COVID-19 has caused several football conferences to suspend their fall season. That has significant implications for universities and businesses.
On August 8th, the Mid-American Conference announced it was suspending fall sports due to the coronavirus. This includes football, which is a major revenue and visitor draw for many universities. Sean Frazier is the Athletic Director at Northern Illinois University. He said the conference’s decision was not taken lightly.
“We’ve tried to hold on as long as we could to see if things would change," he said, "and we’re seeing an uptick in hot spots all across our country and in the world, so that piece of it is disconcerting.”
Ultimately, however, Frazier said it came down to the health and well-being of the students.
“We’re talking about something that we can control, and we’re already dealing with the uncontrollables right now," he said. "So, making a decision on this act to safeguard young people is definitely a championship decision that I have to applaud the presidents in our league for making.”
Frazier said student athletes had a mixed reaction. Some were disappointed, particularly since spring sports had also been suspended.
“And then there was a sense of relief, too," he said, "from some student athletes that had a lot of consternation about their safety, about how we were going to safeguard them.”
The economic effects are also expected to be significant. Part of that is to NIU athletics.
“We’re talking about a minimum of a $3 million overall is what we’re projecting," Frazier said, "with also probably about a 23% decline in revenue generation.”
Several officials, including Frazier, have taken pay cuts, and the Department is considering some layoffs.
Damage extends further to the City of DeKalb and DeKalb County. Courtney Strohacker directs the latter’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. She said the county earned nearly $1.7 million in travel and tourism revenue in 2018.
“About 75% of that is really due to NIU," she said, "to the students coming in, to the college sports that happen.”
And football gameday drives other business.
“So that means filling up their gas tanks," she said, "eating out at local restaurants, and spending money other places than just the games.”
And then there are other universities. Following the Mid American Conference’s decision, several other conferences, such as the Big Ten, followed suit in postponing their football seasons. Kent Brown is an assistant athletic director at the University of Illinois. He said the school had prepared measures to address COVID-19, such as a saliva test developed by a chemistry professor on the faculty.
“There was a lot of time and effort to put the best protocols in place," he said, "to provide quick response and safe responses to our student athletes and it seemed to be working. But we also note that’s not the case on every campus in the Big Ten and around the country.”
Brown added that even without the cancellation, game attendance would have been limited.
“Inside sporting events were basically with no fans at this time," he said. "Outside, we were given the ability to have up to 20%, so that was gonna really limit the number of people who we could have at our football games anyway.”
Brown said it’s adaptation that is going to be key.
“Our alumni and our students on campus, we hope that everybody understands this is a time period where we kind of all need to be together and work through this plan so we can return to some kind of normalcy as soon as possible," he said. "That’s really going to be the only way we can do it, is to continue fighting the spread of the virus.”
Strohacker says the same thing applies to businesses in DeKalb that get a lot of gameday visitors.
“They’re really excited because we have places like Facebook coming in and ordering lunches, and Syntegra and Ferrara Candy," he said. "We might not have the students coming in and the football happening, but there’s other positive things that are happening.”
NIU’s Frazier said the future of campus athletics and other events depends on taking proper precautions to socially distance and minimize the spread of coronavirus. If not, he said, the virus could devastate industries and activities that require face-to-face contact to thrive.
“If you can lead from the seat that you are in," he said, "and do the things you can do to keep everyone safe, this too shall pass.”
But for now, those looking forward to the sights and sounds of the gridiron will have to wait.