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My Take: Will virus permanently change FBS?

With just over four months remaining until the scheduled start of the college football season, there is still no answer to when teams will come out of their suspended status in order to prepare.

There have been myriad discussions about what this means for the 2020 campaign. Everything has been discussed, from when to resume team activities, to how long of a period is needed from first practice to first game, to how abbreviated schedule would work, to whether or not any fans will be permitted to watch the game in person.

In short, there are still many balls in the air.

Regardless of when the games start or how they will look, there is one variable that is sure to be the main factor in the final decision — money.

That’s not some new or surprising reveal as far as motives go, but there is no doubt that money — to be made or to be made up — will determine how college football is next played.

And that factor could be the final straw in an FBS landscape that is already seriously divided between the ‘Power 5’ conferences and the ‘Group of 5.’ Power 5 teams tend to have tighter conference groupings and host more home games, which all cut down on travel expenses. They also have huge network television contracts that they will be incentivized to honor by playing games, even if an altered or limited schedule lessens the payout.

On the other hand, there is the G5. Football teams in the other half of the FBS have larger geographic footprints and travel schedules that are often exacerbated by random long trips to “payout” games at P5 opponents that will never be returned. And while these schools and conferences also receive money in the form of media rights agreements, it’s safe to say that a check from ESPN+ isn’t keeping the lights on conference-wide in quite the same way as deals with national networks and huge corporations that sponsor P5 marquee matchups and conference championship games.

For years, it has been rumored that the highest level of college football could fracture as it has before. There is a lot of fan support and corporate money that would love to see more heavyweight regular season matchups and a prolonged national championship playoff without giving a second thought to those things coming at the expense of the G5 conferences that have much less money and national appeal.

There are currently arguments that say attended football games simply won’t happen this fall due to ongoing pandemic concerns. If that happens, the biggest and wealthiest schools could probably find a workaround. It wouldn’t be fun or pretty, but there will be SEC and ACC and national championship playoffs played if games are allowed to continue. If G5 schools follow this schedule, the financial blow will be inconceivable. 

Wherever P5 universities with budgets for over-the-top amenities, constant facility upgrades and a private-jet-based recruiting strategy have to skimp through some lean times, G5 schools will already be tapped out as soon as football programs lose any sort of revenue.

One G5 school (Cincinnati) has already cut loose its men’s soccer team. Others are putting coaching staffs on furlough. It’s not just possible, but probable, that these measures will only get more drastic and more prevalent if sports remain shut down. 

As advertising and fundraising trends go, it’s pretty safe to assume that when games and attendance resume, it will be the P5 schools who benefit first, even though G5 schools will need the return to normalcy more. There is also the growing pressure for student athletes to be paid in some form - a totally new cost that would demand an overhaul of every athletic department’s finances.

Unless things change course in a hurry, the already abundant theories of what will happen to Division I sports needs to have another theory thrown onto the pile.

When all of this is done, there could be a complete split. Some big-name and high-dollar schools could easily survive and split off to form some new quasi-professional level of competition. Less fortunate institutions will be left scrambling just to keep their athletic departments intact or petition the NCAA for rule changes as any significant decrease in football revenue will put in jeopardy the ability for many schools to fund the requisite 16 varsity sports in the coming years.

There are no easy answers for the upcoming economic impact that is coming. There isn’t an FBS school out there that doesn’t need every cent generated by its football program to set budgets for the rest of its teams. And there isn’t a school out there that isn’t going to see a decrease in that revenue, regardless of what games do or don’t get played.

It will be weeks before any schedules are set and months - or years - before the true impact on the collegiate sporting world is known, but one certainty is that we’re about to be in a whole new ballgame.