Will Coronavirus Impact College Football Participation?

History suggests a season without the sport will have far-reaching consequences

The Empire of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 pulled the United States into the global turmoil that became World War II.

 

The following four years completely changed the world's complexion, from elements as critical as national leadership to those as ultimately frivolous as college football. The sport's history ties into that of World War II in some fascinating ways; two books to consider picking up during novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, social distancing are Lars Anderson's The All Americans and Brian Curtis' Fields of Battles.

 

The latter focuses on the 1942 Rose Bowl Game, the only edition of the Granddaddy of 'Em All played outside of California. With President Franklin Roosevelt issuing a moratorium on large-scale public gatherings and events on the West Coast immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Rose Bowl organizers had to improvise. The matchup between Oregon State and Duke was moved to the Blue Devils' home stadium in Durham, North Carolina.

 

 

College football resumed during the war, and the rush of young men enlisting in the Armed Services contributed to one of the greatest dynasties in the sport's history flourishing at Army West Point. A variety of college football programs also ceased operations, particularly in the early phases of American wartime.

 

The 1941 season marked the last for American University, Gonzaga, and Providence College. After the 1942 campaign, Creighton and Manhattan College folded.

 

Said Gonzaga president Father Leo J. Robinson in April 1942, upon official closure of Bulldogs football: "The war-time emergency has disseminated the ranks of the football of our state. Still greater inroads are anticipated as military needs increase."

 

An Omaha World-Herald story from last September offers previously lost history from Bluejays football lore, including a win over Texas Tech in the program's penultimate game. But as the World-Herald's Chris Peters notes, that win became a last hurrah: Creighton's campus became somewhat of a training ground for troops in World War II. As those troops shipped off, football programs across the country shut down, some permanently."

 

The call to action today amid the coronavirus crisis differs greatly from that of World War II, beyond this being a global issue that far transcends football. Even so, it could still impact the game in similar ways.

 

The 2020 season is not scheduled to kick off for another five-and-a-half months. Social distancing continuing that long might seem outlandish now, but how preposterous would the idea of a March sans NCAA Tournament have seemed on March 1? March 5? March 10?

 

Coronavirus has us in unprecedented territory, and everything from the duration of social distancing to the size of recommended gatherings has changed dramatically in just a few days. The prospect of an autumn without football is a concept for which we should all prepare — and if it comes to pass, understand that it might have serious implications for some programs.

 

Cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament leaves questions about the $821.4 million in TV and marketing revenue and $129.4 million in ticket sales the NCAA reported in 2018 were distributed through member institutions. The share smaller athletic departments receive is a substantial hit to their budgets; now, compound the losses with potential losses from canceled football games.

 

In 2017, Business Insider reported the average FBS athletic department generated $31.9 million in football revenue, which surpassed the combined revenue created in other sports. In three years since then, the money that TV contracts generate for college football's big-time players has grown substantially.

 

While those athletic departments would certainly feel a pinch from a lost season, the sting would trickle down more so to the universities that subsist through games against those programs.

 

San Jose State provides an interesting case study. Last season, the Spartans sprung one of the biggest upsets of 2019 when they shocked Arkansas, 31-24. The win came with a $1.5 million payday for San Jose State athletics, too — and that equaled nearly six percent of the university's entire athletic budget of $26.5 million, based on 2018 figures.

 

 

Tom FitzGerald of the San Francisco Chronicle took an interesting dive into how San Jose State has become "prolific" when it comes to generating revenue through football buy-games. In 2020, the Spartans are slated to face Penn State in Happy Valley, almost one year to the day they stunned Arkansas. Win or lose, they would leave Beaver Stadium with a sizable addition to the athletic fund.

 

That's no small issue for a program in the California State University system, either. The graveyard of defunct college football programs includes a variety of Cal State universities, some that were still active only a generation ago. Long Beach State ceased operations in 1991, with a roster that included eventual Pro Football Hall of Famer Terrell Davis. A year later, Cal State Fullerton — a program that finished 11-1 just eight years prior — closed up shop.

 

Now, San Jose State's situation is worth bringing up not because the program is in danger without a 2020 season, but rather, to underscore the importance of high-dollar non-conference games for programs outside of the Power 5.

 

Likewise, program closures are not always necessarily the result of global turmoil, like World War II or a viral outbreak. The aforementioned Cal State programs, for example, shut down due to budgetary issues not tied into something larger.

 

But economics have and will continue to dictate decisions regarding football programs, and coronavirus will come with economic factors.

 

The real prospect of a recession serves as a reminder that long ago, the United States endured its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. At the outset and during the worst phases of the Great Recession, college football lost three Div. I programs: Iona after the 2008 campaign and Hofstra and Northeastern both following the '09 season.

 

Last December, Bill Pennington of The New York Times examined the decision that led to Northeastern shuttering football a decade ago, and why the sport never returned. An NPR segment on Pennington's story that aired in January referenced the announcement Northeastern brass made in 2009:

 

"It was clear that in order for us to compete at a level that we wanted to against the programs that we have to play against in the Colonial Athletic Association, it was going to require investments in the multiples of millions of dollars," Peter Roby said. "And I just didn't feel I could make that recommendation to the senior leadership of the institution."

 

And should any athletic departments come out of the coronavirus mess deciding the monetary investment needed to keep football isn't worth it, it won't be alone: The 2020 offseason already began with Jacksonville University shuttering its program.

 

Jacksonville president Tom Cost told News4Jax in December that the school closing the program was "a bigger strategic decision than just financials."

 

Will a season without football leave other athletic departments making similar decisions, feeling the way Pennington described to NPR that Northeastern felt in its decade off the gridiron; like it doesn't need the game?

 

On the flip side, college football experienced a boom in new programs during the 2010s. At the FBS level, there's South Alabama, Georgia State, UTSA and Charlotte, the latter of which concluded its 2019 season with the program's first-ever bowl game.

 

 

The 49ers played at the Bahamas Bowl, which three years earlier hosted Old Dominion, a program that began in 2009 and was a burgeoning FCS power before having the opportunity to jump to FBS.

 

FCS has welcomed newcomers like Lamar, East Tennessee State, and just last year, Long Island University. Kennesaw State has grown into a national title contender in short order, and in 2013, Mercer came back to the football party following a hiatus that began after the 1941 season — one month to the day Pearl Harbor was attacked.

 

Uncertainty looms in all phases of life amid the spread of coronavirus, including college football. It's an unprecedented situation, but it's not the first unprecedented circumstances that could alter the sport's landscape.

 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

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