial reports, reported Tuesday that “at least $4.1 billion in fiscal-year revenue” is at stake for athletic departments, and that’s just among public schools in Power Five conferences. From USA Today:

That’s more than 60% of these schools’ combined total annual operating revenues, based on amounts reported for the 2019 fiscal year. These estimates do not take into account potential impacts on student fees or money from schools’ general funds, both of which likely would be reduced if students cannot return to campus as usual for the fall semester. Even within the Power Five, there are schools that receive significant amounts from those sources.

Football is the key financial engine that allows college athletics to operate. At most universities, football and men’s basketball are the only two sports that bring in significant revenue, providing the ability for schools to field teams in Olympic and other non-revenue sports. Income is generated through television and media rights, ticket sales and various game contracts for the regular season and postseason.

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Not to mention, the economic impact felt in college towns that depend on revenue from visiting football fans would also be devastating. Per USA Today, every Alabama home game brings a “visitor expenditure impact” in the range of $19.6 million to the Tuscaloosa area. That’s just one example that applies to dozens of small towns across the country.

The situation could prove to be even more dire in non-power leagues. Yahoo Sports reported Tuesday that commissioners from the Group of Five conferences — AAC, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt — sent a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert asking for alterations to NCAA bylaws as a way to ensure short-term financial relief.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 12: A general view of the stage featuring The College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy before the head coaches press conference before playing the College Football Playoff National Championship at the Grand Ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel on January 12, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
The loss of the college football season would have a dramatic financial impact. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)

All of these financial strains are the reason why it’s hard to see the college football season being canceled outright despite the various challenges ahead. Without a singular voice (like a commissioner for professional leagues), it’s going to be difficult to get everybody — from conference to conference and state to state — on the same page. Many contingency plans are being kicked around, and some have even floated the idea of starting the season in the spring.

No matter how it’s done, athletic directors and college sports administrators will do everything in their power to make sure a football season is played, even if the season doesn’t start on time. The financial implications are far too great.

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