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March Mania

In bid for fall return, Gophers have more hurdles than the pros do

Minnesota Golden Gophers celebrate with fans after defeating the Auburn Tigers in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1. The Gophers finished the season ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press poll. Douglas DeFelice / USA TODAY Sports1 / 2
Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports 2 / 2

Coney Durr has skin in the game. After a breakout junior year, the Minnesota Golden Gophers cornerback would have every reason to hope there will be college football this fall. But even with a personal stake, Durr just doesn’t see how it can happen amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“How does fall camp even happen?” Durr tweeted Thursday. “110 guys around each other 12 hours a day for a month straight. Man, it’s tough times right now.”

While the Big Ten announced it plans to play a conference-only schedule this fall, conference commissioner Kevin Warren included the caveat that there might not be a season at all.

Major League Soccer restarted with a tournament in Orlando, Fla., this week, and pro baseball, hockey and basketball are gearing up to play over the next few weeks. College sports still has hills to climb.

Dr. Zach Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University in Atlanta, said programs like the Gophers’ can’t create “bubbles” on campus the way the NBA, MLS and WNBA are in Florida.

“These are young kids that have a lot of interactions outside of the athletics department,” Binney said. “They are not just living at home with their families. They are living in dorms. They are interacting with people in classes, outside of classes. Some of them, maybe, want to go to parties — I know that will come as a shock to some people.

“There is a lot of contact that takes place on a college campus. I don’t know the degree to which you can tamp those down.”

Binney points out that athletic departments, feeling the financial pinch without games since mid-March, don’t have uniform resources for adequate frequent testing of asymptomatic student-athletes.

“The other big thing that we need to think about with college is these are amateurs who do not have a union advocating for their interests. They are not being paid,” Binney said. “There is a greater duty of the university and of the athletics department to provide them a safe environment as they are asking them to come back and play a game for them.”

‘Big two’

The Big Ten’s media rights contracts are major drivers for trying to keep college football alive in 2020. Gophers athletics, for instance, accrued a combined $43.7 million in revenue from TV, radio and internet in fiscal 2019. The entire department made $130 million that year.

But the Big Ten has made the decision for the Gophers to drop games against Florida Atlantic, Tennessee Tech and Brigham Young at TCF Bank Stadium this September. The three contracts between Minnesota and those schools had the Gophers paying a total of $1.95 million if the games were played.

“It’s revenue hits for the smaller schools in a bigger way,” said Raymond Sauer, professor of economics at Clemson University. “But if you were to say that if things clear up by October or November, and you start playing some games in November, December, or even January, they can play (a shorter) schedule and get in the big games that drive the TV revenues.”

The games that will be cut, Sauer added, are “the marginal games that nobody cares about that nobody watches.”

Florida Atlantic was set to receive $1.2 million for Minnesota if the season opener were played, with a cancellation fee $750,000. They didn’t respond to the Pioneer Press’ specific questions on their potential course of action over the contract’s terms.

“FAU Athletics is aware of the Big Ten’s decision to move to a conference-only schedule and we’re looking into the matter further at this time,” an FAU spokesperson wrote in a statement.

Tennessee Tech, a lower-level FCS school, was slated to get $450,000 if the Sept. 12 game was to be played. According to the contract, they are owed a cancelation fee of $200,000 from the “breaching party.” The question is whether Minnesota or the Big Ten is considered a possible breaching party.

Tennessee Tech AD Mark Wilson said he had an “excellent conversation” with Gophers AD Mark Coyle on Thursday. They agreed they would talk again in the next week or two, Wilson said in an email.

“Tennessee Tech is disappointed we will not have the opportunity to compete at Minnesota this year but respect the decisions of the Big Ten and Minnesota,” Wilson wrote. “All of us in higher education leadership positions are having to make very difficult decisions that we feel are in the best interests of the health and well-being of our students, institutions and communities.”

The Gophers and BYU did not provide answers to specific questions posed Friday morning.

Sauer compared big-school collegiate finances to the stock market, which has been strong despite high unemployment and businesses grappling with the effects of shutdowns.

“If it’s just one year and one season, the future can pay for the adverse shock that we are experiencing at the moment,” he said. “That is what the stock market is saying about the economy. The stock market is doing fine at the moment and that is because they are looking out two, four, five years ahead and not next month so much.”

Sauer sees a potential long-term problem in revenue shortfalls associated with fans attending games. Minnesota received $19.9 million from ticket sales in fiscal 2019, and another $3.5 million from parking and concessions.

Without a vaccine or effective treatments for COVID-19, Sauer said, “I don’t see any prospect of those being anywhere back to 100 percent for a long time. People have to be confident that they can get in a big crowd, and we know that those things are the super-spreaders right now, without getting sick or suffering any serious consequence. That is a ways away.”

When the Big Ten actually had 10 teams, one nickname for the conference was the “Big Two and the Little Eight,” Ohio State and Michigan being the heavyweights. But the conference as a whole is now part of a different Big Two

“The revenue gaps are massive between the Big Ten, SEC and everybody else,” said Karen Weaver, a sports management professor and former AD at Penn State Abington. “I’ve said for a year now, we are starting to get to within the Power Five: the big two and the little three.”

When Stanford announced it was cutting 11 of its 40 varsity sports, Weaver attributed that to the relative lack of revenue the PAC-12 conference receives in media rights deals.