As universities desperately try to rescue the college football season while the coronavirus pandemic continues to grip the country, the Southeastern Conference became the latest — and most influential — league to push back the start of its season and trim its schedule to conference-only games.
The SEC’s decision, made by the conference’s 14 university presidents, comes one day after the Atlantic Coast Conference came to a similar conclusion — also including Notre Dame, which is a member of the conference in other sports but usually an independent in football.
The SEC announced it would move the start of the season back by at least three weeks, to Sept. 26, and play 10 games, which would leave each school with an open date — along with another open weekend preceding the conference championship game, which is now scheduled for Dec. 19.
The Big Ten and the Pac-12 conferences had previously announced they would play only conference games this season. That leaves only the Big 12 among the so-called Power 5 conferences that has not amended its schedule, though the conference on Thursday did cancel its media day, which had already been pushed back.
The shrinking and fluid schedules are the extraordinary measures being taken to ensure that universities can salvage the lucrative television revenues that, along with an unpaid labor force — the players — fuel the college athletics industrial complex. The SEC brought in $720.6 million in revenue for the fiscal year ending last Aug. 31, according to USA Today.
Even without fans, the schools still stand to receive considerable payouts from their broadcast deals. The Big Ten has the richest TV contract, paying its schools as much as $54 million each last season.
The conference-only schedules have meant the cancellation of certain rivalry games, like South Carolina and Clemson, and marquee interleague games, like Alabama and Southern California, which had been scheduled in Arlington, Tex., and Texas at Louisiana State.
But by playing only conference games, schools can mostly avoid traveling outside their regions and also can more firmly standardize virus testing and safety protocols.
“We believe these schedule adjustments offer the best opportunity to complete a full season by giving us the ability to adapt to the fluid nature of the virus and the flexibility to adjust schedules as necessary if disruptions occur,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement announcing the changes.
The SEC plans to announce its new schedule next month.
The college football season, though, is increasingly in jeopardy at a time when the virus, which had caused nearly 152,000 deaths in the United States as of Thursday, has shown few signs of slowing. The difficulty of playing even a truncated season has been on display in the last week in Major League Baseball, which saw the Miami Marlins temporarily shut down — and their opponents rescheduled — after half the roster contracted the virus.
More than a dozen college football teams — with Michigan State, Colorado State and Rutgers among the latest — have been forced to abandon football workouts over the summer after outbreaks. Meanwhile, Penn State reported eight positive coronavirus tests among its athletes on Wednesday.
Conditions have recently been dire in many of the 11 states that are part of the SEC footprint — including Florida and Mississippi, which is experiencing the greatest increase in cases per capita.