BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 06/20/2020

Thiel: College football likely the sport that can’t

With the federal failure to set national protocols, college football is the sport that will have the hardest time against the virus. And be hurt the worst financially.

Daily confirmed covid-19 cases, rolling three-day average. / European CDC

The predictable sharp uptick this week in confirmed coronavirus cases in states that were earliest to re-open is scary for public-health officials as well as regular folks  partial to a little science and history. For those who propose to put on big-time team spectator sports in the fall, the news has the needle on the pucker meter nearly pinned.

Particularly so for the sports that are sufficiently daring/foolish to try to play in home stadiums in a country with likely the world’s worst pandemic management.

As you can see from the chart created by the European CDC, the European Union, with 440 million people, has done a far better job of reducing the caseload of covid-19 cases than the U.S. (330 million).

Obviously, there’s time to regain some control of the curve before September, but there’s zero indication that President Trump and millions of Americans are willing to sustain the initial effort.

Said CNN medical expert Dr. Sanjay Gupta Friday, “It sure feels like we’ve given up.”

Sports enterprises, however, have not. They’re just beginning.

The no-spectator, bubble concept that the NBA, WNBA, MLS, NWSL and NHL are expected to try, cumbersome as it will be, at least has a small chance of working. But baseball, should it ever get out of its own way, proposes a truncated home-park season, and football, pro and college, have similar ambitions, only for entire seasons.

There’s no doubting the righteousness of trying. Its what sports leagues and any businesses must do. But there’s a place at the table for realism.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the highest-profile member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force that Trump is trying to make disappear, like a miracle, made it clear he thinks home parks are an implausible idea — at least for the collision sport.

“Unless players are essentially in a bubble – insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day – it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall,” Fauci said in an interview with Gupta this week.  “If there is a second wave, which is certainly a possibility and which would be complicated by the predictable flu season, football may not happen this year.

“I hope that’s not the case, but if football does come back this fall, it will likely look very different.”

Nowhere will it look more different than college football. It is the sport most critically addicted to cash, because football and men’s basketball revenues are needed to fund all of the non-revenue sports at major state universities. There’s no billionaire owner to absorb the hit.

A self-sustaining athletics department is crucial to keep it off the back of the general-fund budget of every school, all of which have their own covid-19-related financial crises on the academic and administrative sides.

Even though most big-time athletics departments get the majority of annual revenues from media-rights fees, they can’t get close to break-even without ticket and related revenues from live attendance. Even when things were good, less than 20 percent of the 130 schools who play on the NCAA’s top shelf were operating annually in the black.

Things no longer are good.

Most conferences are working out models for home stadium capacities at 50 percent and 25 percent. But the likely model is zero attendance. It’s hard enough to invent a hygiene and testing protocol that works for all athletes at all schools all the time, much less regulating fans in 60-plus stadiums each fall Saturday.

“This is the big problem with college sports. It’s just a lot more feasible for professional sports because they have the resources to implement a lot of these procedures and protocols, which will give the best chance of lowering the risk of outbreaks,” said Jill Weatherhead, assistant professor of infectious-disease and tropical medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

She was quoted in a Washington Post story Friday that surveyed all 65 schools in the Power 5 conferences for their policies and practices. The conclusion was that not only was there no consensus plan — the NCAA, like the Trump administration, offers no help — there’s not yet agreement between schools and conferences on something as simple as whether to test players more than once a week.

“This is a highly transmissible virus … and we do know that with just a single case that’s not necessarily symptomatic, in high-risk settings, it can spread explosively,” Albert Ko, an infectious-disease epidemiologist and professor at the Yale School of Public Health, told the Post. “There’s actually a question and debate of whether you should test twice per week.”

Athletes have been returning to campuses around the country and are being tested, many for the first time. Friday night brought news that at Clemson, where 323 tests of athletes yielded positive tests, a whopping 23 belonged to football players.

That was after Texas announced 15 football players tested positive, and Kansas State had eight. Some schools quit disclosing, some are refusing.

At the University of Washington, according to Dan Raley at, the medical staff Monday tested its first 80 athletes and had no positives. Good for the Huskies. But they have about 650 athletes. The shutout seems unlikely to last.

Public health and sports officials all expect some positive tests at every school. The global data so far shows that young people often have mild to no symptoms, and deaths are relatively rare. But why covid-19 hits some in the same cohort harder than others remains one of the disease’s great mysteries, as does its easy transmission to older family, friends and coaches.

The key is managing the cases via quarantine so that infection doesn’t spread. But that  job gets exponentially harder if the visiting team comes from region or a school that has different protocols than the home team.

The Post story quoted anonymously an administrator from a major program as saying the absence of uniformity may be the issue that dooms the college season.

“The big problem here is we can put together the best policy in the world, but if they’re doing something different over in Texas, or Florida, can we really travel there and play a game?” he said.

Remember a few weeks ago when sports leagues were plotting to re-start seasons and git’em done quickly ahead of the much-predicted second wave of covid-19? America came up with a clever work-around — never leave the first wave.


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  • Seattle Psycho

    I would absolutely miss football (both collegiate and professional) but think it is time to say 2020 is a wash. Do they really plan to play the bowl games with no or very few fans? Would fans go to the site of the games anyway? How devastating to the Super Bowl location if the corporate sponsors can’t attend the game? Though I do wonder how high a commercial would cost for 30 seconds of time during the game.

    • art thiel

      A concern I didn’t mention is what happens if some fan bases, say, in the SEC, revolt over a governor’s decision to follow recommendations by public health officials to shut down campuses, and stop football mid-season. The decision to shut down again might be political suicide in some states.

      • Jonathan M Perez

        Political suicide vs actual suicide. Too bad I can see many elected officials being far more concerned with the former than the latter.

