LINCOLN — Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos was asked, point blank, on a scale of 1 of 10, how confident he was college football would be played in the fall.
It’s not the most important question in this state. Not in a coronavirus pandemic. Not with the suffering, sorrow and pressure on so many families and jobs. But it’s a question pointed at, perhaps, an important respite. A needed rallying point. Maybe even an escape.
Moos gave an interesting answer.
“I would say a 9,” Moos said. “And quite possibly, a 50-50 chance that will it look like it has in the past.”
Football? Probably. Normal? Flip a coin. Flip it every which way, too, because the sport may be very close to what you’ve experienced, very far away from it, or, in a twist, perhaps even different in a better way.
Answers — the definitive, stitched-in-pigskin kind — probably aren’t forthcoming for weeks, Moos said. Late June. Early July. The pandemic drives the bus a little bit on that one, as does the sport’s ability to come together and make scheduling and seating plans work. Big Ten athletic directors have been meeting daily — for one or two hours, Moos said — to hash over these dynamics. It took a lot of work and coordination from a lot of smart, hard-working folks to get student-athletes back on campus and in voluntary workouts starting June 1.
That was the first step. Moos believes the student-athletes will be safer in Lincoln than they are at home. Players will certainly have all the support and protocol imaginable to ensure it.
Now, the additional steps. Does the pandemic — the spread of infections, the number hospitalized, the number who die — wane nationwide in the coming months? Can at least some regular students return to campus so the school isn’t functioning as a ghost town with a football team? Will the season start on time? Might it start early? Could there be fans?
Let’s stop, for a second, on that last question. Moos said he and his team have run the financial numbers on full capacity vs. various diminished capacities.
“We have a good feel for it,” Moos said. “It’s eye-opening, to say the least. The home game itself — before television and multimedia rights — is worth $12 million. Concession, parking, everything. If you’re at 50%, you can loosely say you’re going to lose $6 million.”
“Yeah. And if television isn’t getting the inventory, you can’t expect to get a full paycheck there, either,” Moos said. “And multimedia rights people are depending on those crowd sizes. There’s an argument that more people are watching the games on TV than they normally were because they can’t get in the stadium. I’m speculating there, but these are topics that are being looked at daily.”
And considering Nebraska fans have been devoted enough for a 50-year-plus sellout streak, how willing might they be to accept the risks — considerable, perhaps — to attend?
“Nebraska fans are the best — I’ll go to the end of the earth believing that,” Moos said. "And it would not be unlike a Nebraska fan to say ‘hey, I’m going to be in Memorial Stadium unless somebody tells me I can’t be there, because I’ve been going for four decades and doggone if somebody’s going to tell them unless that’s the policy.’”
NU believes it’ll retain its sellout streak if the stadium is as full as health and safety measures allow. Ticket renewals are, by all accounts, well beyond whatever diminished capacity the stadium might have.
After all, it’s a sellout streak, not a show-up streak. NU’s tickets scanned gate count fluctuates — sometimes, by 20,000 fans — even in successful seasons, which, year after year, include sellouts.
Next, the schedule itself. In a shortened season, it makes sense that conferences would focus on playing inside their own league. Husker volleyball coach John Cook, on his podcast, hinted at a Big Ten-heavy schedule. But, if it’s possible, Moos wants non-conference games to remain.
NU plays Central Michigan, South Dakota State and Cincinnati. Big contracts are involved. Schools like CMU and SDSU use the payouts to help fund athletic departments while schools like Nebraska — in a typical season — pay schools like CMU and SDSU good money to secure seven home games.
“Those schools depend on those guarantees, and, primarily all of my colleagues, have at one time been at non-Power Five schools, and we all understand that,” Moos said.
Or consider Iowa, which plays Iowa State and Northern Iowa. It wouldn’t necessarily be easy for the Hawkeyes to walk away from in-state games. On Nebraska’s end, SDSU is a four-hour bus ride from Lincoln. Given the $515,000 payout, that’s a bus ride the Jackrabbits want to make.
At any rate, all kinds of scenarios are on the table. The pandemic and our collective community response to slow its spread and reduce the impact loom large, as does travel considerations. I’ve heard conference only, and I’ve heard division only. The latter would be pretty fascinating, for one year. Imagine a home-and-away with Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, with a bunch of bus rides. Heck, imagine two Iowa/Minnesota games, Floyd of Rosedale up for grabs twice. The double pig!
They’re all steps to come. The first hurdle has been cleared in the toughest sport to logistically handle. Moos knows college football is worth it. He saw it after 9/11, when sports helped America heal from devastating terrorist attacks.
“Right now, we don’t have sports,” Moos said. “It’d be therapeutic and helpful and, morale-wise, be a real boost for our country. I certainly hope we’ll be able to get back at the college level, the professional level. And let’s talk about high schools, too.
“America not only wants — it needs — sports.”
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