FARGO — On Feb. 21 at 2:30, a Sunday afternoon, North Dakota State and Youngstown State are scheduled to tee it up in the Missouri Valley Football Conference opener at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. It’s a strange thought, but then again football in a pandemic has been Twilight Zone strange.
Confidence of games actually happening in the spring wavers from very little to OK. Finding somebody who is 100% sure the games will be played is probably an impossibility at this point.
But what do we know?
Here is a cheat sheet of the known factors and guesses of what football from February through May is going to look like in the FCS, or may look like:
What will attendance look like?
That is the major question as Thanksgiving is approaching and COVID-19 numbers are rising. The NDSU athletic department has been in touch with the North Dakota Department of Health on different scenarios “in terms of how large venues will be managed moving forward,” said NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen.
Larsen said he’s hoping to get some direction in the next couple of weeks. It appears a best-case scenario for NDSU is similar to what was hoped for the Central Arkansas game in early October: 50% of capacity.
The Bison-UCA game, of course, was reduced to roughly 250 friends and family of players and coaches.
Missouri Valley commissioner Patty Viverito said several league schools are in hopes of 25% capacity, but that comes with the following warning: The virus is not being curtailed.
“It’s way too early to tell,” she said of projecting fans at stadiums, “but I think the most recent news coming out of a bunch of our states is glum.”
The Valley has schools in North Dakota, South Dakota, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri and Iowa. North Dakota is at a high risk level according to its Smart Restart map. Iowa recently issued state-wide mask mandates, Illinois imposed new restrictions on Oct. 30, Missouri is emphasizing no gatherings of more than 10 people and Ohio instituted a state-wide 10 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew last Thursday. Only South Dakota appears to not be implementing any new measures.
With little or no fans, how can Valley schools afford it?
Viverito has never been shy to answer a question and explain it in every way possible. But, in a rarity, she gave a one-line response when asked if schools are going to be able to afford football without usual attendance.
“We’re all spending money we don’t have right now, right?” she said.
Most likely. Like most schools, football is the major driver of the NDSU budget, which started the fiscal year on July 1 at $24.5 million but is being adjusted as the year goes along. The school has lost revenues like a $650,000 guarantee at Oregon and two nonconference home games, but has also saved expenses like an ongoing dead period in recruiting and team travel.
Larsen said coaches have made significant cuts in the operations of their respective sports. A handful of positions in the department that have become vacant since the summer have gone unfilled, saving salary.
“So we’re in an OK place right now,” he said, “but that’s also assuming we’re going to be in a better place as a town and have some fans in the dome.”
It appears NDSU will most likely need a 50% capacity in the dome to make the budget work.
“If we could get that in the spring, then financially I think the model can work,” Larsen said.
And if they can’t? The athletic department hasn’t had to lay anybody off, yet.
“Hopefully we don’t have to go down that road,” Larsen said, “but that could be a reality as well.”
Will the Ivy League start another domino effect?
The Ivy League was the first Division I conference to shut down fall sports and look at playing in the spring. That happened in early July and in the following weeks, multiple conferences followed suit.
Last week, the Ivy canceled all winter sports through February. It’s uncertain what that means for football, but the writing is on the wall. Cornell head coach David Archer called it a “super slim” chance. Like last summer, will other conferences follow the Ivy?
“I think that’s a very fair question,” Viverito said. “I think at least to date, we found that it doesn’t have the same domino effect that the last Ivy League decision had and I think that’s because we have the benefit of the FBS playing a lot of football.”
Granted, many games have been postponed or canceled at the FBS level, but no conference has closed shop.
“By and large, they’re completing this season and they’re on a path to do so,” Viverito said. “That gives me great hope because if they can do it in the fall, we can do it in the spring.”
Some schools have already canceled their spring season, with the most notable Sacramento State in the Big Sky Conference and Towson of the Colonial Athletic Association. Viverito said she is sensing no wavering in the Missouri Valley.
"I't's been remarkable smooth sailing considering the circumstances," she said. "That doesn't mean we'll have smooth sailing all through the spring but everything leading up to this, we've been on the same page. Every single league member. It's been great."
What about the FCS playoffs?
The NCAA Division I Council approved a spring FCS playoff structure that will consist of 16 teams playing off over the course of four weekends. The start is April 24. The FCS national title game will be held May 15 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
Eleven conferences will receive automatic bids and the five at-large berths will be required to play at least four games. Games that were played in the fall will count toward the spring record, so the Bison will take a 1-0 record into the Youngstown State spring opener.
Viverito said the May 15 ending date was set so teams can still properly prepare for the fall season of 2021.
“The dates for the playoffs were set specifically with that in mind,” she said.
What are pertinent COVID-19 protocols and numbers?
Fifty-three. That’s the number of players teams are required to play a game in the spring, which is the same as the FBS this fall. Position groups or scholarship vs. non-scholarship players do not play into the FCS equation.
Anything below 53 and teams can still play at their discretion but teams also have the option of canceling or postponing a game. It would be considered a no contest and a team wouldn’t be penalized.
“One of the things that has been really good throughout this, particularly on the Valley side, is I think coaches have an understanding there are going to be some differences we’re not used to,” Larsen said. “We’re going to have to deal with things as they come in hopes of trying to play games.”
Viverito said member schools are well positioned to meet NCAA testing protocols.