        • art thiel

          We’ll be better the next pandemic.

  • coug73

    Well stated, Mr Thiel. There is too much whistling past the graveyard concerning COVID-19.

    • art thiel

      I understand the shock of disruption. And the resentment. But the deliberate spread of misinformation and disinformation by the federal government has led to far more confusion and a sense of betrayal.

      • Seattle Psycho

        The darn supposed head of the government said in his rally he told his people to stop testing so much because it looked bad. Now his campaign said he was just joking. Can never believe what he says about anything and that is sad.

        • art thiel

          I saw that. Unfortunately, Jake Tapper failed to ask Peter Navarro,”A joke? What part of 120,000 deaths and an economic collapse do you find funny? Did Trump leave The Apprentice for The Comedy Channel?”

  • DJ

    Thanks Art! You are so right. Our current state was predictable to those of us that “get it” because of selfishness and “our” ability to put our heads in the sand and ignore. I don’t know the answer to saving many more lives and what a continued wave will do to our economy, until a bulletproof vaccine is found, except to do what we’ve needed to do all along – take precautions and isolate.

    What folks don’t realize is what is so special about winter and why virus cases increase then. It’s because where it’s cold people come inside and congregate – the opposite of isolate. So simple yet so hard to achieve.

    Very interesting that the EU is doing better. We know what we’re doing wrong, but I wonder what are they doing better. I would expect the opposite, with so much diversity between nations. Must be the limited travel between many small countries.

    • art thiel

      It’s mostly a matter of the political leadership’s ability to persuade a population that the temporary sacrifice is in everyone’s long-term national and personal best interests. Pretty simple, really. But much harder when a minority view of governmental intrusion flies in the face of long-accepted science.

    • Kirkland

      A major hurdle the US faces that the EU and Asian countries, and even New Zealand, don’t is an inherent questioning of authority.

      Part of that is our embrace of libertarianism, that government should have as little involvement in the daily lives of citizens as possible, that personal liberty should be paramount over government regulations even in dire situations like this pandemic. The whole “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” concept our political foundation and capitalism is based on.

      The other part is that we instinctively don’t ask “How high?” when the government or authorities say “Jump.” It’s one thing if it’s skepticism over ill-advised decisions ranging from the 1765 Stamp Act to the Vietnam War. It’s another if it’s skepticism over science-based advice because the legislative and academic elites think they know better than the real people whose livelihoods and social structures will be destroyed by government decisions. (This group is a major reason for Trump’s Electoral College victory, and a major part of his base.)

      Those aren’t factors in the other countries. In Asia, deference to authority is part of the culture (although taken to extremes by the Chinese government), so not following orders due to individual preference is unthinkable. Europe and NZ have stronger senses of individual liberty than mainland Asia, but they gladly followed the science-led guidelines out of plain common sense, and decided temporarily sacrificing some liberty and financial freedoms was acceptable in exchange for flattening the curve and a quicker resumption of normalcy. Including, hey, sporting events!

      • art thiel

        Your point about our libertarian streak is spot on, and a major source of both our wealth and despair. The founders sought to strike a balance with a series of checks and balances that made a government responsive without being overbearing. It worked for the longest time. But they could not have imagined the income disparities that created such resentment that people preferred a lawless vulgarian to lead them into authortarianism.

  • LarryLurex70

    Bye-bye, sports.

    • art thiel

      I think we’ll get some bubble sports, but that’s a guess, as are many things.

  • Husky73

    If you were the parent of a 19 year old daughter or son, would you want her or him returning to campus and big time sports? I wouldn’t.

    • art thiel

      I think many parents would agree. I think others would believe the risk is small enough that they trust the schools to do everything possible, and if the kid does get sick, the evidence is strong that it won’t be serious.

      I don’t either is right or wrong; it’s a risk/reward situation all of us face regularly.

      The bigger concern is the degree of contagion; the threat to others.

  • Alan Harrison

    If 16-ton blocks were falling out of the sky and only attracted to people, some Americans would stay inside until the blocks stopped falling or until titanium ceilings could be implemented. Other Americans would think of the 16-ton blocks as a hoax. Still others might stay inside for awhile, but ultimately get drunk, gather all their friends, and go outside, thinking that they won’t get hit, because freedom. A few wealthy ones would have others go outside and do work that makes them money.

    Is this how the herd gets thinned?

    • art thiel

      Clever, Alan. +1

      I know one who won’t see it coming. He tried to look at an eclipse early.

    • Archangelo Spumoni

      Besides the hoax beliefs, don’t forget there is a population who would claim the bricks really existed but were thought of, built, and dropped strategically by the DEEP STATE. Sorta like the chemtrail crowd who are worried about an unknown substance deployed for an unknown reason by an unknown authority over mostly unknown areas.

    • Husky73

      Others would go to Tulsa.

    • Husky73

      16 tons, what’a’ya get? Another day older and deeper in debt. St. Peter don’t ya call me cuz I can’t go. I owe my soul to the company store.

  • Husky73

    Happy Father’s Day, Art. You are a good man.

    • art thiel


  • tor5

    Wow. That chart says it all. What an epic US failure. My extended family is split between Seattle and Amsterdam and I am envious when I hear how much the European side is able to return to normal life, with lots of testing, and relatively easy precautions. It’s not that they don’t have their share of idiots and deniers over there too, but they’re not in charge.

    • art thiel

      I think your kin in Amsterdam were happy to see us in 1945. Just tell them we’ve stumbled a bit. We’ll be back.

      • tor5

        Funny… that’s the first thing I bring up when they get cocky!

    • Husky73

      You may have relatives in Lynden, where they say, “if you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”