Keith Strudler: To Play Or Not To Play
If you ask most people about the University of Connecticut football program, they would likely say, I think that’s a basketball school. Of course, history affirms that suggestion, as certainly the women’s program as well as the men’s have enjoyed long periods of success, including national championships on both sides. UConn’s drive to become a national football power has seen far less success, and truly the fall of the Big East football conference and their inability to move to either the ACC or the Big Ten has made them little more than a conference doormat and a relative financial drain on the University.
That said, right now UConn football has the distinction of being number one in one category. They’re the first FBS football program to cancel it’s 2020 season. We’ve seen plenty of cancellations at lower divisions, started of course by the Ivy League, but as for teams that play in the highest division with the opportunity, at least theoretically, to play in the college football playoffs, it’s only Uconn. According to coaches and school administrators, this was a thoughtful and collaborative decision made with players based on safety protocols and their ability to have anything resembling a normal season. And while there may be truth in much of that, there are other realities that drove this decision. Namely, since the university left the AAC conference to become an independent this year, they essentially are a team without anyone to play, as virtually every conference has shifted to a conference only season. Meaning even if Connecticut suited up, pretty much everyone on their schedule has already canceled their game.
Connecticut isn’t the only or even most notable Covid cancellation this week. Tennis star Rafael Nadal announced he would not participate in this year‘s U.S. Open, which will be held in Flushing Meadows but without fans. Unlike Roger Federer, who withdrew for injury concerns, Rafa specifically said he is withdrawing because of Covid concerns. And we shouldn’t ignore the fact that a European star is unwilling to come to the United States because of its perceived lack of safety. The lion’s share of other top ranked tennis stars will participate, and I’m sure several lesser ranked opponents see an opportune moment to advance a bit further than expected with top ranked withdrawals.
These two cases may very well provide a template for how elite sport will operate in the age of Covid. Particularly in the US, where sports organizations don’t benefit from a comprehensive national strategy. In general, most sports collectives operate on a fairly standard business proposition. How do we maximize profits, and what are the risks and rewards in getting there. For the NBA and the NHL, that meant building a remarkably effective bubble in building a quality television product that gets us to the end of the season. For tennis, it’s holding majors without fans so they can crown champions and keep their athletes in the public conversation. And in college football, it’s a fairly helter skelter, conference by conference plan that essentially allows major college football to play a nearly full season for its TV fans. In all these and other cases, sports properties decided the risk they would endure, or perhaps their players would, was worth the economic gain. Or perhaps stated in reverse, it was worth avoiding economic duress. As a lot of people have suggested, if college basketball does not play a tournament this year, we may see the end of the NCAA as we know it. That can lead to some fairly rash and perhaps ill-conceived decisions.
But in the case of Connecticut and Rafael Nadal, the potential upside simply wasn’t there. In other words, the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze. See, if UConn had already been accepted into a power five football conference, I’m guessing they may have been a bit less risk averse towards playing this season. Meaning, if millions were on the line, I’m guessing we’d see a different directive. Similarly, Rafa needs tennis less than tennis needs him. And certainly less than some of his lower ranked opponents who can hardly afford a year without a paycheck and a ranking. This is sport in the age of COVID-19. Not one driven by science and strategy, but one mandated by fiscal necessity. which to be fair, sounds like the process for lots of organizations in this country, starting with higher ed.
Of course, if you ask people at the University of Connecticut how they’re feeling about losing football, I’m sure they’re OK. Just as long as they don’t cancel basketball as well.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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