What the coronavirus means for college sports and recruiting

Few traditions in higher education loom as large in the public consciousness as college sports. National universities and small regional colleges alike have grown into household names based on athletic programs that often seem to overshadow the academic goals of these institutions.

But just like with the fall semester, colleges are carefully planning how to move ahead as seasons near for multiple sports. The novel coronavirus, which prompted many colleges to close in the spring and shift suddenly to remote instruction, has forced administrators to carefully plan how the fall semester will go forward. As with classes, colleges also need a plan for sports programs.

[See: What to Expect From the College Experience This Fall.]

Some college athletic conferences such as the Ivy League have made the call to cancel fall sports. Others, such as the Big Ten Conference, have announced that — medical advice permitting — members will play only teams within the conference while mandating strict testing for athletes.

Other conferences are still deliberating as fall creeps closer.

But what kind of playbook is in place for forging ahead with college sports amid a deadly pandemic?

“People are making it up as we go along,” says Richard M. Southall, a professor at the University of South Carolina, director of the College Sport Research Institute and author of multiple textbooks on sports management and other issues in athletics.

Recently released NCAA guidelines for returning to athletic competition this fall include an emphasis on daily self-health checks, the use of face coverings and social distancing during training, regular coronavirus testing and adherence to community health standards.

College Football and the Coronavirus

The return of the college football season looms large. And not just for fans, but for college finances as well. Students should be aware that the existence of various athletic programs at many schools across the U.S. can be attributed largely to profits generated by football.

“It’s pretty obvious now that the purpose of football on the Division I level, the Power Five level, is to generate revenue,” Southall says.

Some of the biggest programs in college sports do just that.

According to a USA Today financial breakdown of college athletics incomes and expenditures across all sports, the top-earning program is the University of Texas–Austin, which pulled in more than $223 million in total revenue for the 2018-19 school year. Texas A&M University–College Station trails with nearly $213 million, followed by Ohio State University–Columbus at more than $210 million.

As the old maxim goes, money talks. That prompts the question: What’s it saying to athletic directors across the nation?

“Revenue is the main driver there. That might be why we’re not seeing that decision (on fall sports) quite yet,” says Dan Doyle, a recruiting coach manager for Next College Student Athlete, which helps high school athletes with their quest to play at the next level.

With significant revenue tied up in TV deals, Doyle expects the college football season to kick off even if stadiums are empty. Southall concurs, but he has doubts about whether it will be played to completion.

There is, however, a great disparity in football revenues. While the Texas Longhorns earn hundreds of millions, that isn’t true of smaller schools, which often take payouts to compete in blowout games against powerhouse programs. Those payouts can largely fund athletic departments and allow some less established football programs to earn more than $1 million per game to play against top-tier teams.

[Read: 5 Myths About Athletic Scholarships.]

With many of those games scrapped as some schools go conference only, gaping holes will appear in athletic budgets. The spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, “is affecting athletic departments’ planning and budgeting and forecasting in ways that nobody could have anticipated,” Southall says.

COVID-19 budget woes have prompted some colleges to cut sports programs, meaning fewer landing spots for recruits. Athletic programs on the chopping block are typically those operating at a deficit and subsidized by other programs.

What the Coronavirus Means for Non-Revenue College Sports

College football and men’s basketball programs are traditionally the heavy earners, subsidizing other sports. Looking at the previously referenced top three programs, football and men’s basketball dramatically outpaced all other sports — men’s and women’s — by millions of dollars in terms of both expenses and revenues, according to the Equity in Athletics Data Analysis tool made available by the U.S. Department of Education.

Cancellation of college football, the primary breadwinner, would likely ripple throughout athletic departments, especially at a time when non-revenue sports are being cut. Stanford University in California, for example, will permanently drop 11 varsity sports programs after the 2020-2021 school year, citing cost concerns around COVID-19 despite the fact that the school had an endowment worth $27.7 billion at the end of fiscal year 2019.

Cuts include men’s and women’s fencing, field hockey, lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash, synchronized swimming, men’s volleyball and wrestling, affecting more than 240 student-athletes, per the university website.

“A lot of those small sports that don’t generate revenue are, as we’re seeing, quick to be cut and eliminated from some of these colleges that are trying to save money,” Doyle says.

Southall speculates that women’s sports, which are often funded at lower levels than those of their male peers, may see reductions. Due to Title IX, a federal law that bars discrimination based on sex and requires schools to offer equal opportunities in athletics across gender lines, many of these sports will likely remain. But he expects staffs to shrink and salaries to be reexamined due to COVID-19 cutbacks.

Likewise, Southall expects that colleges may reconsider their national reach. “Looking at Division I, I think it makes a lot of sense for athletic departments to examine whether you need to have a national footprint for sports that could be played regionally.”

What the Coronavirus Means for High School Sports

Much like their college counterparts, high school athletic administrators are also grappling with decisions about fall sports.

“It’s all over the board,” says Michael L. Blackburn, executive director of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, an organization supporting high school athletic directors. “There are all kinds of plans for starting at the end of July or into August.”

Whether prep sports happen this fall may also hinge on schools being physically open.

“In most cases, schools are going to have to be operating in order for education-based athletic programs to begin,” Blackburn says. “Some states require that students be in school face to face; some will accept their online time as attendance. It really does vary.”

[Read: College Scholarships for Lesser-Known Sports.]

Some states are signaling how they will move forward as they look to lock in plans for high school sports in the fall. California, New Mexico, Virginia and Washington have released plans that do not include football this fall along with some other contact sports, meaning those seasons will likely be pushed to spring in some states. Some states have yet to release their plans as the fall semester and season approach.

But what does it mean for the big picture? And when will an answer come?

“I think clarity is probably going to come regionally,” Blackburn says, as states finalize their fall plans.

College Recruiting Amid the Coronavirus

Outright cancellation of some high school sports this fall will mean the loss of a year of playing time, which will also mean less game film for potential recruits and fewer opportunities to impress college coaches and set themselves apart in a competitive marketplace of talented athletes.

But there are still ways to get noticed, Doyle says: “The electronic communication part of recruiting is so, so vital right now.”

He encourages students to organize their game film, transcripts and test scores in one place for coaches to see, whether that’s through the platform he works for or another portal. For example, he encourages students to make use of social media to connect with coaches.

High school student-athletes need to be more proactive, Doyle says. Coaches are still on the recruiting trail, albeit from home. In the absence of game film, he says, students should put together skills videos that highlight their workouts or abilities in their chosen sport.

Blackburn encourages students to stay positive and recognize that they are in a historic moment.

And for students who may have their high school athletic careers cut short, Southall encourages them to put their energy elsewhere.

“If your sport is canceled,” he says, “this could be an opportunity for you to focus on your education.”

Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.

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What the Coronavirus Means for College Sports and Recruiting originally appeared on usnews.com

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