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Tuesday, August 16, 2022
Ben Hill Griffin Stadium Field
Ben Hill Griffin Stadium Field

The Florida-Eastern Washington football game scheduled for Sep. 5 is a testament to how quickly things can change.

It was scheduled in Sept. 2016 just days after the Gators opened the season with a win over UMass in what would be Jim McElwain’s last full season as the program’s head coach. McElwain played quarterback at Eastern Washington in the early 1980s and coached there for a decade. 

It’s common practice for universities to schedule games against their coach’s alma mater years in advance. And due to the volatility of college football coaching, it’s also not uncommon for the reason that the game was scheduled in the first place to be long gone.

Four years ago, UF could not have predicted the McElwain fallout, resulting in its worst regular season record in four years and a midseason firing.

Four months ago, nobody could have predicted that same game may be postponed or canceled.

Virtually all sports have been on hold for more than a month now as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Professional leagues are chomping at the bit to get players back on courts and, for the bottom line, back on TV. But Dr. Anthony Fauci cautioned in an interview with The New York Times that some sports may have to take a year off.

College sports, however, face a unique dilemma.

Universities like UF and cities like Gainesville are dependent on football revenue.

The University Athletic Association made a $17.9 million profit in 2019. Football led the way with a $48 million profit, followed by men’s basketball which brought in a $2.5 million. The other 19 Division I programs UF fields lost $33.5 million. It costs money to field programs like gymnastics, volleyball, swimming and even baseball, among others. And football makes it possible to do so.

Gainesville’s economy stands to take a significant hit if football as we know it does not return to campus this fall.

A USA TODAY article cited a study from the University of Alabama’s Center for Business and Economic Research that found one Crimson Tide home football game has a visitor expenditure impact of $19.6 million on average. Gainesville is a slightly larger city than Tuscaloosa, Alabama, but Bryant-Denny Stadium, home to the Crimson Tide, holds 13,000 more fans than Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

David Denslow, a research economist at UF’s Bureau of Economic Business Research, offered a rough estimate of a $70 million hit to Gainesville’s economy if football does not return this fall.

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“Doing simplistic math, suppose there are 100,000 fans — that includes students and other locals — and they average $100 on restaurants and lodging, that would be $10,000,000, or $70,000,000 over a season,” Denslow said in an email.

He said the $100 for average expense was a pure guess to get a rough picture of the larger economic impact of a college town without football.

But even with so much uncertainty, the SEC is moving forward as if USC-Alabama in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 5 is a go.

The UF ticket office is moving forward with hopeful optimism. The office sent an email Wednesday afternoon promoting football mini plans for the fall season. It made note of the uncertainty ahead, saying in part “we understand that thinking about football in the fall might be tough for some.”

But it offered a light at the end of the tunnel for Gators fans, saying “our hope with continuing sales is to allow those who are interested to have something to look forward to.”

Florida’s football program brought in over $26 million in ticket revenue in 2019.

Still, the conference in which It Just Means More and where football is king is cautioning for the possibility of a COVID-19-induced delay or cancellation.

“We’re focused on preparing to play the season as scheduled,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said on The Paul Finebaum Show on Wednesday. “We’re still intent on moving forward, but we also know that we may have to adjust — we’re in that contingency planning stage,” he said.

SEC Media Days, currently scheduled for July 13-16, are the next event on the conference’s calendar after the entirety of spring seasons and championships into Summer were nixed in late March.

“We’ve really had healthy conversations with our athletic directors over the last couple of weeks over what could the future look like,” he said.

UF athletic director Scott Stricklin has not addressed the media since March 13, but football coach Dan Mullen had a Zoom call with local media on Monday.

Mullen said he’s hopeful that a vaccine is found, that people are working hard to limit the spread of COVID-19 and “hopeful we get back to whatever our new normal is going to be,” he said. “And that includes having a football season this fall.”

“I would say I’m much more hopeful than optimistic.”

Mullen also weighed in on a potential timeline to safely physically bring back football, in terms of conditioning rather than virus-related, prior to the start of the season.

“I think everybody would like to have eight weeks,” he said. “I think six weeks is where everybody kind of feels like they could get comfortable.”

 Mullen did say four weeks of preparation would be “pressing it” but added that he had just four weeks of practice and training before the season playing Division III football at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania.

“But I think what you're doing (if you give players just four weeks) is you're not getting the guys in the best position to be ready to go play,” he said.

Eight weeks of preparation would make the weekend of July 11 a potential starting date for fall practice. UF began fall practice in 2019 on July 26, which was earlier than usual due to the timing of the “Week 0” matchup against Miami in Orlando.

However, an earlier starting date may be in order for fall practice across the board, being that spring practice and spring games were canceled.

Six weeks would put the starting date the weekend of July 25 and a rushed four-week preparation time would have practice beginning Aug. 8, just two weeks before the planned start to the fall semester, which is also uncertain.

A lot is riding on football returning to campuses across the country this fall.

There will be other dominos to fall — like whether the MLB season is canceled entirely or an NBA postseason can be played out — before college football returns. But the situation at the college level is different for a number of reasons than the ranks of the pros. Players being categorized as student-athletes rather than employees is a key distinction, as is the dependency on revenue from football in sports that may be better suited to abiding by social distancing.

“I think everyone knows football is important for the university, in a lot of ways,” Mullen said. “I think football, not just financially but also kind of... I think when football hopefully gets back it'll make everybody feel pretty good about life and getting back to some normalcy to see some football.”

Fall may see a return to normalcy or perhaps bring about a new normal. Whatever the autumn months bring, scheduling a football game four years in the future now seems downright silly in the era of COVID-19.

Follow Kyle Wood on Twitter @Kkylewood. Contact him at kwood@alligator.org.

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