ST. PAUL -- For the first time in its 125 years, the Big Ten Conference will not have fall sports. The conference announced Tuesday, Aug. 11, they have been postponed because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
That includes the lucrative football season, scheduled to start in three weeks, a massive financial blow to athletics departments throughout the conference.
The Gophers’ athletics budget is expected to crater without its biggest revenue stream: TV money from football games. In May, school estimated the department could lose roughly $75 million without fall sports, well more than half of the department’s fiscal 2019 budget of $123 million.
The decision also means head coach P.J. Fleck’s team won’t be able to build on a historic 11-2 season and its budding status as a Top 25 program. The Gophers were ranked No. 18 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, the first of the season.
But it’s not just football getting shut down. Minnesota also will shutter seasons for its volleyball, women’s soccer and men’s and women’s cross country teams.
Losing football and its ticket and television revenue will be difficult for most, if not all athletics departments to overcome. When the spring season was shut down in mid-March, Gophers athletics director Mark Coyle acknowledged that cutting sports to balance the budget would be on the table in the event of losing a football season. Minnesota, he noted, has the fourth-most sports offerings (25) but eighth-largest athletics budget in the Big Ten.
The Big Ten was the first Power Five conference to pull the plug on the fall seasons. The Pac-12 went a step further Tuesday afternoon, adding that it was calling off all sports through the rest of the calendar year. In the past few days, the Mid-American and Mountain West conferences also called off their fall seasons.
Tuesday’s decision was decided by a vote of Big Ten presidents and chancellors, including Minnesota’s Joan Gabel. Conference commissioner Kevin Warren declined to say how the vote played out but added, “We don’t always agree.”
In a joint statement issued Tuesday afternoon, Gabel and Coyle appeared to be in general agreement with the conference’s majority decision. It said the conference “thoughtfully considered the latest public health data” which showed “serious concerns about the safety of playing fall sports.”
“We know our student-athletes want to compete and that our coaches want to coach,” the statement read. “We share their extreme disappointment about not being able to do so this fall. We have a responsibility to our student-athletes, and everyone involved with our athletics programs, to put their health and safety above all else. That responsibility remained our top priority throughout these discussions and it’s why this decision was made.”
The university, they said, will “welcome student-athletes to remain on campus to study, to train and to practice within Big Ten Conference and NCAA-established limits. We are committed to the safest environment for all of our students.”
A break in ranks
Nebraska’s leadership broke ranks Tuesday, saying the school was “very disappointed” in the decision and adding that Cornhuskers teams “have been and continue to be ready to play.” In an interview on the Big Ten Network, Warren declined to say whether there would be fallout if Nebraska tries to play outside the conference. Iowa, also reportedly against the decision, said it would not violate the “membership criteria” of playing outside the league.
The SEC, ACC and Big XII have not made a decision yet on fall sports.
The Big Ten’s decision comes six days after the conference announced a 10-game conference-only football schedule; the Gophers were set to open Sept. 5 against Michigan State.
Warren was asked what changed in less than a week.
“I made it very clear also that this was a day-to-day situation,” he said. “… I’m not a physician, but it was going to be very important that on a day-to-day basis we would listen and follow and understand and appreciate and embrace the advice (of medical experts).”
The Atlantic Coast Conference’s top medical advisor, Dr. Cameron Wolfe, said that by mitigating risks of spread, he sees a safe path for college football to be played. As of Tuesday afternoon, COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, had killed nearly 165,000 Americans since February.
A growing concern has been a connection between COVID-19 and myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart. The Athletic reported the Big Ten knows of 10 athletes that suffer from the rare condition.
“For anyone that has been keeping up with the effects of COVID-19 and what it has done or can do or will do to the human body, there has been a lot of discussion about myocarditis,” Warren said. “… But that is not the primary reason (for canceling the season). All of those items from a medical standpoint you have to consider.”
The Gophers reported no positive COVID-19 tests as fall camp opened Friday and were following the conference’s guidelines by practicing without pads and contact. Coaches and players were trying to focus on what they could control: preparing for what was supposed to be a season opener within weeks.
Yahoo Sports reported that Monday’s meetings between the Big Ten’s university presidents marked one of their first hypothetical conversations about moving the seasons to the spring. The Big Ten called off its 2019-20 spring sports seasons in mid-March to respond to the growing threats of COVID-19, and the school’s presidents have had multiple meetings since.
Warren, who the Detroit Free Press said leans toward trying to play fall sports next spring, was noncommittal on that option in an interview on Big Ten Network. In April, Fleck shared his concerns about players going through two seasons in one calendar year, presuming they come back in Fall 2021.
Former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was more direct on his views of spring football. “No chance,” he said on BTN.
Gophers junior Mo Ibrahim was set to regain his spot as program’s top rusher this fall, but that was taken away Tuesday. Yet he tried to look at the big picture.
“Take care of y’all mental health,” Ibrahim tweeted. “2020 been a long year.”